Monday, January 16, 2017

Process and Performance: a talk with dance artist Eiko Otake

Site dance artist Eiko Otake
Above: Kifune Shrine, 4 August 2016
Below: Yaburemachi 5 August 2016
(photos: William Johnston)

Lauren Grant
(photo: Amber Star Merkens)

For my Montclair State University course, Performance Perspectives, Dance MFA student Lauren Grant spoke with Eiko Otake about her site-specific residency at New York's Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.

Process and Performance:
A talk with dance artist
Eiko Otake

by guest contributor
Lauren Grant

Contemporary artist and choreographer Eiko Otake is in residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan from October 2016-March 2017. Her collaborative work with historian-photographer William Johnston, A Body in Fukushima, is on display as part of the cathedral’s art exhibition, The Christa Project. During her residency, she will explore movement and space, welcome discussions with visitors, design a new video installation, expand her photo exhibit within the cathedral, offer solo performances and curate a culminating event on March 4 and 11, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

I spoke with Ms. Otake about her residency at the cathedral, as well as her process and experiences as a site choreographer.

Lauren Grant: Although your research of movement and space at the cathedral is currently exploratory, it is conducted in front of others. So, in a sense, you are performing. When does the workshop phase become the performance?

Eiko Otake: Yesterday, I was workshopping, but at the same time I was also performing because I was aware there were people already starting to look. I was the same performer that I always am, but I did not know exactly what I was doing; I was more in the process. Although I am in professional performance mode, there is no ticketed audience, nor do I have material with a beginning, middle and end. If I look performative, the people who are watching are kind of happy, but there’s no more story than that; no big crescendo. I am merging process and product.

LG: Do you improvise in performance?

EO: Yes, but in a different way than how dancers go in the studio and improvise. My improvisatory research period gives me the material for a score I will use in the performance. Choreography in a space like this is very contextualized; I may crawl in the center of the cathedral, or become one of its gargoyles. These will be my prompts, and what I do between these prompts may be more improvised. I rehearse the prompts so as I improvise in performance I won’t have to question, “Where is my foot? Where am I standing? Is it dangerous?” I will have already explored that place. It allows me to be more improvisatory in performance because I don’t always have to figure out what’s going on. If I don’t know where I am going, I don’t know what I am doing. If I know I am going to a specific spot, I can decide in the moment how it is I will get there. Once I start going there, I may pretend I’m not, because if I’m too clear, there’s no sense of conflict. The score tells me where to start, maybe where to end, and three or four other things to do; but within those markers, I can do anything. I will never decide how many steps I take to go to a certain place. But I know I will go to that place. I will, however, also reserve the right not to go. My intention will be to go, but if there is something more interesting happening elsewhere, I may skip that part of the score. I own the score, but I am not a servant to it.

LG: What else is involved in this development stage of your residency in the cathedral?

EO: I have this empty space (which is not empty—it’s a very historical, amazing place) and I’m wondering, “What do I do? What do I want from here?” The residency gives me resources. Last week, a videographer or photographer was always with me as we tried to get five or six amazing pictures. My exploration in the space serves to get to those moments. Once I have that raw footage, I can then edit it, which is not too different from choreographing. I’m interested in learning how I can make more of the installation. I’m creating a media work. Perhaps the footage I shoot can end up somewhere on a monitor so people can see another part of me and the church as they move through the cathedral, recognizing that the woman they are seeing here is the woman they saw over there and that this is the front of a church, but they are now inside it. These additions will add layers to my installation.

Filming and photographing my explorations in the space also serve as tools to help me in my creative process. Alexis Moh, my videographer, helps capture what it is I’ve done here because, after a day of workshopping material, I forget what happened. Filmic ways also help me make sense of what I am doing. I find it quite strange that, as an immigrant, and a non-Christian, I have been given a chance to be an artist in residency at this cathedral. Watching the footage helps me materialize what all this means and also serves to point out when my explorations are just me fooling around. Since I am my own director, I need a tool to help me look and think. I don’t believe that video can accurately show me what I do, but it is a helpful little tool.

LG: Do you prefer working in a site versus a theater?

