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Eiko and Koma’s ‘Fragile’ is emotional dance but difficult to endure

By Pamela Squires,

Anyone who comes away from an encounter with New York state-based movement artists Eiko and Koma does so with a strong visual image burned in the mind. So it is with this duo’s sepulchral, four-hour “Fragile,” a living gallery installation with choreographed soundscape. “Fragile,” which had its world premiere Wednesday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, was emotionally effective if difficult to endure.

The image was of emaciated, corpselike bodies reminiscent of the destruction wrought by the work’s theme, which was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those bodies lay, naked and white with arms askew and limbs at odd angles as if from a violent death, on a mound of burned cloth.

Spectators entered a “black box” space through a darkened corridor. In the darkened room, the lighting continually changed. Spotlights might illuminate the Kronos Quartet’s heads or move over Eiko and Koma’s bodies to highlight the curve of a bony hip or unnaturally bent arm.

It is difficult to judge a performance for its movement if it does not move much. Then again, this one was not intended to. The tableau was a moving painting. You could have been sitting on a bench in the museum and watching the tortured characters in a Hieronymus ­Bosch painting slowly twist. Just as you wouldn’t expect someone to remain in front of one painting at a museum for four hours, spectators here were supposed to come in, stay for a bit, then go. That’s why the movement was so slow. Eiko and Koma wanted the ever-changing spectators to see the same basic work. Still, it would have made a huge difference to have had this “why” explained in the program and greatly aided in getting the head as well as the eye around this strange work.

What did change all the time was the lively soundscape, a string of excerpts from works by the likes of Anton Webern and Philip Glass overlaid with recordings of Japanese students rioting, seagulls and radio programs from 1945 describing in detail the destruction in Hiroshima. A recording of the Peace Bell from Hiroshima Memorial Park was played every 10 minutes throughout the performance.

Once again, Eiko and Koma have run riot with our senses and tested our patience. “Fragile” is interesting to the ear and the visual stays with you for a long time after you leave.

Squires is a freelance writer.

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