The Rehearsal is a Doing: Reflections on Process

Elise Otake at the Henry Moore Nuclear Energy Sculpture Plaza
Eiko Otake at the Henry Moore Nuclear Energy Sculpture Plaza

Elise Butterfield, October 2021

We had plans. We had some props. We’d talked things through technically. But we really didn’t know how They did not hesitate would exactly come together until Eiko arrived and we were in the space.

I pulled up to the Henry Moore sculpture on the University of Chicago campus at just the same moment that Eiko Otake was getting out of her taxi from the airport. We introduced ourselves in person for the first time and then she quickly began to survey the site. She walked around so she could see things from all angles – getting down on the ground, climbing into the sculpture, lying on the plaque, exploring the surrounding grass. I remember her saying little things, like “wow” and “okay” and looking at the sculpture laughing and saying something like “men, huh?” as we began to get to know this place together.

Monday when I arrived, she was already there with Hugo, spreading out her books, wearing a broad sun hat, jeans, and a long sleeve shirt in the heat. She often seemed happy to see me: “Oh Elise, good!” she’d say, launching into the current conundrum that we needed to solve. Usually, it was that the monologue she’d sent me to print out the night before was already outdated, as she’d stayed up late into the night revising. Or maybe that she was reconsidering something we’d talked about regarding the props. Or there was an issue with the sidewalk. I shook off any other mental or emotional ties, dropped my belongings on the ground, and tuned in. We talked, we played, we resolved, we rethought, we walked, we tried again, we resettled.

Hugo Juarez entered our world, too. From across the square, we could look at each other and know what we each needed to do. Hugo took over the role of explaining why we were doing this strange thing in public space to curious passersby; making friends with strangers is one of his super powers. We would take turns running errands so that one of us was always with Eiko. When Hugo or I arrived back at the site with food, the three of us would sit down on the grass for a meal together – this was the time of day we allowed ourselves to relax and get to know each other outside of the work we were doing. We were solid with the three of us – when one of us wasn’t there, we were stretched too thin.

We ran the piece fully about twice a day, Monday through Friday. If there were guests there, Eiko would talk with them afterwards. Once everyone was gone or otherwise occupied, she and I would huddle together and talk through notes. She wanted to know every concern or happy resolution that I tracked. Often, notes led to working through a particular section. If I needed to tell her something mid-movement, she’d stop and we’d talk, and then she could get right back into it. Or she’d think of something mid-sentence in the monologue and pause, tell me her thoughts or concerns, and then slip back into it when we were done. We could put anything else on hold, turn toward each other fully for as long as we needed (but only as long as we needed), and then pick back up with other work.

Though I didn’t know what the piece would look like when we began, when I first saw Eiko move in the space I thought, oh, okay, this will work. From then on, it became about presence and trust and commitment. We were generous with our time and our attention – to each other and to the work. We persevered through tech, landscaping, weather, and energy challenges. Eiko was not satisfied with making something just okay; or rather, Eiko was not satisfied with being satisfied. She wanted to be sure that no stone was left unturned, no word unconsidered, no branch out of place. Hugo told me a few weeks later that she said to him in the car on the way home one night: “I want to move people.” In this particular work, that phrase became literal with Eiko’s invitation to the audience at the end to join her in lying down, moving slowly on the ground.

That time of intensely creating They did not hesitate feels almost like a dream now. It was a week where I lived and breathed this work, where I heard Eiko’s voice in my head at night as I thought about how I needed to prepare for the following day.  I feel almost in awe still, certainly immensely grateful, for Eiko to have trusted me the way she did. To have such a powerful artist let me into her process, and to have a program that allowed me to spend that focused time with her, was an incredible gift.  

Elise Otake and companions smile and celebrate in the evening