American Butoh

by Henry Baumgartner

Maureen Fleming doesn't call her work butoh, though it features the extremism, starkness, intense theatricality, and often shocking beauty we associate with the term, not to mention an intense degree of bodily control. At the same time it evokes Western, even classical, imagery and mythology. Fleming certainly knows her butoh -she has worked with Kazuo Ohno and Min Tanaka, among others -and she can do things with her body that you wouldn't think possible. Most of her work, generally solo, is performed nude, this can seem either erotic or intensely spiritual, usually both at once: a Greek physicist I know once told me that her work reminded him of Byzantine art in its assumption of the physical into the spiritual.

Her new Sphere consists of a number of discrete short pieces, all solo, some new, some old, dramatically lit by Howard Thies and Clifton Taylor. Music by Yukio Tsuji and others is performed by Tsuji and Genji Ito.

Out of darkness we become aware of a shape, pale and indistinct, high in the air. This turns out to be Fleming, nude, leaning forward at what seems to be an impossible angle; the top half of her starts to lean back until her body almost describes a circle. After a film, also in the shape of a circle-Fleming's face beneath a wind-blown veil; as she lifts the veil her features, horribly, start to dissolve-she strolls onstage in a conservative suit and tie, shoes nicely shined. Soon, we see her up in the air, nude again, on a high platform with a long staircase which descends like the skeleton of a Mayan temple. She picks up a piece of diaphanous material and falls down the stairs headfirst.

This is no out-of-control tumble, mind you: to Faure's Requiem, she moves with exquisite slowness, cantilevering her body, out into space as she moves down each step or two. It's a dance of falling down stairs. The scene develops the agonized, tense eroticism of a Baroque angel descending headfirst from heaven - perhaps one by Caravaggio, if Caravaggio had liked girls.

After another circular film (an upside-down city scene) Fleming reappears in coat and tie, standing perfectly still, on her head. She strides purposefully forward, looking a bit demented, picks up a metal rod and spins it to form an apparent sphere. Later we see her as a vague white shape beside a crescent-shaped pool. She stretches out to become a nymph, perhaps this time an Ingres. She stands up, a bare twig in each hand, her mouth in an angonized 0 - surely this is Daphne, turning into a tree to escape the attentions of Apollo. Then, laying aside the sticks, she plays in the water luxuriantly, looking at her reflection-a female Narcissus?

Near the end, Fleming is attached to a huge cloth wing that she waves about in flamboyant patterns, swirling like Loie Fuller in blue light. The last section is more puzzling; she is curled up on a platform above the pool, engaged in complex writhings, apparently both mother and child in one. The cycle is complete.