American Dance Festival:
Eiko & Koma with Charian & Peace
In a career of dystopic performances that have let audiences examine the suffering of humans and nature on an almost frame-by-frame basis, this one was a stand-out. Call it a strangely blighted rite of spring, an implacable fertility ritual that revealed the grotesquery of dehumanized sex; ultimately, a work that dared to ask if rape is actually the default sexual act in the animal kingdom.
Wait—you'll need the catalog number if you want to see it: ADF Video 1984.0013, at Duke University's Lilly Library. Why? In the final analysis, the considerably kinder, gentler version of Grain we saw last week at the American Dance Festival had too little in common with the harrowing original version Eiko and Koma staged here 13 years ago.
After a 2004 residency at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Japanese husband-and-wife team collaborated with art students from the school on multimedia performances combining choreography and real-time painting. The resulting works, Cambodian Stories and Cambodian Stories Revisited, have been well received in showings over the past two years in the United States.
Reportedly after prodding from an ADF administration concerned with the long-term preservation of their work, Eiko and Koma agreed to place Grain, an early work, on two Reyum students: 17-year-old So Chakreya (known as "Charian"), a female dancer, and her 18-year-old male counterpart, Sorn Setpheap (called "Peace").
One immediate question should come to mind: Can two teenagers—with little background in the dance forms Eiko and Koma excel in—believably convey the dark gravitas and emotional complexity of the striated relationships depicted in Grain? The answer: Only to a point.
To be accurate, a complete side-by-side comparison of the works is impossible, since the bleakest sections of the original were either excised in toto or considerably brightened up in last week's edition. Plus, the opening sequence—now featuring two nude bodies on stage, not one—was performed by the original cast, before the entrance of their protégés: Reportedly, Charian chooses not to perform nude.
Certainly, many elements of the original are present, and occasionally, the new version improves over the old. The ferocity of Charian's depiction of something resembling a bird of prey—crouched over, with arms arcing down, perched atop Peace's side as he lay in a near-fetal position—excelled the first interpretation. It clearly suggested an animal about to feed upon a creature either helpless or dead.
But the subsequent heavy lifting—when her character literally picks him up and browbeats him toward the back of the stage—was absent. The subsequent reversal in which she vainly flailed arms and legs to pull out of his lap and embrace while both crouched at center stage was muted beyond recognition.
The same went for the original, violent sexual contact in a mid-work sequence where Eiko's lifeless body was repeatedly shaken as it tilted backward, after Koma slithered up from between her legs to hold her bisected form at mid-torso. The grotesque, coercive sex in the work's last moments was substantively toned down—quite possibly removed entirely—just before Peace's hand slammed two lit candles into a mound of cooked rice, plunging the work into final darkness.
Grain leaves us with some inconvenient questions: What precisely has been "preserved" when a dance work is so altered that one of its fundamental original points is entirely obscured? Did casting teenagers for such forbidding and sexually frank subject matter set this restoration project up to fail from the beginning?
Whatever the cause or intent, the present version of Eiko & Koma's dark classic can be only said to contain a few selected grains of the original's truth.
Thankfully, the news is better from the world premiere of Quartet. Apparently, Lisa Race isn't the only artist with aging on her mind. As a singer intones what can only be called a Cambodian blues, Eiko and Koma's substantially older and physically damaged characters repeatedly compare their own compromised forms with four idealized figures painted on oversized canvases that fill the back of the stage.
After moments of near supplication to them, Koma's character turns and—in a very rare development—smiles, as he first remembers and then attempts to recreate old dancing moves. Predictably for this genre, when the old body cannot support the gestures, his character suddenly falls to the floor. After extended stillness, he slowly, painfully resumes.
Eiko and Koma's other points of comparison on stage? The bodies of Charian and Peace, as they lie either sleeping or dead at the start (something of a toss-up here, since the lyrics of the folk song refer to dead children as merely sleeping). While Peace reposes, Koma's hand smoothes across his arm and shoulder, as if he were admiring the craftsmanship of an exquisite sculpture.
The sculpture reference is later reinforced as Peace and Charian assume striking—and pitiless—poses as simultaneously perfect and remote objects of beauty. That emotional remove is compromised only in one instance when Charian looks with alarm as Koma slowly grovels at her feet, her facial expression apparently asking, "What is there to be done?"
There is more than a touch of Faulkner—and Ionesco's La Leçon, for that matter—in this work. A Southern world premiere seems particularly appropriate for a work that suggests how the old disable the young, and how the past keeps the future from happening. There's substantial and tragic economy in this tale of how the old recognize their former beauty in the young, and are therefore compelled to destroy it.
E-mail Byron Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org.