By FRANK GREEN
One day a few years ago Maureen Fleming was balancing on her head without using her hands, typical of the unusual positions this incredibly supple and controlled dancer/choreographer incorporates into performances. On this occasion, the lights were late coming up and, unaccustomed to holding the position so long, something snapped in her neck. Her doctor told her that the reason she was in so much pain was that her injury was related to a bone spur in her spine that could only have grown over the course of a lifetime.
"He said something really violent must have happened in my childhood," Fleming recalls. "I asked my mother about it and she told me that I was in a car accident when I was two years old. We were living in Japan and this man on a bicycle stopped very quickly in front of us, and I went through the windshield. I lost a disk at that point. The man laughed, which must have horrified my mother, but he was actually giving me a great gift. Since then, I've lived with low grade pain, and so from childhood I never stopped moving, I've always had an internal need to move the way I do. The kind of flexibility I have is the flexibility of a two-year-old."
Her flexibility and bodily control, together with years of training in both western and Japanese butoh techniques, and an intuitive sculptural sense of the qualities of various shapes, makes Fleming one of the most interesting dancers to emerge from New York in recent years. Cleveland audiences will remember her outstanding performance in a pool of reflective water in the Performance Art Festival in 1992. Since then, she's gone on to perform to great acclaim around the world, and returns to Cleveland for a performance at the art museum, presented in connection with its current exhibition of Japanese Buddhist art.
Butoh is a dance form created in post-Hiroshima Japan as a rejection of both the assimilation of western ballet technique and the rigidity of classical Japanese Noh and Kabuki styles. As described in a recent issue of Dance Views, "the tortuous, incredibly controlled micro-movement of the butoh dancer is a sharp turn from the bravura technique of western dance. In watching, the audience becomes caught up in a still, dark place between action and reaction. The sense of passing time is lost, and each breathlessly unfolding moment becomes magnified through its incremental changes.'
Though she studied with butoh founder Kazuo Ohno, and was influenced by her experiences touring with Min Tanaka, Fleming doesn't see herself as a butoh dancer. 'For the masters with whom I studied, the emphasis is on everyday movement. Butoh was a revolution against technique. But I was trained classically before I started working with butoh. I think that as I have gone farther in my own direction I've become more interested in incorporating the range of movement inherent in my classical training. My work is also different in that most butoh isn't meant to be repeatable. It's improvised, based on certain images." Though her slow, incremental movement style is highly influenced by butoh, Fleming is more concerned with choreography in the traditional sense.
Imagine a Brancusi sculpture melting slowly before your eyes under intense heat, and you'll have some idea of the tormented beauty of her choreography. 'What I do, ' she explains, "is create an image, such as a circle, which reduces my own life experience to an archetype or pattern. I try to reduce everything to a particular shape. Then I put the shapes together, and that's the choreography.' Performed in the nude, her work makes a strong case for the beauty and expressiveness of the human body. The Cleveland Museum of Art, in inviting her to perform, should be congratulated for refusing to bow to puritanical backlash sweeping the country in the wake of federal funding debates.
For her museum performance, entitled Tara in honor of the great female deity, Fleming has been studying Buddhist philosophy, and will take segments from her existing works and weave them in such a way that the underlying concepts relate to Buddhism come to the fore. "As I began to study for this piece, I realized for the first time how much the precepts of butoh and Buddhism are related. The concept of non-duality, for example, exploring the energy or chi of both birth and death, is the motivating initiation of movement in butoh." The fact that concepts are expressed through articulation of images is also very Buddhist.
"If people watch my work as they watch their dreams,' Fleming suggests, "rather to than trying to think about what things mean too much, the power of what I'm trying to communicate will come through."