On performing For your pleasure but the pleasure is mine
I performed the dance, officially, twice.
On night one, I am nervous. I don’t know what to expect. I know how to do the dance, I know that in the past audiences have fueled me, given me confidence. I spend the fifteen minutes before I go on stage in the dressing room tucking and untucking my shirt, wondering if my stomach fat would look more noticeable one way or another. I repeat, you are strong, over and over again, only half believing it. I listen to semi-familiar voices close by – friends waiting to see me, greeting each other. I feel nauseous. I like to tell myself I don’t have stage fright, but I think that’s a conception of myself left over from ballet recitals. I kind of wish I was doing The Nutcracker instead of my dance.
I sit down on the stage in the dark, it starts. In the first few minutes, my task is to re-experience a few familiar yet disturbing evenings. See handsome man. Flirt with him. Hear him say, “you have beautiful eyes.” Ask handsome man to tell you a secret. Hear him say “we fucked a stripper with a hockey stick once.” Try to laugh it off. Keep it together. Cry.
I remember rote sex positions, I remember pasta out of a tupperware, I remember the quiet, still sadness of heartbreak, I remember telling him I’m fine when I’m certainly not, I remember the calendar in my bedroom, green tea incense, my vibrator, sweet songs that make me cry. The memories are palpable, that’s how it should be, but I can’t believe I am doing this in front of people. Taking off my pants. Sharing the way I breathe when I’m alone. I can’t believe I decided to do this. I feel myself being seen and it’s so much more than remembering subjugation and remembering my clamor for control, it is subjugating, I am clamoring for control. My mind sees my flaws, vulnerabilities, and failings through the eyes of my viewers, more punishing than they could ever be. Just as my dance does, my thoughts toggle between “I don’t matter, I am nothing” and “I have control, I have worth.” I’ve never felt more inside this dance and it hurts and I want to get out. I dance through it.
After I get off stage, I cry. Breathing hard from shaking my body, my face flushed simply from the eyes that have been on it, I sit down and feel almost horrified at what I’ve just done. I let them see all my soft parts! Satisfying and crushing, uncomfortable and messy and necessary! I was fragile and cracking open, they had me in their hands and I was breaking. I beg them, bent over on the carpeted floor of the dressing room, let me fall apart in your hands, let me be crushed but hold me up to the sunlight please. Let me be seen. I worry it looks gruesome but really it’s what I (we) do every fucking day.
I walk out of the dressing room with a smile for my friends. I hug people, thank people, try to make people feel more comfortable with what just happened with jokes and giggles. I continue to perform.
The next day, the next show, feels daunting, but different. I know what’s coming. The eyes on me will heighten everything and make me try to rush through the painful parts. My mind, in the quiet moments, will snap into cruel projections. I decide, since this is probably the last time I do this dance, to savor it. I decide to be in it for as long as I can, to take my time to make myself feel better when the dance hurts. My memories still hurt. I am still uncomfortable, nervous, intensely red-faced. But, this time, I care just a tiny bit less about their eyes on me. I soak up the heat of the lights more willingly. I cry in my dressing room after, but without thinking I might throw up.
A version of this dance once ended with a kind of assertion that I don’t care how I’m seen anymore, that I have control, or clarity, or “empowerment.” I used to roll my shoulders back, one hip cocked, a little self-righteous grin on my face. A bit of a women-power fuck you. But it felt disingenuous, like a false narrative I wanted to believe about myself, or wanted to believe was possible. My cycles don’t end. I say fuck off to shitty men more, but I haven’t figured out what to do with concurrently wanting their attention and love. My patterns, and the huge gross systematic patterns of patriarchy churn forward. Nothing is solved, but also, nothing stays the same. The dance now ends more cathartically. I shake and open vigorously, catapulting my body around the stage, and then staring at where I just was. I am not fierce or triumphant. I continue to wonder who I build my body for, even when I’m alone. But I build again and again and again until the again teaches me something.
