Disaster inspires transcendent dance

Eiko in Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster inspired “A Body in Places”
Eiko in Fukushima, where the nuclear disaster inspired “A Body in Places”

The Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011 displaced millions of people, but brought one home. Japanese-born dancer and choreographer Eiko Otake was working on a site-specific solo project at the 30th Street Amtrak train station in Philadelphia when the disaster struck, and she was riveted by the desolate images coming from her homeland, and how they contrasted with the hustle and bustle of her surroundings.

“There was a contrast between the Philadelphia station and the station at Fukushima which had been abandoned — no trains going, no human beings there,” Eiko said recently from her New York City home. “The station had just become ruined.”

She traveled directly to Fukushima with a photographer to document and explore the disaster. From that trip she conceived A Body in Places, an ethereal movement meditation on the fragility of place that Eiko has performed around the world, from near the abandoned Fukushima reactors, to Hong Kong, Chile, and a subway station near the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

Now Eiko brings A Body in Places to Miami this week to kick off Tigertail Productions’ monthlong Water festival, with performances Wednesday and Friday at the Vizcaya Museum & Gardens and Thursday at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. At both sites, the performance will take place near water, highlighting the element’s fragile and powerful aspects, and the central role it plays in the South Florida psyche and landscape.

(On Friday Eiko will present A Body in Fukushima, a video and talk on her trips to the site of the nuclear disaster, at the Mindy Solomon Gallery in Miami.)

Best known for her 40-plus year career as one half of the contemporary dance duo, Eiko and Koma, A Body in Places is Eiko’s first solo project. She embarked on this very personal piece after her husband, Takashi Koma, suffered an ankle injury in 2014, exploring notions of place, space and displacement. By placing her body in nontraditional venues such as train stations, libraries and gardens, she aims to foster an intimacy with her audiences that also brings awareness to the magnitude and history of each specific place.

“Remembering a long time ago has become almost a willful act,” Eiko muses. “When you go to the theater, you’re being entertained or you are watching the work now. Somebody is performing now. But you are not necessarily thinking what was there before the theater was built. You don’t think, ‘Oh this was a jungle, or this was a rice field.’ No, we don’t think about those things.”

She works closely with local presenters to select unique sites that have a special meaning in the community.

“I want to be very close with the audience,” she explains. “And I want to be in a strange place, so for people there is a very distinct sense of place . . . because place is more everyday life. It is place where people know its function or sense the history.”

By adapting and reimagining A Body in Places for each new site, Eiko embraces their complexities and uniqueness. The intimate settings also allow audiences to experience the work in a much closer and more interactive way than would be possible in a traditional theater.

“Often people move with me; when I move around, they follow me,” Eiko explains. “Some people just find a good viewpoint and they more or less stay put. For those people, I move very far away or I come very close by. I make very immediate contact with people. I don’t necessarily touch them, but I come very close.”

Slow and deliberate, every movement is carefully planned and executed with precision to make the most impact. Eiko is a ghostly figure in Places, her 64-year-old body covered in pale rice powder makeup, her lithe frame seeming to carry the knowledge of generations. Through small touches and moments of interaction with the audience, she projects a connection to the performance site, a kind of homage to its history and the lives that have passed through it.

“Artists have always wandered different places,” Eiko says. “So I am that wandering body coming into a place. Some people might [think], ‘Wow she looks not of this world. Is she is a ghost from a long time ago, or is there any sense of connection between her body to the many different lives that had been here?’ 

The painstaking intensity of Eiko’s performances is meant to create a visceral reaction, whether fear and anger, or delight and peace. Though she performs much of Places in the achingly slow Butoh style for which Eiko and Koma are known, she also moves at a much faster pace, a deliberate shift from her usual style.

Tigertail’s executive director Mary Luft sees this shift as a natural progression for Eiko, just as her focus on place reflects a move in contemporary dance towards unconventional or site-specific surroundings.

“Eiko is an original thinker,” Luft says. “She is an absolutely possessed, magnetic individual; when she performs you cannot keep your eyes off of her. She doesn’t get boxed in or locked into a formula. With a lot of dance, you are seeing it has moved . . . out of the theater. It moved into spaces, it moved into museums, it moved into new locations.”

By placing her body in these kinds of new places, Eiko hopes to connect her audiences with the past, and to help them recall the history of a place a bit more deliberately.

“When you put a body in front of something, you are also looking at something behind that body. . . . People come, they look at me and what I do, and what I do is pretty simple. But through me choosing to be in a certain spot, they actually see what is behind me, what is in front of me, what is by [my] side. They actually see the place.”

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If You Go

What: Eiko Otake’s "A Body in Places"

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami

Info: $18 (includes 2 complimentary drinks) at tigertail.org

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd, Miami

Info: Free

When: 10:30 a.m. Friday

Where: Vizcaya Museum & Gardens

Info: Free with Museum entrance

What: Eiko video lecture, A Body in Fukushima:

When: 8:00 p.m. Friday

Where: Mindy Solomon Gallery, 8397 NE 2nd Ave,, Miami

Info: $10, www.tigertail.org