Fleming's metamorphosis both magical and elegant
Solo performance artist Maureen Fleming takes butoh's "dance of the dark soul" and - at her best - fills it with nurturance, evolutionary fervor, and light. The images she posits onstage don't so much form in your mind's eye as filter into consciousness, at times playing tricks on you: Blink, and the grasping mouth of a bird reveals itself as Fleming's angled hand slowly clamping down on her pointed foot; a soft hillock rising out of a pool of water comes into focus as her cleft buttocks.
But in last night's program of six works inspired by the writings of W. B. Yeats, there was, in addition to the magical shape-shifting, the whiff of a troubling turn: Two of the pieces, "Dialogue of Self and Soul" (2007) and "The Immortal Rose" (2004, recast in 2007) slipped into a kind of gimmickry, relying on props (stretchy white fabric and diaphanous, billowy material respectively) more than Fleming's marvelously incremental carvings of flesh and bone.
Japanese butoh was born of a repudiation, on the part of originators Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, of both Western modern dance and Japanese classical forms such as noh and kabuki, which they perceived as watered down after World War II. (Fleming, an American born in Japan, studied with Ohno.) It was also influenced by the German Expressionism of Mary Wigman and Harald Kreutzberg. Majestic and originally even lurid, it traditionally traces the cyclical themes of annihilation and rebirth - not surprising for an artform that rose from the ashes of postwar Hiroshima.
Fleming, who also studied ballet with Cecchetti master Margaret Craske (hence her oft-pointed toes), has developed her own elegant brand of the form. It was beautifully portrayed in the Boston premiere of "Waters of Immortality" (2007), a work merging videography by Christopher Odo, Philip Glass's "Piano Etude 5," and Fleming's etched naked figure - a miniature replica of two blown-up versions of her projected self piled partly atop one another, her body transformed into a giant "O" as one leg lifted to the heavens and an arm that stretched for miles grabbed at her toes. There she sat, in a third dimension, inside one of her images like a cochlea in the hollow of an ear.
The video "Mother and Child" (1995), too, made by Jeff Bush and set to Henrik Gorecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," stunned with its ever-circling limbs - Fleming's arms cradled her legs which in turn cradled her torso. She was of a piece, a softly swirling gyre: endings begat beginnings in a continuous flow. Even her mouth was a circle: open wide not so much in a howl, as is the case in traditional butoh, but in a cry or perhaps an embrace of the air, as her belly rose and fell with her breath. The work sent you tunneling back to your own primordial as well as recent past.
In "The Stairs" (1997), set to Glass's "Metamorphosis II," Fleming hung, as if suspended, atop a steep black staircase. She didn't so much slide down the stairs as melt. Her legs splayed, she was sharp as a bone. Her head rested in the crook of an elbow before she curled into herself, her knees tucked near her head. The piece recalled the drama of birth, a slow entering into consciousness.
Set to Somei Satoh's "Sun," "The Driftwood" (2004, 2007), summed up a central notion of the evening: As Fleming lay on her back, her knees bent, in a pool of water, her reflection, smack against her, recalled a Rorschach inkblot test: Meaning comes from within, we define our own vision of the world.