So, of course dancing it again was different, and of course it was kind of the same. I feel crushed and proud, vulnerable and composed, empty and satisfied. Of course this dance of contradictions and conflations feels this way. Of course it’s still surprising.
On Eiko’s Duet Project
When I imagine the Duet Project as a simple image, I see Eiko as a straight line gliding steadily forward. She, the line, acts as a constant, pointing towards an inevitable truth – death? The line intersects with other perpendicular lines on its way, but these collisions never stop her. The line pushes on, pulling the others into diagonals, pulling each one closer to another. We are left, assuming this pattern continues, with a bundle of lines being pulled along like seaweed stuck on a buoy, intertwining, tangling, and practicing to be remembered.
Eiko’s Duet Project, by definition, is the sum of many collaborations, intersections, and interactions. So many, in fact, that they would be hard to connect without the through-line of Eiko. After her first formal showing of the project featuring six collaborators at Cathedral of St. John the Divine on November 20, I wondered to myself how I could summarize a night that included such varied artists that their creations each deserve their own essay. Should I attempt describe each duet individually and sequentially, as we experienced them, giving a few words for each? Should I try to recall which happened where in the Cathedral, listing out the places that helped us situate ourselves in a new collaboration? Despite recognizing the significance and richness of each duet, I find myself curious what drove Eiko to trust that the multiplicity of the evening wouldn’t be overwhelming. I can’t help but search for a uniting narrative. I wonder not only what will connect these six interactions on November 20, but also what might fuse the countless duets of the Duet Project. I try to identify not only what drives Eiko to maximize her interactions, but also what drives artists to interact with Eiko the way they do.
Eiko once described her video collaborations with DonChristian Jones, a young painter and musician who was once her student, as exercises in “practicing to die.” I hear this phrase in my head every time Eiko calmly acknowledges her mortality over dinner, talking about the Duet Project as her late work. I hear this phrase as Eiko starts the showing on Tuesday with an acknowledgement of the death of her close friend just months prior. I hear it again especially in her duets with the dead, poet C.D. Wright and her grandfather and painter Chikuha Otake. Teach me how to be ready. Teach me how to mourn. Teach me how to matter. Performance as remembering.
Eiko acts as a vessel of these duets with the dead as she interacts with the living. And the living seem to certainly be considering death. Each living duet manifested as a reaction to anticipated death – wailing, ranting, readying.
Margaret Leng Tan and Mark McCloughan wailed. Though their duets with Eiko never intersected with each other, they both occupied the space with an insistent fullness. Margaret played two booming, shrieking Henry Cowell works, one of which was called Banshee, to echo into the huge space. The sound seemed to not only emanate from the piano itself, but also from her body, which undulated and burst with intensity alongside/within her instrument. Mark, later on, ran through the open space of the Cathedral with Eiko and DonChristian, crisscrossing the space with such speed that the audience wasn’t sure whether to follow or just stand and wait for them to whoosh by again. Mark’s expansive, urgent traverses transformed to frenzied writing of (maybe) a poem, one or a few words at a time on paper ripped from a pad as soon as it was marked. Eiko danced mournfully close by, until they united by pushing, pulling, and falling. They filled the space, and maybe each other, with a physicalized death wail. Preparing, readying, mourning what they don’t yet know.
Alexis Moh, a young filmmaker, a friend of mine, and a close collaborator of Eiko’s, ranted. She urgently explained how almost everything and everyone was contributing to the impending death of our planet. She rattled off alarming statistics alongside a screen projecting notes, a counter of Google’s emissions, and videos of Eiko working in her apartment, while Eiko let out helpless whimpers and lightly complained that she couldn’t keep up with Alexis’ standards of ethical consumption. Their duet presented the most significant age difference, which felt relevant considering their contrasting approaches to the giant problems of the world—Alexis ambitious in knowledge and strict in her ethics, justifiably angry, and Eiko a little jaded but sympathetic to her young collaborator’s efforts, listening and getting riled up herself. Despite a duet of contrasts, one ranting, one crying, I could see they both understood the reality, and were preparing.
