Eiko & Koma's Offering
In July I attended Offering, an outdoor performance installation at the Belvedere, a small park on the waterfront just off the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan. It took place just as the sun was beginning to set across the river behind the New Jersey skyline.
In the middle of about a 20'-diameter circle was a sculpture on a platform. It looked like a black metal container, heaped with dirt and sand, with branches sticking out at different angles. Tiny lit candles were flickering in the mound of dirt. The sun was a molten orange-pink fireball peeking out from under a cloud.
A woman (Lakshmi Aysola) in a yellow-orange gauze wraparound dress took hold of a branch on the sculpture and slowly began to walk around the circle, rotating the set piece on its platform. A man (David Krakauer) began playing a clarinet. The music had an exotic, wailing quality, something you might hear from a snake charmer in a Middle Eastern bazaar.
The woman moved so slowly it was barely perceptible; it took several minutes for her to complete the circle, yet it seemed I was surprised to see her climb up onto the sculpture and sit, take up a handful of the dirt, and let it cascade down the front of her body.
The whole performance piece was like this: The "plot line" moved forward incrementally slowly, lulling the audience into a kind of suspension. Suddenly I would realize the scene had changed. Over the next half-hour another woman (Eiko) in the same dress came into the stage picture and climbed onto the sculpture. The two women pushed into the dirt with their feet and hands, changing position, climbing over and twining around each other while a man (Koma) rotated the sculpture.
It was solemn and almost creepy, like a funeral, yet the women's bodies moved so languidly that it was very sensual. The slowness of the movements was ritualistic and meditative. The size and height of the sculpture and the branches sticking out conjured up images of a pagan altar or a funeral pyre. The women lying in the dirt looked like they might be in the process of being buried. Then again, when they stretched out their arms and legs they looked like cats napping in the sun, or perhaps phoenixes rising from their own ashes.
Lighting design for the performance was very simple and unobtrusive, allowing the audience to wander around the circle and watch from different angles. There were lighting instruments placed on the ground at the four quarters of the circle, gelled in amber to enhance the dancers' skin tones and reinforce the color of the sunset light. As the piece progressed, the sky darkened and the street lamps came on, providing a natural and subtle transition in lighting looks.
This "mobile living installation" was performed seven times in different outdoor spaces around NYC during July and August. In addition to several dates in Tokyo, the piece also toured New England, including MASS MoCA, Dartmouth, and dance festivals in Maine. I communicated with Eiko via e-mail while the choreographers were in Japan.
ALS: Tell me a little about the design process for the revolving set piece. Obviously, it could represent many things to different people, but what did you want it to represent? Also, who designed it and who built it?
Eiko: We designed the set and lighting and we built it. The set represents a coffin, tomb, grave, earth, and cradle. Many read dumpster and that is fine too.
This was the most simple lighting plan but our other outdoor works, Caravan Project and River, for which we also designed lighting, have a more developed lighting plan. However, the commonality is that we are using the most simple equipment in a simple design so we can be adaptable in weather and various places. Since we start at sunset and go into twilight or into darkness of night, lighting design happens naturally without changing the lighting level as the ambient light of the place changes.
ALS: What kind of atmosphere did you want to create with the lighting?
Eiko: We would like to create an ancient or archaic atmosphere as one which is connected to our contemporary world--the river of life that runs through all of our lives from then through now.
In our career of theatre for 30 years, we often designed our own lighting, at least all of its basic concept, and all of our sets. That is so intimately connected to how we light. We have a basic knowledge of theatre lighting; in a theatre we need professional help for hanging, circuits, and programming, but we work very closely with whomever is lighting a show and we examine each scene until we are satisfied.
At the Belvedere, Eiko & Koma worked with dance and theatre LD Susan Hamburger to provide the lighting. Hamburger is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and has worked at the Santa Monica Playhouse, the National Theatre for the Deaf, and Yale Experimental Theatre, in addition to many venues around New York. She also recently toured the US with the Urban Tap ensemble.
ALS: How/when were you contacted for the project? What did they tell you about it?
