This journey is personal for Koma, who was born in Japan in 1948. “The Ghost Festival” pays homage to his teachers and to dancers important to him, including Kazuo Ohno, a founder of Butoh, a dance form that emerged after World War II. The show also takes inspiration from a dance festival that honors ancestral spirits, Owara Kaze no Bon, in the Toyama Prefecture in northwestern Japan, near Koma’s birthplace, Niigata.
The festival has been happening “every summer for the last 600 years,” Koma said. “Bon is a Buddhist holiday. Every year, people invite the spirit of deceased family members into their homes and for several days they spend time at home with their spirits.”
There is dancing over three nights that lasts until dawn. The movement — simple and repetitive — is performed in a counterclockwise motion around a fire and is passed down from one generation to the next.
“This is an interesting part that I love,” Koma said. “The dancers imagine their right outer side as the world of the living. The center” — or the left side of the body if moving counterclockwise — “is for the lost spirits. So all dancers are a go-between between a mediator of this world and another world to come.”
In “The Ghost Festival,” Koma sees himself as the mediator: He embeds the work with veiled references to his own dance ancestors, letting his movement continually changes texture, from delicate and brash to dreamy.
“Ghost, for me, means a lost spirit,” he said. “So it refers to many artists — the spirits of my seniors. ‘The Ghost Festival’ is me dancing with them in the space, or their spirits dancing in the space.”
The set features two chairs connected by long bars that frame two sides of the stage. They also serve as ballet barres, which Koma uses for support when he needs it for, say, a plié. Lately, what he thought was his healthy ankle has been acting up. “I feel constant pain,” he said. “I don’t know how long I can last. That’s why I need the barre. I can cheat!”
Known for duets that placed their slowly moving, incandescent bodies on stages, in museums and in nature, Eiko and Koma were a spellbinding pair. But in their solo performances, a new Koma and a new Eiko have emerged: They are even more potent, more raw, more electric.
Will he and Eiko dance together again? “Who knows?” Koma said. “It might happen. But now, both of us are enjoying this moment.”