- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Eiko and Koma have always danced to a different drummer. The husband-and-wife dancer-choreographers, who were born and raised in Japan, create a special world onstage that reflects their deep and sensitive reaction to nature and this ancient planet we inhabit. “Land,” “River” and “Snow” are the titles of some of their works.

To some, their universe is hermetic; to others, their world invites us into the kind of deep contemplation that poetry offers.

Next week, Eiko and Koma will present the world premiere of “Cambodian Stories” a work at once resonant with their delicate, organic way of moving and in other respects a radical departure from their usual performances.

In the past, the two danced alone (when their two sons were young, the boys occasionally joined the parents briefly onstage) but in “Cambodian Stories,” the focus is on 10 young artists in their teens to early 20s — painters, not dancers, from the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The project began when the institute’s founder saw Eiko and Koma perform in New York, their home base. A cultural exchange was arranged, and the two dancers traveled to Phnom Penh, where they taught and performed.

The visit did just what cultural exchanges are supposed to do — bring people together. On the homeward-bound plane, Koma said to his wife, “I miss them already. Maybe we can make a performance piece together.”

Eiko agreed instantly, and the two began trips to Cambodia, feeling their way intuitively with the art students, most of whom were in their mid-to late teens. She says the collaboration was a success from the beginning.

“Two things were important. First, they’re trained as painters so when we talk about the shape of the body — unlike some teenagers who might be giggling or embarrassed — they’re used to working with the bodies and how they move in space. Number two,” she says, “they’re used to working collectively; they’re very good friends. It makes for a special atmosphere.”

Another important factor in the good will of the operation is that Eiko and Koma did not choose the students; the students chose them. “We asked who wanted to work with us, so they were volunteers and already quite receptive.” says Eiko.

“That was long before we had any thought of bringing them to America, so it was not because they wanted to come to the States.”

Working with this young group has been a new experience for both sides. The directors use the students’ paintings as a set, and the painted bodies on the canvas as a frame of reference. The students also will be painting large canvases during the performance, which they will hang from wooden rafters while still wet.

Eiko says that to get them started, “We asked them to come out of their paintings and begin to move. When we wanted them to be motionless, instead of saying, ‘Be still,’ we’d say, ‘Become a picture.’”

Another departure in “Cambodian Stories” is the choice of music. “We’re using very different music than usual,” Eiko acknowledges. “We chose the music because of them — most of it is very contemporary Cambodian pop music. Since we’re choreographing with their bodies and their bodies are used to those sounds, we’re making that choice.”

Eiko could not go on every trip to Cambodia; Koma worked with the young artists more. He also took them for the first visit to their important cultural heritage, the storied ruins of Angkor Wat — an eight-hour drive from Phnom Penh.

This whole experience obviously has touched chords in Eiko’s and Koma’s lives.

“We were both born in post-World War II Japan,” Eiko says. “These kids were born in the post-Pol Pot world of Cambodia. So, we both heard about these times from our parents but we didn’t experience them ourselves.”

For the past two weeks, the whole cast has been working together in this country, putting all the pieces together. “It’s still a work in progress,” Eiko says with a laugh.

The group arrives in town Monday, ready to do lighting and technical rehearsals before the world premiere Thursday. So far, the whirlwind pace hasn’t afforded the young Cambodian artists much chance to observe American culture up-close. They have been to one basketball game, and Eiko plans to take them to Smithsonian museums while they’re here. Then it’s on to a whirlwind tour of performances, crisscrossing the country from Los Angeles to New Mexico to Chicago to New York for two months.

By then, the neophyte young travelers probably will have seen more of this country than most Americans and become seasoned performers as well.

WHAT: Eiko and Koma in a world premiere, “Cambodian Stories: An Offering of Painting and Dance”

WHEN: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Kogod Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland

TICKETS: $30 ($7 for full-time students)

PHONE: 301/405-2787

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