In search of a fig leaf

"Milk Traces' by Shinichi Iova-Koga

4 minute read
Iova-Koga: Once thrown from that chair, how will he live?
Iova-Koga: Once thrown from that chair, how will he live?
Shinichi Iova-Koga "begins" his solo dance piece, Milk Traces, 35 minutes before the piece starts, sitting still and erect in a straight-backed chair in what at first seems meditation. On the contrary, it's a state of pre-life. In contrast to the audience chitchat, Iova-Koga exudes dignity. But the instant he "awakens" to human awareness with the official start of the performance, human dignity deteriorates. Can it be regained? The answer is left ambiguous.

The atmosphere of Milk Traces is that of the East. Yet the piece also seems a kind of post-Butoh retelling of the Genesis story in a Bible that exists only on some other planet, and where the only line bequeathed from Earth is the sentence from Hegel's Logic: "The rise of man is the fall of man." As he awakens, Iova-Koga takes in the world around him with expressions of bewilderment and distaste. His perceptions knock him from his chair. Only then is it evident that the thick reddish tether suspended from beyond the ceiling "“"“ by some controlling power? "“"“ is joined to his waist at his back, like a kind of umbilical cord.

Thrown from his chair, he must begin to find a way to live. He tries to stand and cannot, succeeding only after great difficulty. Insofar as the tether enables him to move, he moves as a puppet in the Japanese Bunraku theater. (No doubt it has taken Iova-Koga years of labor to achieve a body without bones.) But neither human perception nor movement brings him much. Soon he wants out of this world and attempts to leave the stage. Each time, the red cord yanks him backward.

Kafka's collar of Earth vs. the collar of heaven

Kafka, in his own interpretation of the Fall, wrote of humanity fettered by two chains: the collar of earth and the collar of heaven. The first makes transcendence of the world impossible. The second makes erasing the yearning to transcend the world impossible: "If he wants to get down to earth, he is choked by the collar of heaven; if he wants to get up to heaven, by the collar of earth." Caught in that contradiction, the dancer— whose tether prevents any attempt to move beyond the world— now notices some Japanese clothes, draped around an invisible hanger. Here begins, for me, the most impressive part of this piece.

An Eastern eye might see the clothes symbolizing a body for the soul to incarnate. But clothes also represent the onset of the creative impulse in the Genesis tale.

The first thing Adam and Eve notice after they become self-aware through the Tree of Knowledge is that they are naked "“"“ that is, in becoming a self, each simultaneously becomes aware that being a self involves an intrinsic lack. Negatively (guiltily), they create garments to conceal this lack. Positively, these garments constitute the first in the endless string of human attempts to create something that will negate this lack definitively.

The relentless quest for clothing

Human culture, East and West, is torn by the tension between the ceaseless endeavors to clothe our nakedness. The whole point of The Emperor's New Clothes, for example, lies in the discovery that the nakedness (the lack) is still there. In Martin Buber's phrase: Man "will ever anew find himself naked and look around for fig leaves with which to plait himself a girdle."

So Mr. Iova-Koga inhabits these clothes, head hidden, hands protruding through the sleeves, as if bringing a headless mannequin, or a headless ghost, to life. The mannequin-ghost "“"“ anonymous, no one "“"“ moves magically, regally. But as soon as the dancer pulls away clad in one of the garments (the ragged robes of a Buddhist monk?) and establishes a specific identity, it's the identity of a dancing idiot.

The intelligent idiot

There follows a buffoon's jig to traditional Japanese shamisen music. The dancer's effort to establish himself reveals itself as a decline. The idiot-monk ascends back onto his straight-backed chair. He utters his only words of the piece: "Atama ga warui," Japanese for "I'm none too bright."

But there's a disturbing intelligence to this idiot. Another garment he has yet to wear still remains draped on its wire. Why doesn't he try it on? Does the problem with one identity pervade the attempt to establish every other?

He jumps from the chair. The piece ends with Iova-Koga tangled in the cord. A courageous leap, subverted? A suicide?

To read another review by Jonathan Stein, click here.

What, When, Where

Milk Traces. Performed by Ink Boat; choreography by Shinichi Momo Iova-Koga. Performed February 27-28, 2009 at Conwell Theater, Temple University.

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