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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Raven in the Garden

Eiko and Koma Bring Japanese Dance to Milwaukee

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Last Friday, Alverno Presents sponsored acclaimed Japanese-American Butoh dancers, Eiko and Koma, for their performance of Raven. Butoh dancing has its genesis in Japan's response to World War II, in particular, the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The style emerged during the early 1960s, and was founded by Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikat. The former mentored Eiko and Koma.

Raven was performed on the Lynden Sculpture Garden's spacious grounds, with the dancers inhabiting a drained gravel-bottomed pond and the rising knoll behind it. The audience was seated on folding chairs, the grass and at the edges of the gravel mere feet from the dancers themselves. A low inconspicuous platform, covered in black feathers, straw and dust, stood in the center of the pond and served as the focal point for much of the performance. Subtle audio elements included recordings of ravens, vocal drum and flute music and the incidental, but undeniably significant, sounds native to the outdoor venue.

As is common in Butoh dancing, the husband-and-wife duo performed covered in white clay, which, coupled with their striking black hair, stark eye makeup and minimal cloth wrappings, created a death-like and even otherworldly appearance. Throughout the piece, these costume elements afforded Eiko and Koma both accord and discord with their surroundings.

It's tempting but unfeasible to assign a precise narrative to Raven, which, through infinitesimally slow movement and dramatic expression, conveys any number of meanings and symbolic referents. Certain recurrent motifs are inescapable, however, such as the couple's drawing toward and away from one another, and the extreme rigidity of certain body parts coupled with the contortionist-like flexibility and muscle control of others. Because of the couple's deathly pallor, stilted quality of movement, and the mythology associated with the piece's namesake bird, it's also impossible not to consider the dance through the lens of those directly impacted by the bombings of World War II, and the horrific effects of radiation sickness on survivors. Whether the performance is interpreted as the story of two specific victims of the bombings carrying on a grotesque yet poignant existence, or as something far more allegorical, it is sure to affect deeply and provoke conversation.
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