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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, March 11, 2001)

WHEN NIGHTS WERE DARK

REVIEW BY LUCIA MAURO

With only a faint orange glow illuminating a revolving stalactite-laced cavern on stage, audiences can get gently massaged into a meditative state - pondering such weighty questions as the meaning of existence and the origins of human life. But the painstakingly deliberate movements of Japan-born performance artists Eiko and Koma in their latest theatricalized art installation, "When Nights Were Dark," also totter dangerously close to 75 minutes of sleep-inducing monotony.

The husband-and-wife artists, now based in New York, have worked together since 1971 on developing a profoundly introspective movement aesthetic that conjoins sculptural elements with an organic visual language rooted in emotionally fertile gestures. "When Nights Were Dark," presented over the weekend by Performing Arts Chicago in collaboration with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at the Athenaeum Theatre, mused on the life cycle and the earliest quivering of human communication.

But the patience and concentration required to become one with Eiko and Koma, as they contort their upper bodies in antediluvian forms atop a cave-like apparatus, can be daunting. At once sublime and tedious, the performance has the power to hypnotize through the sheer primal beauty of its otherworldly stage portraits while crying out for a more compelling context through which viewers can enter. The work's ethereal elements are enhanced by composer Joseph Jennings and the Praise Choir Singers, whose suspended a cappella timbres seem to awaken the mysterious sounds of nature before time began.

The journey opens with the white-robed Eiko, her long black hair wrapped around her chalk-tinged face like a shroud, reaching out into the dark silence as an orange-draped Koma, also of a porcelain pallor, appears to be rising from the earth.

For the rest of the work, they interact with an enigmatic rock formation. As this leaf-and-twig-encrusted heap turns, the artists seem to get absorbed into its confining clutches - framed by overhanging shards that tremble at the slightest touch and a flickering reddish grotto that could be the chambers of the human heart. Their robes unobtrusively disappear as they writhe, contemplate, grieve and embrace naked on this earthy mound somewhere between primordial muck and immortality.

These ideas, however, exist in the mind's eye of the viewer. Depending on one's vantage point, vastly disparate images might emerge - which makes this work so kinetic and befuddling. "When Nights are Dark" is more of an ongoing experience than an easily definable piece of dance-theater. Like its cyclical theme, the feelings it draws out can undergo several metamorphoses over time.

Yet while Eiko and Koma may plunge viewers into a black void of indescribable loss and mystery searching for the answers to impossibly esoteric conundrums, the artists manage to transform 75 minutes into an eternity that's simultaneously maddening and tranquil. •
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