SH: Kathy Kaufmann and I are production managers for the Hudson River Festival for Battery Park City [BPC], and when Dancing in the Streets and BPC shored up the arrangements for the Eiko & Koma piece, we were called in to arrange all the technical, spatial, and security elements of the event. We knew it was going to be an environmental piece, as opposed to a traditional dance performed on a stage, and began to address the issues with their set, their placement in the World Financial Center Plaza, and its relationship to the WTC events. We had only the knowledge that they would be on a platform-type sculpture roughly 8' long by 4' wide by 3' high and would generally be moving on top of it as well as a bit on the ground around it. That was all we had to go on for quite a while.
ALS: What kinds of things did you discuss with the choreographers about the mood they wanted to create?
SH: We knew that the piece was a continuation of their Butoh-influenced work of "living sculpture" and that it was a meditation on the events of 9/11. We knew that they required a certain amount of space surrounding the sculpture and that they would have live music, David Krakauer, on clarinet and that he required sound amplification. Because of the time of the evening that they planned the event, an 8:30pm show, we knew that we would need some lighting for the piece as the sun set.
ALS: See Factor supplied the equipment. How were they contacted? Had you dealt with them before?
SH: As soon as the location was confirmed, Kathy contacted Shelly Diamond at See Factor to do a site survey to see if his company was interested in doing this event. We have often used See Factor for our other dance events during the Festival and felt that they have been an excellent resource for the variety of outdoor projects that we do. Shelly was integral in deciding how we would light the piece. The site for the performance was a part of the World Financial Center Plaza that is near the marina and therefore subject to winds off the Hudson River. The day Shelly visited was a particularly windy day, so a discussion ensued about having the lighting be on the floor on floor plates or short (about 3') booms. This was an interesting idea since the lights could both illuminate the sculpture as well as create the perimeter around the performing space that the artists wanted. The show was technically flexible so we were able to have See Factor also include a pair of 12' booms and some extra lights if the wind permitted us to use them without any risk of them falling over. They also provided a basic sound system as well as staff to put everything together and run the show.
In the end, the design was 12 MFL ETC Source Four PARs on floor plates in a circle around the sculpture and two 12' booms with two MFL Source Four PARs on each to cover lighting them from above. Because the event took place as the sun was setting, Tracy Dedrickson of See Factor chose R17 [Light Flame] gel for the PARs. As the sun set across the Hudson, the wash of sunlight upon the performers was enhanced by the color of the PARs to create a lush, golden-amber environment.
For the sound, there were four JBL monitor wedges spread equally on the ground in the perimeter facing out and two sets of speaker pairs on booms facing out towards the greater part of the plaza. They had some reverb added to the clarinet but the sound was a gentle reinforcement of what David was playing. This technical setup allowed for audience members to walk around the entire sculpture while the piece was in motion to see and hear the performance from every vantage point.
ALS: How do you balance technical challenges with aesthetic considerations in an outdoor or site-specific venue?
SH: In the case of Eiko & Koma, their piece is all about how the environment where they choose to perform becomes integral to the piece. The technical aspects of the show were born from the issues of performing at that particular space and the ideas sprung from those issues ended up creating an elegant product. Frequently the main issues in our work outdoors is weather, power, security, and environmental impact. Luckily for us, it didn't rain, but Eiko and Koma are known to perform even in a downpour. The wind was light enough for us to put up the two booms, but even so, we loaded a tremendous amount of weight onto the bases as added protection against tipping.
Power was a bit tricky; we used power from the marina. It was hard to find a reliable source, since many of the power hookups were cut or damaged during the rescue efforts last September. We also had to be extremely careful about dressing cable, since the area of performance was a high pedestrian and bicycle traffic area. Security was necessary to ensure that crowd control was maintained in a busy commuter area as well as an open public park.
Environmental impact was an issue since in that plaza there are quite a few trees and delicate plantings that require extra care. The unusual crowd density that occurred for the performance might have decimated many of the delicate plantings in that area, so we had to erect barricades to protect the grounds. In the end, we had an extremely successful event, with a beautiful performance, great audience turnout, fantastic weather, and no difficulties.
Around NYC, Offering was also performed at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, Tudor City Green South Park, the Clinton Community Garden, Bryant Park, and Madison Square Park. The choreographers worked with the Japan Society's TD, Futoshi Miyai, at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and Jonathan Belcher, TD for The Kitchen, was in charge of lighting at Bryant Park and Madison Square Park.
Eiko & Koma are currently being developing Offering into a more traditionally staged theatre piece for touring next year. Visit Eiko & Koma's website for more information on them and their work.