Longtime fans of Maureen Fleming's butoh-influenced but thoroughly individual dance works are aware that each new performance she presents is in fact another version of the same piece, progressively refined from year to year. But that piece is full of wonderful things, and watching it evolve over the years has been a delightful and instructive exercise. After Eros, the latest reincarnation of this dance, recently presented by The Kitchen, does break some new ground and adds some lovely new material. While in the past Fleming's presentations have seemed to be collections of discrete though delightful numbers (as is the case with much butoh and similar work), this work feels like a unified piece. Much of the connectedness derives from Fleming's increasing willingness to excavate her own psychic depths, especially memories of an incident in her childhood in Japan, when she was thrown through the window of a car--an accident that, we are told, would normally have condemned her to life in a wheelchair. The story is told in bits and pieces through a text by the celebrated playwright David Henry Hwang. The sheer visual impact of her performance is as breathtaking as ever, yet now somehow more affecting. Chris Odo's mysterious and dramatic lighting helps, too.
Fleming's shows have generally been a series of solos, with occasional duets, but in her last New York season, there was a brief appearance at the beginning of the show by a large group of performers enacting a sort of ritual. This mass cameo has been expanded somewhat. As we come in we see fifteen women, almost nude, arranged in four rays facing the center. They are squatting on the floor in silence, bent over forward. The effect is beautiful but eerie--a quality characteristic of Fleming's work. After a blackout, a high platform appears in the center of the pattern, on it stands Fleming, nude, half-seen in the obscure light. Slowly she bends farther and farther back until her hands are behind her feet, and her body describes a circle. This is "The Sphere," a number that never fails to take the spectators' breath away. A Greek friend once compared its abstract yet very human beauty to that of a Byzantine icon. The chorus on the floor is still with us, and they too bend back, legs opening, almost as if engaged in a sexual act.
After this, the chorus gone, we begin to hear the text, accompanied by a projected mandala of multiple Flemings; we also see some of the text on red LED devices. Fleming reappears in a red robe with voluminous sleeves and a very long train. A picture of a bicycle wheel is projected on a metal baton as it is twirled--it was a man on a bicycle who caused the accident in which Fleming was hurt. We realize we are hearing a piano: Philip Glass's music, played by Peter Phillips. Now comes another Fleming specialty, "The Stairs." Fleming, stark naked, slides slowly down a long staircase, for the most part head first. It is a mesmerizing display.
During intermission a shallow pool is filled onstage in which Fleming eventually reclines, her back to us, so as to generate intriguing symmetrical shapes from the combination of her body and its reflection in the water. The images are a little like those on a Rorschach test, only these are no inkblots. She reaches out; dead branches in each hand, looking uncannily like the Greek nymph Daphne turning into a tree. We hear more about the car accident and its effects and see more almost inhuman shapes from Fleming, as well as a lovely dance with a veil. An epilogue takes the form of a tribute to the great butoh master Kazuo Ohno; here an attempt at a fierce Japanese-style bug-eyed grimace doesn't quite come off. At the end, the chorus reappears and approaches slowly, standing in rows, again with an eerie yet erotic effect.
Fleming's willingness to embrace the erotic element in her dancing is one of her art's most striking characteristics. Many dancers who perform in the nude seem to have the notion that they are neutralizing their eroticism, or at least that they ought to. But the medium of dance is, after all, the moving, living body, and at some level this is inherently erotic--indeed, the body in motion is as it were, the very ground of Eros. To hide from this, to deny this basic aspect of the very act you are performing, can seem paradoxical. But it takes great courage to openly assert this aspect of being human; it is so easy to be misunderstood, and not everyone, even in New York, wants to be thought of as a pervert. And yet, to deal openly with this most vital of subjects can unleash the most profound power, beauty, and even terror, and move us to our depths.