How to describe an Eiko and Koma performance?

It’s tricky. The Japanese-born duo, who are performing at the Clarice Smith Center tonight and tomorrow night, are described as modern dance performers, but it’s not the kind of dance most audience members are familiar with. There’s music, yes, but no obviously choreographed movements, no neo-ballet vocabulary—in fact, no discernable vocabulary at all.

But whether you label it modern dance, avant-garde performance, or movement theater, an Eiko and Koma show ultimately gets to the essence of dance in a way that few performances do. Often moving as slowly as watchful animals, the two are utterly present and embodied, whether they’re on a traditional stage or performing in one of the natural settings they’re fond of, and that sense of attention draws the audience into their nonverbal world and the moment. And at its heart, those elements—wordless motion that transcends space and time—are what dance is ultimately about.

Eiko and Koma—who are married in real life—trained under venerable Butoh masters during their youth in Japan, but their trippy style is wholly original. Luckily, the powers that be in the dance world have embraced them, and the two have worked steadily for almost four decades.

Now they’re engaged in a three-year retrospective of their work, and the shows at Clarice Smith are part of that. The performances tonight and tomorrow feature three pieces created over the course of their careers: Raven, which was made last year; Night Tide, from 1984; and White Dance, first created in 1976 and performed naked, both then and now.

But don’t expect to see the pieces just as they were 27 or 35 years ago. “There are visible changes, because we don’t look anything close to what we used to,” laughed Eiko, who was 23 when she first performed White Dance and is 59 now. But that’s what this show is about, in part: looking at how the choreography changes through their bodies.

The two will be holding a residency at UMD, which means they’ll be teaching classes during the winter, and then they’ll perform twice more in the spring season. In February, they’ll be performing with Kronos Quartet—a collaboration spurred by Clarice Smith’s artistic staff—in a free four-hour installation titled Fragile. And then in May, they’ll show the Caravan Project, another unorthodox—and free—show that takes place in a trailer parked on the street.

The retrospective includes lots more, like shows all over the country and exhibits of their work in Chicago and New York, as well as a book about them that’s been published by the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis and includes an overview by Washington’s Suzanne Carbonneau.

Fittingly, the book is titled Time is Not Even, Space is Not Empty. In a nutshell, that summarizes Eiko and Koma’s work, which distorts the viewer’s sense of time and space and gives a quick glimpse into another version of reality. And that’s the artists’ objective, said Eiko. “We don’t seek to give understanding, so much as a sense of a different world governed by a new set of rules.”

Tonight and tomorrow night at 8 p.m. at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. Sold out.

Photo by Phillip Trager