Eiko Otake and Margaret Leng Tan Reflect on Art, Friendship, and Life

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Photo: Courtesy of Kirsten Tan

It is four in the afternoon, and the Japanese dancer-choreographer Eiko Otake, 70, is making coffee for the Singaporean pianist Margaret Leng Tan, 76—her first cup of the day. We are in Otake’s apartment overlooking midtown Manhattan, and the two women, who have been friends for 20 years, are teasing each other about how incorrigibly nocturnal they are.

“I hate matinees,” Tan says breezily, turning to Otake. “I’m pretty sure you do too.” While working out our schedules for this interview, I replied to an email at a little past 3 a.m., and was surprised to see a reply come in from Otake 20 minutes later. Then, a response from Tan at a quarter to four in the morning: “What a coven of vampires we are!”

Otake and Tan are celebrated avant-garde artists from storied lineages. Otake spent time with Manja Chmiel, an exponent of the German modern dance movement Neue Tanz, and the Butoh legend Kazuo Ohno; Tan was the protégée of pioneering conceptual musician John Cage. Both women are self-professed workaholics, and Otake gives a wry smile as she says: “I told Margaret, if we want to see each other, we need to work together.”

They have only one rule when they collaborate. “The right of refusal,” Otake explains. After they first performed together in Mourning, a 2007 Japan Society commission for Ohno’s 101st birthday, Tan came to Otake with other ideas, but at that point, Otake was craving silence in her work. “I understood and respected that,” Tan says. “It’s what you needed, at that time in your evolution.” Otake agrees, and adds that for their most recent collaboration, her invitation to Tan was to join her onstage not as the child prodigy who was the first woman—of any ethnicity—to earn a doctorate at Juilliard, nor as the virtuosic pianist who has been the muse of composers from Cage to George Crumb, but as her friend. “I didn’t want a dancer-and-pianist relationship with you anymore,” Otake says, “just a Margaret-and-Eiko relationship.” Tan readily accepted.

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