Maureen Fleming and Loretta Livingston
at the Dance Center of Columbia College, April 22-24
By Terry Brennan
Art exists in a cultural context. If you change the context, often the art changes radically. If an artist in one country re-creates a form from another, the transplanted art will usually communicate ideas and feelings reflecting the new context. Maureen Fleming’s butoh-influenced After Eros clearly reveals this process.
Butoh, a Japanese dance form, was first shown in America about 20 years ago. Created in the late 50s, this bleak, nihilistic genre is often considered to reflect the atmosphere of bitterness and exhaustion that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. One of the first troupes to visit America, Sankai Juko, often created “installations” focused on extreme physical endurance: the performers might be hung upside down for hours several stories aboveground. The troupe stopped performing these pieces when one performer fell to his death. Only a radically bleak art form would ask artists to risk their lives.
Fleming follows butoh conventions but is concerned with eros, alchemy, and spirituality rather than social dissolution; her dance has a classical structure of tension and release. Butoh conventions include superslow movement, nudity except for a thong to cover the genitals, and white body makeup. But in an American context, the meaning of these conventions is different. Japanese butoh dancers’ nudity is an expression of vulnerability rather than eros. Butoh dancers’ bodies are the gods’ dice; they remind me of the piles of naked bodies outside Nazi crematoria. But in America nudity is usually erotic. Wisely, Fleming understands this and makes eros the subject of her dance.
After Eros begins stunningly: a woman’s nude figure in profile emerges from the darkness and hovers several feet above a pool of water. At first her body seems only an abstract arc, like a faintly glowing crescent moon. The figure arches back at a glacial speed until the arc turns into a back bend as she grasps her ankles. Just as slowly her back bend melts. From a crouch she slowly extends one leg, then lets it fall. The darkness rises and she disappears.
Fleming doesn’t evade the erotic side of her deep back bend in this first section, “The Sphere.” At the same time, the slowness of her movement switches the focus from the viewer’s desire to the viewer’s sympathetic pain, from “I want” to “How can she do that? It must hurt.” In either case the feelings the dance evokes are visceral. And as Fleming continues, we begin to understand that for her the movement is not painful but fulfilling. She takes us beyond eros and beyond pain into a realm of pure physicality–into an empathetic experience of her bodily sensations.
This analysis assumes a heterosexual male viewer; a woman or homosexual man might not feel desire. But a woman friend told me that she saw Fleming as an almost superhuman erotic presence. After Eros may provoke a variety of responses, but the common elements are a sense of Fleming’s otherness and a sense that she personifies eros. Fleming holds us in that place for some time, ironically by leading us in two different directions. We feel an increasing tension–distress at being in such a strange place–that begs for release. We also feel a deepening awareness of transformation, an alchemical reaction as we realize that the right catalyst can transform leaden thoughts and feelings into gold.
The games that Fleming plays are subtle, and her methods are appropriately simple–she keeps us caught inside her body and maintains a sense of mystery. The next section in After Eros is a film projected on an upstage scrim. First we see what is apparently an abstract, symmetrical flower that evolves into more complex patterns, as if growing in time-lapse photography. Then we realize that the “flower” is a kaleidoscopic amalgam of parts of Fleming’s body, formed into a mandala. The image remains erotic but somehow undermines our ability to make bodies into erotic fetishes.
The mandala is cut off when Fleming wheels a steep set of stairs onstage. Starting near the top, she moves halfway down through slow contortions. Individual moments here are quite beautiful. She ends upside down, hanging by a foot. In a neat merging of cultures, this image suggests both a crucifixion and Sankai Juko’s hanging bodies. A short section follows in which a man (Chris Odo) twirls a shiny metal pole the way a martial artist might. The pole becomes a propeller blade and finally an arc of light flashing around him. This section helps maintain the sense of mystery.
The climactic section, “Axis Mundi (Tree of Life),” speculates on the alchemical and cabalistic nature of spiritual transformation. Fleming is seated with her back to us in a shallow pool with branches in it. We see her body in profile in the water’s reflections on the scrim. (A Sankai Juko performance I saw in Bloomington, Indiana, also used a pool of water and its reflections.) Part of the sense of climax in this section comes from the music, composed by Philip Glass and Somei Satoh and performed live by pianist Peter Phillips. An equal part comes from Fleming’s next move in the game: she begins to mimic the contortions of the branches beside her. Moving one more step away from us and into the natural world, she challenges us to follow her into another transformation. In ways that I still can’t explain, I was gripped by a powerful tension.
When this section ended I wondered whether the dance was over but felt that Fleming couldn’t leave us in such a strange place: she had to bring us back to the everyday world. The last section, “Flower,” does that by several means. In this proverbial happy ending, Fleming abandons superslow movement in favor of rhapsodic spinning, coming closer to a Western sense of time and a Western movement vocabulary. Holding a length of white gauze, she throws it over her head as she spins. The gauze is a dance cliche dating back to the early 20th century–but in this context it’s reassuring rather than trite. As Fleming spins, a slow-motion film of her dancing appears on the scrim. Here she seems more a romantic image of beauty, transformed through art, than a challenging erotic figure; again, the effect is to take us back from the edge. During the dance’s final moments, dominated by the film, Fleming repeats her slow movement, which is now comforting; tension has been fully released.
Fleming’s subjects are squarely within the Western artistic and spiritual traditions. But only foreign conventions can derange the senses sufficiently to allow transformation. And although eroticism is a thoroughly modern subject, it’s also an area of rapid change in our culture and so makes us vulnerable. It’s a chink in our armor, an avenue of change. Fleming’s dance is an astonishing creation, as carefully crafted as a magic spell.
There’s also a fascinating personal dimension to After Eros. As a two-year-old living in Japan, Fleming was thrown through the windshield in a traffic accident. Recently an X ray showed that a bone spur had replaced a vertebral disc, a condition the doctor said would have put a “normal” person in a wheelchair. Fleming is convinced that her slow, twisting motions bring more blood to the injured area, helping it heal. This is a nonmetaphorical story of transformation, of how a crippling injury can be turned into health. Fleming’s tale attracted the attention of composer Glass, who was inspired to write the score, and of David Henry Hwang, author of M. Butterfly and F.O.B., who provided the scenario.
The second half of the program–which opened the Dance Center’s “Changing Channels Festival”–was Loretta Livingston’s sketch Solo Traveler (“Viajera Sola”), short dances set to ten Mexican troubadour songs and a video of Livingston biking through Los Angeles in a pink dress. Intended to be comic, the dances are too sketchy to have much effect. Livingston wears a big straw hat or carries a bunch of bright flowers to suggest a Mexican scene, tossing in a few salsa moves, but mainly she simply moves around the floor. Though she’s won many awards in her native LA, she doesn’t draw us into the experience of her body, instead trying to get by on charm. She fails to communicate kinesthetically–and nothing else she does really matters.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.