DonChristian and Eiko readied themselves, just as they had practiced before. Their duet began with him singing, sweetly, mournfully, then displaying a painting of Eiko he had created. Eiko looked on, buried in the crowd of the audience, letting him introduce his rituals alone. They moved together (a pushing and pulling and falling, much like Eiko’s movements with Mark) until they reached a projection of one of their videos in which they floated, bobbed, and crawled into the ocean. They watched themselves practice to die, accept death, float away. DonChristian, fittingly, left Eiko to stand alongside another one of their videos by walking down a long hallway of the Cathedral, singly clearly, walking slowly, alone. They were prepared.
I still wonder if Eiko asked each participating artist to think about his or her duet as a preparation for death, or if she just inspires that sort of serious consideration of mortality in the artists she works with. Maybe, that contemplation is inevitable in a series of duets with artists of different ages, with some dead. Maybe, she simply inspires that sort of reflection in me. Wherever these notions come from, Eiko and her collaborators displayed a unique ability to conjure images of mourning, death, and remembrance with an active vitality that brought the space, and the witnesses, alive.
On Eiko’s A Body In Places: Met Edition at the Met Cloisters
I entered the chilly room to find a projector on a cart, Eiko, and images of her projecting onto the textured rounded wall. In the moment I walk in, I catch Eiko standing defiantly in the beam of light, her body tripled. There’s real Eiko, there’s the shadow of Eiko, and then there’s the image of Eiko from Fukushima in 2014. It’s obscured and distorted because it is projected onto the cloister’s stone wall from an odd angle.
I take my seat among dozens others and train my focus on Eiko. But unlike Eiko’s other performances I’ve seen, my eye doesn’t stick with her face, or the one finger she is moving so delicately. Instead, it jumps from the image of her surrounded by half-dead sunflowers, to the projector hanging from red straps in its cart, to Eiko’s toe hanging off her sandal. I am constantly aware of these various and ever-moving elements, how they circle around each other, slip over each other. I am mesmerized by the dance that isn’t quite a solo, and snapped into attention when images are replaced with sentences without punctuation that describe what Eiko has witnessed in her trips to Fukushima. Language brings a first person narrative voice into a mostly abstract performance. The start of a sentence, “The damaged,” catches the sleeve of her kimono and she lets the words slide onto her, examining them with us. The words are so bright that they give her thin white robe a contaminated glow. Then she lets them slip off – back onto the cold stone wall yards behind her.
Later I change my vantage point: I station myself against a wall, on the floor, looking upwards at Eiko circling the space. She pushes the projector cart, its images sweeping across the wall. The light is bright. The photos by William Johnston are all taken in day light, and whether they depict Eiko in a dusty, desolate construction site, or in lush greenery that seems to prosper in the absence of humans, the grayness and greenness (and redness of the fabric she carries with her) are vivid and glowing – irradiated, maybe. Light slides over audience members’ faces to my right, and they squint a little. When it comes to me it is so bright it makes me think of the accounts I read of the unbearable brightness of the atomic bomb.
I lose sight of Eiko behind the blinding lamp of the projector, until I realize she has abandoned her post as pusher and is standing next to me. Together, we look at the wall between us, stained with her. My eyes flip back and forth between seeing the texture of the background and the content of the image on it: between the pockmarked stone wall and a photograph of her kimono; between real Eiko skin and a photographic reproduction of Eiko skin on top of it. I’m reminded of laying in the backseat of a car staring out a rain-strewn window shifting my focus from raindrops to streetlights, raindrops to streetlights. Distance and closeness collapse, swap, reverse.
Eventually she shuffles away, but not without seeing me, and showing me the despair she is so frankly confronting. She is performing; she is utterly and intensely in character. But she performs with us, not for us. She watches the images of herself with us, listens to the intermittent wailing of the soundscape with us, and inhabits the pain of Fukushima genuinely in this New York City landmark.
The last thing I see as I leave is Eiko pressing herself against the wall where a photo of her on a beach is projected, almost making herself to scale again, jumping back into the place. We witness a temporary collapsing of place and time.
