Dance Review: ‘The Caravan Project’ at MoMA

January 20th, 2013

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The Caravan Project A trailer serves as the stage for Koma, left, and Eiko in this show in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art.

They might be sleepwalkers, they might be larvae. Moving numbly — as if through trauma — they resemble an unknown species. Eiko and Koma, the celebrated Japanese duo, are giving a series of daylong performances of “The Caravan Project” through Monday in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art.

Beckett might have imagined them: watching, I thought of Nell and Nagg in his “Endgame,” of Krapp in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” of May and her mother in “Footfalls.” By this I mean they are strange, absurd, extreme; but I also mean that they have a very peculiar kind of pathos.

The set is a small trailer, roughly 16 feet long and 9 feet tall. Look carefully and you see it has a New York license plate. On each side it has four pairs of doors that open out; inside it’s like an amber-hued animal’s lair, lined with old branches, autumnal waste and particles. Visitors to the museum, on their way to the Matisses and Picassos or the “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition upstairs, all pass by this caravan. It’s fun to see people stop in their tracks when they realize there’s a performance going on too.

Eiko and Koma, who have been performing in New York and internationally for over 30 years, have never been high energy. A musician would give the softly dynamic marking “pianissimo” to all they do. But they’re seldom still, and the quality of concentration they bring to everything is extraordinary. They aren’t invariably great: in a recent performance at the Joyce Theater (a double bill of the 1976 “White Dance” and the premiere of “Flower Dance”) they were remarkable but not marvelous. On Wednesday at MoMA they were back in top form.

Darwin wrote of the survival of the fittest; in “The Caravan Project” Eiko and Koma embody the least fit, the species least likely to survive. With chalky skin tones, wearing pale layers of lint and fabric that collected threads of debris as they moved around their lair, they often progressed with eyes lowered. Motion consists of a series of tiny adjustments, so that even a crawl across the edge of the trailer, or a slow stretch on the floor outside, or standing up to extend a single arm — something most of us could do without thinking in a moment — becomes not merely effortful but a gradually negotiated exercise in suspense. Where most dancers have more bloom and energy than the rest of us, the very muscle tone of Eiko and Koma looks (though this is probably an illusion) diminished.

No, they don’t both move continuously for seven hours. Often this “Caravan Project” shows just one of them at a time; when the other arrives, the first one slowly heads toward the edge of the foyer, where an assistant quickly appears with a cloak and helps him or her to another room. I spent five hours at the museum on Wednesday, and though I didn’t watch them nonstop — I went to the “Inventing Abstraction” show, I had lunch in the cafe, I did some work on an iPad — it was wonderful to see that Eiko and Koma never repeated themselves.

A colleague had been riveted by them for an hour around noon; around 4:30 I e-mailed her to say, “You’ll never guess what they’re doing now.” And sometimes I had only to look away for 10 seconds to be amazed: how on earth had this so-slow mover arrived from there to here in so short a space of time?

Because I spend much of my life in darkened theaters, the museum’s peripheral noise and the occasional arrival of another visitor blocking my view was irritating at first. Though I have watched Eiko and Koma outdoors as well as in theaters, I haven’t had to keep on the move to do so.

But I’m happy to say that “The Caravan Project” soon taught me otherwise: it repays being watched from different angles and distances, and there are passages during which you must move just to see what’s happening. Though I had an unimpeded view from an upper level, it proved much better to be close up; and part of the spell lies in peering into the trailer to see all this burrow’s detail. The particles — bits of leaf, for example — suspended from its ceiling all vibrate in the air, keeping up a shimmering, minuscule, rapid fluctuation that’s a counterpart to the heavier, slower progress of the performers.

Among the many scenes that stand out in memory, I recall Koma gesturing in bewilderment at his shadow on the caravan door; Eiko, inside, turning from one angle to the other and back again as if incapable of decision; the two moving together, side by side, as if in consolation; Eiko crawling out of the interior to touch Koma and stir him back to life. Everything was both organic and unpredictable.

“The Caravan Project” runs through Monday at the Museum of Modern Art; (212) 708-9400, moma.org.

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