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Dancing with You

The stage is strewn with potatoes. Single straight back chair, overturned. A canteen. At center is a life scale charcoal sketch, unframed on canvas. It looks like a human figure topped by a dark smudge of a head—the shape calls to mind a famous work of Gustav Klimt. A narrator (Viviane Eng) recites a brief note written by the choreographer: “I dance with various You but one at a time . . . Dancing with You brings back memories, but a moment later, I dig my head into the ground, missing You . . .Why potatoes? They are bombs. They are dead bodies on the ground..” The final line is, “I have nothing.”

Performance

“You” by Koma Otake

Place

La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, Ellen Stewart Theatre, New York, NY, May 17-19, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Koma Otake in “You.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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Into this literal and metaphorical minefield steps Koma Otake. Best known for his work in the long time collaborative duo, Eiko and Koma, his solo performance allows an unobstructed view of his artistic genius. For “You,” commissioned by Danspace Project and premiering there in 2023, Otake is set designer, painter, choreographer, director, and performer. As part of the La MaMa Moves! Dance Festival, “You” is Otake’s first appearance in the venerable Ellen Stewart Theatre.

Dressed in simple white kimono haphazardly belted, his hair a stringy tangle, Otake is a mirror image of the figure displayed on the canvas. His posture suggests injury or disability, maybe a crippling of old age. He lists to the left, one foot drags a bit, not quite flat on the floor. Shoulders back, ribcage thrust, head leaning toward his chest, he pauses with feet in fifth position. More potatoes drop from the burlap sack bundled on his head. He approaches the painting and leans in, as if reuniting with an old friend. Every move he makes is evocative. He’s not really walking or standing—or dancing. He saunters, struts, swaggers. All the time seeming to pose for effect. White talc and kohl exaggerate the expressions on his face: innocence, wonder, pain, surprise, mourning.

“You” proceeds to expand the idea of violence that the potatoes have introduced. First, Otake performs with a single arrow that he eventually lodges into the “chest” of his painted doppelganger. Then he makes a machine gun from broken parts of the overturned chair. It feels like a reenactment, as if a dream or a scene from a painting come to life, more than an actual attack. He eventually trashes the entire set—the destruction juxtaposed with Amy Winehouse’s mournful break-up song, “Back to Black” and lively tango music recordings of Francisco Canaro and Orquesta Pipica Victor.

Koma Otake in “You.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The multi-layered symbolism of “You”—political, historical, personal—is exactly my cup of tea. I found it riveting, yet note that two people walked out the night I attended. Whether triggered by the material or by a more general discomfort is unclear. The machine gun sounds and actions are vicious, and when Otake dislodges the arrow, it’s as if he’s pulling it in anguish from his own chest.

Embedded in 85 minutes of discomfiting movement is a great delicacy and precision. A flourish of the fingers holding the arrow both as cane and conductor’s baton reminds me of a magician. I wonder at the way Otake balances one hip on the corner of the chair seat until a moment later he reveals it’s made of paper by punching his arm through it. He tears the chair apart as if an animal, bone by bone; adapts it as crutch; then dangles a square piece around his neck like a picture frame. When, after the stabbing by arrow, he walks on his knees and elbows in remorse, his hands comically stick up like ears. Yet from within the destruction, there is also beauty: when Otake takes a drink from the canteen, then pours water over his head, the lighting (by Kathy Kaufmann) allows us to see the dripping water as a glowing shimmer.

Koma Otake in “You.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Otake gradually disrobes to full nudity near the end of “You,” evincing vulnerability, discomfort, and humor. At one point, he leans through a broken shoji screen, leaving his buttocks exposed in the air, legs dangling. His kimono sash is a long chiffon scarf that he wraps around his neck as if choking at the very moment we hear Winehouse’s lyric, “I died a hundred times.”

Ultimately, Otake shreds the four panels of shoji screens and brings down the entire wall including the portrait, on top of him. Crawling from beneath the rubble, he gazes around as if to say, “Oh, what have I done?” Indeed, if this final act symbolizes the life of “You” crashing down, Otake seems to say, there is only “You” to blame. And, should we choose to extend that meaning to broader circumstances in the world, so be it. At the bow, he reclaims his modesty with a long shirt, the tails held together with Velcro. When he turns and lightly walks away, I’m relieved to see his nimble body isn’t crooked at all.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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