As I make my way back to the subway through a very wet Fort Tryon park, my observations turn to questions. She’s forced me to see the consequences of human carelessness through stone and light and skin, overlapping, piling up, and slipping off each other. How do I hold onto the big picture as it distorts and slides over a body and over the architecture of curved wall? Can the memory gain meaning as it loses its recognizable shape? Eiko told me her intention was to metaphorically “stain” the museum walls with Fukushima. The walls remained unchanged – when the light slid away it was like it had never been there. But when light flooded my vision, its image turned into a simple sensory experience, and I could see Eiko close up discolored by her own double, I felt empathy. Was I the one stained?
On Eiko’s Residency at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
Eiko has been “in residency” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine since September. In addition to her photo and video exhibition being on view as part of the Christa Project, Eiko has been experimenting and practicing her solo project. To find out when she will be rehearsing, follow her on social media (you can do so by clicking the icons at the end of this newsletter).
I came to the Cathedral for the first time today. This note is from her open rehearsal on Saturday November 12 at 11am, one of twelve that she has done this fall:
I didn’t speak with Eiko about the results of the election until this morning. As we organized our things before her performance in a supply closet of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, I asked her if I should still post what we had planned, or if she wanted to express the emotions she was feeling over the past few days. She matter of factly undressed, tossing aside her street clothes, while she told me that we couldn’t continue as if nothing had happened. As she wrapped herself in two layers of white kimonos, she tasked me with watching her perform and reflecting on the election, on her body, on this space we were in. She wanted to hear my personal thoughts.
I watched intently, as I had many times as her student, as Eiko transformed from her energetic, fast-moving self into her measured, serious performance state. Her eyes turned inward, and then upward to the cavernous ceilings of the Cathedral. She focused solely on the flexing of a toe reaching down the steps from the apse. She slid her body heavily on the cold marble to descend into the nave. How often do we get to concentrate so dedicatedly on the movement of our toe and its meaning? How often does the journey down three stairs take three minutes? I felt envious. As someone who has always found solace in movement, I craved that opportunity to move slowly and deliberately in a space that seems to beg for movement. Eiko contorted her face in apparent pain, apparent anger, apparent despair. She sung out as the enormous red cloth she totes tore on her sandal with a surprisingly loud “rrriiiiippp.” How I had been longing to weep in front of people this week, to cry out in a place that would make it loud – that would make it echo! I connected with Eiko’s performance today in a way that I hadn’t before… I wanted to join her.
I felt that Eiko’s “peculiar” performance style was both cathartic and instructive, for me and for others there.
A woman and her son who had stumbled upon the performance while touring the Cathedral came up to Eiko to ask her questions and share their thoughts after she had finished. Ben, the son, told her he felt the desire to help her as she performed, to ask her if she was alright. The mother asked, “do you ever depict joy?” Eiko answered, “I am generally a joyous person, I love living and I love working. So for me the performance is a transformation from my usual self.” She went on to say that people often try to help her during her site performances because she “looks so pitiful.” But, she says, she “likes that helplessness… that helplessness is in the world.”
I found that observing Eiko’s performance of helplessness without trying to fix it – purposefully letting it flower and exist with no move to resolve it – was meditative and even satisfying. So rarely do we hold space for those feelings without attempting to cure them.
Eiko’s movement, though, was not simply an expression of despair or hopelessness in the face of troubling power. It was (and, really, it always has been) an often overlooked political stance against rashness. It is the argument for hesitation. Eiko emphasizes this word in her class at Wesleyan as a mantra for her movement and as a political agenda. Hesitate. I interpret this to mean acting with a caring thoughtfulness that breeds meaningful movement. Even in a moment that I saw as angry in her dancing, when Eiko’s sandal slapped the marble floor with a shocking loud “snap,” there existed thoughtfulness and deliberateness in this singular sound – it called our attention to the sharpness that exists among Eiko’s smooth slow moves.
I feel now a little more ready to make my anger and despair meaningful.