EO: I give up control when I perform in a space other than a theater—I can’t design the light and sound. But I’ve successfully done that kind of theater work for 40 years and am not interested in that anymore. I’m interested in conflict now; a kind of weirdness where people ask, “What is she doing here? Why?” and I don’t have an answer for them.

LG: What is the difference in how you connect with the audience in a site versus a theater?

EO: In a site performance I can see the audience. That’s a huge difference. And they can move around. In a theater they cannot move; they’re usually stuck. And I can’t see them.

LG: How do the different responses from people as they watch (or ignore) you affect you as a performer?

EO: It affects me if they watch; it doesn’t affect me so much if they don’t watch. They ignore me and I ignore them, it’s not really a big deal. I have other things to think about, like “How much did I move forward? Is this video working? Am I going in the right direction?”

LG: In your exploration, I saw a very interesting interaction at the doorway. You caught someone off guard. A woman held the door open for you (for a very long time). I don’t think she knew you were performing.

EO: She said, “Are you ok?” because I looked pretty broken. And I whispered, “Yes, thank you.”

LG: It was beautiful—a human-to-human connection. When you perform, do you seek out moments or opportunities like that with the audience?

EO: When it happens, I recognize it. I don’t seek it out. But when an opportunity arises, I acknowledge it, and may even linger on it. I like lingering on those moments.

LG: How would you feel if somebody was drawn to physically interact with you?

EO: It’s happened a few times. People have called an ambulance or have tried to help me. In a performance in Hong Kong, I started very far from the audience who were watching me from up high. I was eventually to go to them, but I began by lying by the highway. One man stopped and said, “Are you ok?” Since I was in the middle of a performance I only whispered, “I am ok,” but he couldn’t really hear me because I didn’t shout. So he started to call “Help!” That’s when the organizer ran in and told him, “she’s actually performing,” and he was like, “What? But there’s nobody around.” He looked up and saw tons of people watching and he was like, “sorry, sorry!” This is what happens. I kind of enjoyed it. I like that place where I’m really feeble as a performer.

Beauty is contextualized with something hurt. Real beauty is kind of dull because it doesn’t have a pain. I think we find it beautiful, even without that knowledge, but with that knowledge, we find it even more beautiful. If a little Buddha statue has some broken parts, you actually feel more empathic towards it. A little wound makes us feel more deeply.

Eiko at the Cathedral for video installation from Eiko and Koma on Vimeo.


Born and raised in Japan, and based in New York since 1976, Eiko Otake is a movement based multidisciplinary performing artist. After working as Eiko & Koma for over forty years, Eiko began her solo project, A Body in Places, with A Body in a Station, a twelve-hour performance at Philadelphia’s Amtrak station in October 2014. In the spring of 2016, Eiko was the subject of Danspace Project’s Platform, a month-long curated program of daily solos, installations, workshops and exhibitions. In the fall of 2016, the Bessie Committee awarded a special citation to Eiko for her Platform for “making herself ‘radically available’ in public and private spaces.” Eiko is currently an artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where her photo exhibition in collaboration with William Johnston is on view, and Eiko shares her dance practice with visitors. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award, the Dance Magazine Award, and an inaugural USA Fellowship, the Duke Performing Artist Award, and “Anonymous Was a Woman Award,” Eiko regularly teaches at Wesleyan University, NYU and Colorado College.


Lauren Grant has danced with the Mark Morris Dance Group since 1996, appearing in 60 of Morris’ works. She teaches technique around the globe, including classes for the company and The School at The Mark Morris Dance Center, sets Morris’ work at universities, and is currently Morris’ rehearsal assistant on his newest creation. Grant received a 2015 New York Dance and Performance Award ("Bessie") for her sustained achievement in performance with Mark Morris and in recognition of her "invigorating spontaneity, expansive phrasing, and robust musicality.” Grant has been featured in Time Out New York, Dance Magazine, the book Meet the Dancers, appeared in PBS's Great Performances, Live From Lincoln Center, and ITV's The South Bank Show, and was a subject for the photographer Annie Leibovitz. Before joining MMDG, Grant moved to New York City from her hometown of Highland Park, Illinois, and earned a B.F.A. from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is currently pursuing her M.F.A. at Montclair State University where she is also an adjunct professor.

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