Life, death and survival: Beyond performance and into relationship with Eiko Otake’s The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable

The collision of bodies, objects, generations and concerns in The Duet Project: Distance is Malleable ranged from gentle to brutal with overlapping tenderness, urgency, and resilience. Admittedly, I walked into The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago on Friday night longing for closeness–for the possibility of touch, whispers of breath, and glimmers of sweat that come with proximity to live performance. It soon became clear however, that I didn’t need to be within reach of the performance to be absorbed into it.

The house lights remained on as Eiko made her first entrance. She walked unassumingly through the doors of the theater dressed in a thin, white dress that hung off her slender frame. Several seconds passed before the disjointed murmurings of a full audience cascaded into a sustained hush—attentions shifted with a rippling effect until everyone’s bodies met Eiko’s.

She held our gaze. She continued holding our gaze. Eventually, she spoke:

“My mother had a good death. It was unhurried...”

Eiko, born and raised in Japan and a resident of New York since 1976, is a movement-based, interdisciplinary artist who—after 40 years as Eiko & Koma—now performs as a soloist and directs her own collaborative projects. For this iteration of The Duet Project, Eiko was joined by award-winning choreographer, author, performer, teacher and curator, Ishmael Houston-Jones; trans artist, performer, writer and dramaturg, Iris McCloughan; interdisciplinary artist, singer/songwriter and producer, DonChristian Jones; lighting designer, David Ferri; visionary pianist, Margaret Leng Tan; filmmaker and multimedia artist, Alexis Moh; Eiko’s mother; others who have passed on; and, I am sure, many more who were left unarticulated but were present nonetheless… 

A little bit later and somewhat suddenly, the first projection of the evening, a collaboration with Alexis Moh that took place in the California landscape, flooded the back screen. Images of Eiko cradled inside a massive, splintered-open tree trunk shifted my attention. I tried to catch a glimpse of the relatively small, in-the-flesh Eiko together with her larger-than-life, on-screen self, but I was too late. She had already slipped away indistinguishably back into the audience as Iris McCloughan slowly emerged from the wings, holding a large bowl of water.

Further into the performance, Eiko met DonChristian Jones onstage. She was draped in an oversized beige raincoat. He was holding a black raincoat tightly in his right palm. A prolonged silence was abruptly broken by Eiko’s guttural cry: “RUN.” Jones took off. He burst into a counter-clockwise sprint, widening his stride with each lap around the stage. He skirted the edges of curtains, slipped passed the clear water bowl and flew off the lip of the stage, maintaining the full curvature of his circular path. All the while, dodging Eiko, who trailed and sometimes traveled in the opposite direction of his relentless momentum. As the pounding of Jones’s footsteps rang louder, Eiko somehow grew more fragile.

I noticed a pooling and releasing of tension in my body that kept in pulse with such junctures of vigor and vulnerability, action and rest. Particularly, in moments of surprise—a sudden thrashing of forearms, ankles, and chins; dragging of torsos; shoving of curtains; forceful writing on and ripping up of large papers; gaping mouths; jarring yelps; gushes of cold air (I didn’t even know those doors led to outside)—that all were lulled by and between deliberate, soft, barefooted steps; lingering gazes; thick strands of black and grey hair that reminded me of my mom; unrushed embraces of skin and bone; weighted, squeaky tracings of fingertips on and wheels below a grand piano; residual scents of sharpie marker dissipating into breaths of fresh flowers… even through my mask, I could smell the air shifting.

Notably, Ishmael Houston-Jones—positioned opposite Eiko, with the audience between—recited dates and names (presumably, a list of people that he knew who have died). My focus was split between each side of the room: Houston-Jones to my left and Eiko to my right. My attention was also divided between experiencing the performance and reflecting on personal losses of my own. Every year accumulated more names. Decades of names. Now all of these lives were in the space with us too.

Acknowledgment of and proximity to death continued to permeate the performance. Near the end of the evening, Eiko plunged her mother’s white dress into the same bowl of water McCloughan originally brought into the space. She lifted the soaked garment, pausing to let lively streams of water fall back into the bowl below. She hovered the dress over a folded scroll of paper that had printed on it large images of her mother’s face surrounded by flowers. The rain watered all of the flowers—plucked and printed.

“It was unhurried.”

The trajectory of the performance was never known to me beyond its insistent lean, as Eiko writes in her program note, “forward to the next encounter.” So many of which, are not captured in this writing, but will live on in my and so many others’ memories—until we meet again.