Eiko & Koma: Choreographing Spaces


A review of Eiko and Koma: Choreographing Spaces Apart in Asian America by Rosemary Candelario.

Rosemary Candelario’s dissertation, Eiko and Koma: Choreographing Spaces Apart in Asian America, considers the impact of the duo’s work on issues of identity, nationality, diaspora, and intercultural collaboration. The US-based Japanese artists have received critical acclaim (including two “Bessies,” Guggenheim, and MacArthur fellowships) for their choreography and are renowned for their Delicious Movement technique, a name which Candelario states heightens its sensory nature. In her dissertation, Rosemary Candelario employs interviews, archival research, and choreographic analysis to an impressive 24 stage, site, and video dances, dialoguing with dance studies, Asian American studies, Japanese Studies, and theories of space.

Critical to her argument is the term spaces apart, “spaces generated by Eiko and Koma’s choreography characterized by the conjunction of dancing bodies, sites, and technologies, where alternatives may be rehearsed” (p. 4). Drawing from geography, she offers an imaginary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, New York City, Naked Island, and Phnom Penh in relation to particular works in Eiko and Koma’s repertoire.

Mourning: “She lets out a curdling scream, which freezes them both in place – she in her death pose and he in shock” (p. 28).

The first chapter examines the duo’s corporeal engagement with mourning in connection to their cultural awareness of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, Eiko wrote her Master’s thesis on atomic bomb literature and now teaches an interdisciplinary college course entitled, “Delicious Movement for Forgetting, Remembering and Uncovering” (first at UCLA in 2006, and annually at Wesleyan University since 2007). Through beautifully written descriptions of Mourning (2007), Candelario elucidates a discussion of Eiko and Koma’s mourning as ongoing and public. According to the author, the pair physicalizes violence without cause and resolution; they blur the lines of victim and aggressor, just as Japan experienced in World War II. In conversation with perspectives on melancholia in addition to the rhetoric surrounding the peace parks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Candelario calls for the complex, prolonged mourning expressed by Eiko and Koma in many of their choreographic works. (Several more are described in the chapter.)

Offering: “The dirt still clinging to their skin is the only visible evidence of the grave from which they came” (p. 87).

Candelario’s second chapter illustrates Offering (2002), a site-work initially performed with a coffin-like set piece in New York City public parks one year after 9/11. Throughout the performance, three dancers enact images of death, burial, and survival by interacting with soil. Lakshmi Aysola, a west coast performer, joined Eiko and Koma; Candelario theorizes that Aysola’s participation in the performance links South Asian bodies to Eiko and Koma’s racially marked bodies and to the city, thereby protesting post-9/11 (and historical) racial profiling. This chapter speaks of transforming mourning in the face of American imperialism. Utilizing psychoanalysis and Asian American studies scholarship, Candelario posits that Offering is an act of reparation. To support this goal, she looks into public perception of the World Trade Center as a means for speaking about the co-existence of the global and local. In the case of Eiko and Koma, “The spatializing work of these dances opens up spaces that are transnational yet local and intimate where performers and audience members alike may work through these histories” (p. 99).

The chapter also addresses Event Fission, in which Eiko and Koma move with a white flag on a landfill site that, in fact, resulted from the construction of the World Trade Center, and Land, a collaboration with Native American musician Robert Mirabal. The author points out that the three met in New Mexico and traveled to Hiroshima, from nuclear test site to nuclear bombsite, recognizing the need for reparative acts for both Native Americans and Japanese Americans.

River: “Time does not drag, but is rather suspended, as she and the water seem to negotiate her presence there ” (p. 117).

Candelario views River (1995) as “dancing with” water, physically partnering it and playing with its reflections. The third chapter wonders at the relationship between space, technology, nature, and body in River and several other works by Eiko and Koma. The dissertation eloquently describes viewing from the edge of the water – a screen held by Koma, a video of two people dancing, Koma and the screen washing away, and Eiko in water up to her armpits. Candelario finds the piece intervenes in a technology/nature binary by relating it to the 1960 feature film, The Naked Island. She explores the notion of choreographic interface, a meeting of components that are inherently constructed and potentially connected. She suggests multiple relationships between technology and nature – locating embodied nature, constructed “nature,” and bodies both enabled and deconstructed via technology – represented in the repertoire of Eiko and Koma.

Cambodian Stories:  “The young painters are no longer specific entities with particular dreams and goals but indeterminate, bodies searching and yearning with outstretched arms and open chests” (p. 163).

The fourth chapter of this dissertation makes a strong case for conceiving Cambodian Stories (2006) as an intercultural alliance, rather than collaboration, as it disrupts existing power hierarchies. (Intercultural collaborations have often been critiqued for cultural misappropriation and misunderstanding.)  This alliance is between Eiko and Koma and Cambodian painters of the Reyum Painting Collective. Candelario examines the movement vocabulary, gender roles, and the role of the paintings in Cambodian Stories in order to explain that the interdisciplinarity of the performance exemplifies the intercultural relationship on stage. Moreover, all performers seemed invested in a similar goal of  “a representation of Cambodia that moves beyond fixed historical perceptions or images of disaster to a complex portrayal of what it means to be a young person in that country today” (p. 178). The author stresses the importance of the process of collaboration, not merely performance; the performers all contributed to the creation of the performance, and Eiko and Koma established fundraising efforts for the painters. This chapter’s conclusion mentions the three-year Eiko and Koma Restrospective Project (2009), which opened with an exhibition at Wesleyan University’s Zilkha Gallery – a site of commitment to a younger generation.

The conclusion of this dissertation is entitled “Spaces Apart in Motion: Thinking About Asian American Spatial Formation.”  It questions the ability of Eiko and Koma’s spaces apart to build bridges between dance studies and Asian American studies. Notably, Candelario evokes Eiichiro Azuma’s concept of “immigrant transnationalism,” (Between Two Empires: Race, History, and Transnationalism in Japanese America, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) as well as Yutian Wong’s notion of the deracialized “international artist” (Choreographing Asian America, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2010) as political contexts for understanding Eiko and Koma’s work and its potential to create change. Unlike biographical or chronological accounts of Eiko and Koma’s choreography, Candelario’s dissertation astutely offers the possibilities for performing bodies to re-imagine questions of place, identity, nation, and diaspora. Through rich movement description and vivid language that echoes the artistry of Eiko and Koma, this dissertation is a prime example of choreographic analysis that moves past the space of the body and into places of political shift.

Ellen Gerdes
Dance Program
Drexel University

Department of Dance
Temple University


Ethnographic participant observation of workshops, rehearsals, and performances
Interviews with Eiko and Koma, and their presenters, critics, and collaborators
Photography and Video
Government Documents

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles. 2011. 239 pp. Primary Advisor: Susan Leigh Foster.


Image: Eiko & Koma 013, Eiko. Photograph by Rose Eichenbaum. Eiko & Koma Photos for Press.

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