Eiko Otake’s “The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable” examines how people deal with life, death, race, age and gender.

Whatever you think you are going to see at an Eiko Otake performance, forget it. Prepare yourself to be surprised, or startled, or experience unbearable intimacy. Expect a never-ending stream of papers with words like “stone” and “I will not” to be scattered in heaps across the stage. Expect raging gods and monsters, or the ghosts of distant relatives, who live in the brushstrokes of colossal paintings projected against the wall. Anything is possible! If Otake’s long history of work is any indication, expect something special, thought-provoking and deeply personal.

This Friday and Saturday, The Dance Center of Columbia College will present Eiko Otake’s “The Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable,” a long-running, experimental project where Otake and a long list of collaborators of various backgrounds create new works that explore and negotiate the differences between each artist’s age, race, ethnicity, religion and culture.

Otake was born in Japan and emigrated to New York in 1976 and developed her own movement-based, interdisciplinary style. For forty years, Otake collaborated with partner Takashi Otake to form the duo “Eiko & Koma” (female & male) and created avant-garde works that drew inspiration from German modern dance, Japanese theatrical movement and Butoh dance. After such a long partnership, you would think that one would be done with collaborations, but Otake seems to thrive on interacting with other artists, and in 2017 launched “The Duet Project,” a process that has already yielded tremendous results—there is a generous video gallery on Otake’s website and I dare you to only watch one!

Performances of “The Duet Project” range in style, form, and substance, as found in a duet from 2018 titled “The Tides of Manaunaun,” where Otake, as the creeping god Maunaunon, claws at the air around the head of pianist Margaret Lang Ten, as half the keys are battered with Leng’s left forearm while the right hand tickles out an eerie, high-pitched melody. In 2019, Otake collaborated with artist Beverly McIver, the pair performing a series of somber rituals set against paintings by McIver of a woman lying still, eyes closed, surrounded by flowers—Otake’s mother passed away just before McIver arrived in Japan for a visit and the paintings are of the funeral.

In “The Duet Project: Distance Is Malleable,” Otake partners with Ishmael Houston-Jones, Iris McCloughan, and DonChristian Jones. Ishmael Houston-Jones is an award-winning choreographer, author, performer, teacher, and curator, whose improvised dance and text work has been performed all over the world. Iris McCloughan is a trans performance-maker, writer, and artist and incorporates text and image-making to explore the queer body, its physical and discursive constructions, and its expansive potential. DonChristian Jones is an interdisciplinary artist, singer/songwriter, who is known for creating elaborate performance installations. What they all have in common is the love of collaboration, shared by Otake to our mutual benefit.

Otake has even ventured beyond the realm of mortality, creating collaborations with her deceased grandfather and mother. “The Duet Project,” however, is about finding connections in life, as Otake explains in a recent interview with Irene Hsiao for the Chicago Reader, saying: “The themes of The Duet Project are time and differences: age, race, upbringing, gender. Dead people don’t talk back. Living people talk back. And the kind of people I work with do talk back. This project is a way of living: How do you make a friend? What does it mean to be friendly? And how do you treat collaborators with respect?”

Eiko Otake turns 70 this February and says that she is still healthy and can perform, but, as she puts it, “at 70, you never know how long.” If that sounds anxious and existential, that’s because it is. These duets, grounded in humanity, tell intense, personal stories in ways that movies and television fail to communicate. You’ll probably see a little of yourself in there, too.


“The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable” performs Friday and Saturday The Dance Center, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15-$30 and available at dance.colum.edu or 312-369-8330. For more details, click the event page below.