"When we perform, we like to imagine that each of us is a fresh fish which was just caught and is on the cutting board. The fish intuits that somebody will eat it. No room to be coquettish. The fish's body is tight, shining blue, eyes wide open. No way to escape."

This is a quote, about their choreographic work, from Eiko and Koma, a Japanese-born couple now resident in New York who have risen to prominence in contemporary dance circles since their arrival in this country nine years ago. They made their Washington debut this past weekend at the Dance Place.

The quote reflects many qualities of their work -- its strangeness, originality and implicit violence; its sense of primitivism and nature's cruelties; its bare, simple concision; its concern with ultimate values.

Eiko and Koma, in their mid-thirties (Eiko is the woman, Koma the man), were early disciples of the postwar dance movement in Japan known as Butoh, emphasizing primeval impulses, physical extremes and slow-moving imagery, often sensual, brutal or grotesque in content. The couple also studied Neo-Expressionist dance in Germany before their arrival here. In a way, their work, a highly personal distillation of these influences, might be thought of as an East-West midpoint between Pina Bausch and the Butoh school.

Eiko and Koma are enormously powerful performers. Their fierce, unbroken concentration, the almost eerie control they exert over their bodies, and the spare intensity of the images they create transfix the eye and provoke the mind. Nevertheless, in this, my third encounter with their work, I found myself leaving with the same ambivalent reaction I had four years earlier. Theirs is an art that deals with the large universals of life -- lust, struggle and death -- and it seems complete, consistent and perfectly formed within its deliberately constricted framework. Yet it also appears emotionally remote.

The Dance Place program consisted of "Grain," one of a series of evening-length pieces the two have evolved, this one finished in 1983. It begins with Eiko's naked body sprawled on a long white mat beside a mound of rice, and it proceeds through a series of extremely slow interludes separated by blackouts.

Asian folk music makes a keening, droning sonic backdrop. Eventually there is a seduction scene -- Eiko as an archetypal temptress and prey, Koma as the predator, the two locked in an agony of erotic seizure. Later, Eiko crawls toward a mattress, upon which she reclines and appears to give birth.

Koma, in the next scene, becomes first her suckling infant, and then, simultaneously, her lover -- a lover who seizes her by the throat and chokes her. There follows a dirge-like scene in which Koma carries lit candles and gobs of rice to her inert form, which now stirs to life. After Koma ravages her sexually once more, while she stuffs fistfuls of rice into her mouth, he suddenly stamps out the candles and all is darkness. Grain, in the sense of seed, which both sustains and renews life, is a pervasive metaphor.

It's at once bleak, primal and awesome. Still, though the craft and intelligence of their work commands utmost admiration, for all its gut impact Eiko and Koma might as well be fish on a cutting board. One can read their detached perspective as symptomatic of an understandable post-Hiroshima angst, and still feel the work to be dismayingly coldblooded.