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Dance History Lesson Plan: Eiko & Koma

Koma (left) and Eiko in 1993. Photo by Philip Trager, courtesy of the photographer

Eiko Otake and Takashi Koma Otake are interdisciplinary performance artists from Japan who have been creating work together since 1972. Although they don't consider their work butoh—a Japanese performance art recognizable for its intensity, control and heavy white makeup—their creative aesthetic is strongly influenced by it. The work is distinctive for its extremely slow, minimalistic movement and their collaborative, hands-on approach to every aspect, from movement to costumes to sets.


Born and raised in post–World War II Japan, neither Eiko nor Koma studied dance in their youth. While in college in the late '60s, they were drawn to the Japanese avant-garde arts scene. In 1971, they each ended up at butoh pioneer Tatsumi Hijikata's Tokyo-based studio and soon joined his company. Hijikata paired them for a duet, and they developed an instant rapport. Three months after meeting, they left Hijikata to create their own work, their creative and romantic partnership solidified.

Despite their limited performance experience, they created and toured their work throughout Japan and Europe for the next five years. They briefly studied with butoh master Kazuo Ohno, and later with Manja Chmiel, a disciple of German expressionist Mary Wigman, for a year. Chmiel encouraged them to simplify their movement and enrich their lighting design in order to deepen their work's emotional impact.

After a trip to New York City in 1976, Eiko & Koma decided that the city's experimental downtown dance scene was where they would thrive as artists. They moved there a year later and swiftly got to work creating new pieces. Two years later, they started splitting their time between New York and San Francisco.

Over time, they evolved from performing on proscenium stages to embracing alternative spaces. Their works Breath (1998) and Naked (2010) were both living gallery installations in which they performed for the duration of the exhibit's open hours over a one-month period. Pieces like Event Fission (1980) and Tree Song (2004) were site-specific works aimed to convey a message about the spaces they were performed in. Over the course of their career, they've created 45 performance pieces, two video exhibitions, three living installations and several other multimedia works.

In recent years, the two have started working on solo projects. Eiko began performing A Body in Places, a 12-hour solo, at a train station in Philadelphia in 2014. She has continued to perform the solo in cities around the world. In 2016, after two years of development, Koma premiered his first solo project, The Ghost Festival, in which he dances with his own paintings.

Style

Often dressed in tattered garments or naked and covered with heavy makeup (much like butoh artists), Eiko & Koma make themselves appear to be a part of their environment. Their work stands out for its slow pacing. Subtle changes in the crumpled shapes of their bodies or a deliberate walk through space happen excruciatingly slowly, making it feel as if time is slowing down. Their pieces frequently contain natural elements like dirt, water or foliage. Eiko & Koma, who are married, collaborate on all aspects of their work: movement, sets, costumes, lighting, sound and text.

In River (1995) in Schoharie Creek in the Catskills. Photo by Harper Blanchet, courtesy of Eiko & Koma

Did You Know?

In 1996, Eiko & Koma were the first collaborative pair to receive a coveted MacArthur Fellowship.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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