Each year the American Dance Festival honors a choreographer for lifetime achievement with the Samuel H. Scripps Award, a munificent $35,000 cash prize. In this year's ceremony, held June 27 in Page Auditorium, the award was presented to the uniquely wonderful Japanese-born duo Eiko and Koma, who are both the choreographers and, I suspect, the only possible dancers of their work.
I first saw Eiko and Koma perform at ADF in 1984, when they danced Grain and Elegy . I had never seen anything remotely like those performances, which moved me beyond all reason and remain etched in memory twenty years later. Subsequently, I have seen them at every opportunity. Only once have I been disappointed - and that was because the light level on stage was so low that I literally could not see the performance. But they did not disappoint on the 27th, when they gave - together, alternating - a lovely, gracious acceptance speech and then performed a brief work, Duet for Tonight .
Eiko and Koma's works generally are about nature, or more accurately, about humans in nature, and about how precious that elemental relationship is and how fractured it is in the current time. In presenting the Scripps Award, Joseph Melillo, Executive Producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, quoted a line by cultural critic Eric Bentley: "The aesthetic moment is an intensification of our humanity." The distilled aestheticism of Eiko and Koma's dances brings us to ourselves as intensely as we could wish.
They often perform outside - one of their most unforgettable performances took place in the pond at Duke Gardens - but even indoors they immerse themselves in elements other than air. Many times they wear little or nothing other than white body paint, but what costuming there is has an elaborately imagined simplicity. And generally they move very, very slowly. Sometimes you can't see them move - they reach a different position so gradually that you don't notice the process. Through all their movements runs a theme of interdependence, whether in conflict or mutual aid. There is a great current of grief washing against a powerful flow of delicate wonder. The images they make are sometimes beautiful but never at all pretty.
On the 27th they wore a little more than usual (after all, they'd just been at the podium, accepting the prestigious award), and their gliding, drifting, twisting, unfolding movements were considerably more rapid than they often are as they danced to "First Love," by Tatsunosuke Koshiya, sung by Yoshikazu Mera. But Eiko and Koma moved through a new medium: the air was full of gently falling "snow." Or maybe it was a long shower of falling stars, as I first thought. The light had that starshine quality. Or maybe the particles were meant as drifts of flower blossoms. Whatever they were, the effect was enchanting.
Duet for Tonight could not be called celebratory in any rambunctious sense, but the dance evoked a stronger sense of pleasure and a weaker one of sorrow than any of their works I've seen. The darkness was not banished - it underlay the snowy, starlit surface - but the main feelings were sweetness, an ineffable tenderness, and an humble gratitude.
An adoring audience certainly felt grateful. The applause from the house and deep bowing from the stage might have gone on all night, had the stagehands not finally lowered the curtain.
Eiko and Koma gave us a little taste of their exquisitely slow art on Sunday, and at the other end of the week we got a sample platter of fast footwork. "Festival of the Feet: Tap/Flamenco/Kathak" made for an enjoyable, entertaining evening in Page Auditorium on July 1. Yet it was not as satisfying artistically as Eiko and Koma's twenty-minute dance. "Festival of the Feet" was more like a revue, or even a demonstration program, than a presentation of highly crafted artworks.
Not to say that the dancers weren't fantastic, and we had the benefit of live musicians on stage for all three types of dance. The program opened with Elmer Gibson on piano, Paul Ingbretson on bass and John Hanks on drums, jamming for the sparkly Roxane Butterfly, dancing a tap improvisation. She was charming, with her big smile and mirrored hip scarf and her huge enthusiasm, but there definitely wasn't any choreography. Following her was the supercool Mr. David Gilmore dancing High Fly to music composed by Randy Weston. Gilmore was magnificent in white shoes, beautifully tailored white pants, and a red/white/blue striped jacket over a pink ruffled shirt. He's an older man with a style more like buck dancing in tap shoes than Butterfly's flashier, bouncier style. He gave his steps an elegance and subtlety I hadn't known was possible in tapdance. The tap section closed with the awesome Jason Samuels Smith, all in black, black braids flying, kicking out all the stops in "Leonard & Leroy," danced to "All the Things You Are." Very athletic, very percussive, very urban and young.
Next up were Pandit Chitresh Das and Company, Kathak dancers from northern India. They performed five pieces choreographed by Das, with Abhijit Banerjee and Swapnamoy Banerjee on tabla and sarod. In Kathak, the barefoot dancers all wear ghungroo, heavy anklets of multiple bells that add to the percussive music. Their clothing is very rich, too: tunics or dresses with matching leggings, in resplendent silks trimmed with lavish brocades. The dances combine stamping footwork, rapid spins, beautiful arm, wrist, neck, head and eye movements, and sudden pauses, in which precise positions are held. One piece was a story, and even without Das' explanation, it was possible to interpret the characters (all danced by him) and their actions, so expressive were all the movements. The company's final dance brought on the women and ended with gorgeous éclat.
Flamenco Vivo Carlotta Santana ended the main program with two beautiful dances, "Tangos de Piyayo" and "Aires del Sur," accompanied by Calvin Hazen on guitar and José Salinas on percussion and vocals. These dances were a fascinating contrast to the Kathak style. Both involve stamping feet and straight spines, expressive arms, and meaningful pauses, yet how different they are! The problem with this section, though, even more than the others, was that you just got settled into the style and it was over. The program was like a small-size Whitman's Sampler. Once you find your favorite candy, disappointment sets in, because you know there's not another one in the box. Fortunately, we have periodic opportunities in this area to see Flamenco Vivo perform full programs.
The evening closed with a cute three-way challenge among the dancers and musicians. I'm sure it was fun for them, but it just kind of ended without any sense of artistic completion. If ADF designed this program as entertainment or as education, they succeeded. But I didn't come away with the deep aesthetic satisfaction (even when I don't like the dances) I've come to expect at ADF. It's not that art shouldn't be an amusement; it's that that the amusement should be completely artful.
* Note : A letter to the editor from Roxane Butterfly, concerning this review, is posted in our letters section - click here.