“If people watch my work as they watch their dreams, rather than trying to think about what things mean too much, the power of what I'm trying to communicate will come through,” the dancer and choreographer Maureen Fleming told Frank Green for the Cleveland (Ohio) Free Times (September 1998). Fleming has traced her passion for dance to the day when, as a two-year-old, she suffered damage to her spine in a car accident--an event she knew nothing about until well into adulthood. “I think that experience planted a seed in my body,” she told Eri Misaki for the Arts Cure (Spring 2005, on-line). She said to Catherine Foster for the Boston Globe (February 24, 2002) that as a child, “I would twist and move my body in a way that released any kind of pain.” What she has called her “need” for movement, which helps to mute her ever-present, low-level pain, fuels her art, which stems from her rigorous training in classical dance, beginning when she was seven, and her intensive study of butoh, a minimalist style of dance that originated in Japan after World War II. “Watching Maureen Fleming dance is like stepping into a sculptor’s mind and seeing clay curve and transform into unexpected shapes and images,” Shannon Brady Marin wrote for Dance Magazine (November 2007). An on-line blurb announcing an upcoming performance of Fleming's in 2009 at the Cleveland Museum of Art offered a similar analogy: “Fleming invents exquisite movement poetry, sculpting her body into nearly unbelievable, shatteringly beautiful shapes. She pushes the boundaries of the body's expressive potential and challenges the definition of what is physically possible. Part dance, part dream, part sculpture, Fleming explores our never-ending search for what is universal about the journey of the soul.” “Maureen Fleming conveys more meaning in one evening than most choreographers put across in an entire career . . . ,” Theodore Bale wrote for the Boston Herald (November 3, 2007, on-line). “One might think that dances on grand themes such as birth, death, and resurrection would resort to symbol, metaphor, and archetype. Fleming’s idiosyncratic style, however, is completely direct. She doesn’t dance about water. Rather, she becomes water. . . . There is nobody else like her.” In many of her dances, some of which are of evening length, Fleming performs in the nude. “The female body has been a potent image throughout the history of art,” she told Catherine Foster. “One of the reasons it’s a strong and expressive image is that it's universal. As soon as clothes are put on, there’s a time and place. . . . I’ve always looked for those elements in dance that point toward what is universal about the journey of the soul. I do this in the hope that at some point in our evolution we can understand that we as humans share more than we are different.” Adding to the powerful effects of her movements in some works, yards of diaphanous fabric blown by a wind machine billow and swirl around and above her body as she dances. Her ultimate goal, as posted on her Web site, is “to reveal the transcendent through images which focus on the human body as a vehicle of transformation. I am specifically interested in finding a universal art which touches the evolutionary traces imbedded in human experience and transcends the limits of nationality and gender . . . [with the] aim of discovering what is truly universal about being human.”
Fleming has performed at dozens of festivals and in stand-alone concerts in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. She has served as dancer-in-residence at Ellen Stewart's LaMaMa Experimental Theatre Club (LaMaMa E.T.C.), Off-Off-Broadway, in New York City, since 1984. In the mid-1990s she founded her own troupe, the Maureen Fleming Company. As a choreographer she has collaborated with the composers Philip Glass, Teiji Ito, and Genji Ito, the playwright David Henry Hwang, the photographers Tadayuki Naitoh, Lois Greenfield, and Spencer Tunic, the videographers Jeff Bush, Hiroshi Onihiro, and Suh Yang Byum, the sound designer Brett Jarvis, the pianists Peter Phillips and Bruce Brubaker, the ikebana artist Gaho Taniguchi, and her husband, the light and visual designer Christopher Odo, among others. The many public and private sources that have supported her work include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Asian Cultural Council, the Japan–U.S. Friendship Commission, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Japan Foundation, the Fulbright Commission, and the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions.
Maureen Fleming was born to a U.S. Navy officer and his wife in around 1955 on a naval base near Yokohama, Japan. The trauma to her spine happened when, as her mother was driving near the base one day, a bicyclist swerved and stopped on the road a short distance from the approaching car. Her mother immediately floored the brake, stopping the car so suddenly that Fleming and her sister were catapulted through the windshield. As her mother rushed to the aid of her daughters, who were lying bloodied on the road, the bicyclist laughed and rode away. Determined to wipe that horrific image from her memory, her mother never mentioned the accident to the girls. “The accident happened when I was so young it was part of my ‘normal’ reality, so I don’t believe that I recognized [the effects] as pain,” Fleming recalled to Julie Mullins for citybeat.com (February 18, 2009). “Rather it was like a toothache in my spine that subsided after beginning to move. . . . Movement was as essential to my livelihood as eating. I began twisting my body into different shapes as a way of trying to compensate for the trauma that had happened in my past. Over the years, that twisting became my choreography.”
Fleming remained ignorant about her childhood injury until she was 35 (or older, according to some sources), when a doctor whom she consulted about severe neck pain and difficulty in moving one arm detected in X-rays a long bone spur that had replaced the disc between her fourth and fifth vertebrae. Her mother's account of the accident illuminated for Fleming why, from early childhood, “creating dance was an integral part of my identity . . . ,” she told Gail Johnson for the Vancouver, Canada, publication straight.com (March 3, 2005). “When I looked back at photos, my head was always hanging down. My choreography has these extreme twists; I needed to twist away from the accident. I had to find my own ways to regenerate and heal my body.” She noted on her Web site, “The twisting and untwisting of joints increases blood flow and has become a slow method of regeneration.” For many years Fleming has engaged in a training regimen of her own design, “Fleming Elastics,” to maintain her flexibility and her control over her connective tissue and muscles, including, by her own account, deep muscles normally inaccessible even to professional dancers. The doctor who X-rayed her neck warned her that there would be dire consequences if she did not have surgery to remove the bone spur, consequences that never materialized. Many assessments of her work have alluded to what she has accomplished in the physical realm; a reviewer for the University of Massachusetts–Amherst magazine Spotlight (February/March 2004) wrote after seeing her performance of Decay of the Angel, “Fleming transforms her body into structural forms that push and break any limitations inherent in a human skeleton. Often compared to that of an invertebrate sea creature, Fleming's body retains the flexibility of an infant.”
Fleming was about three when her family returned to the U.S. She attended Catholic schools for 16 years. “I have four uncles who are Catholic priests,” she told Daniel Neman for the Richmond (Virginia) Times Dispatch (March 14, 1999). “And I really understand that way of thinking, because in Western spiritual thinking the soul is divorced from the body. And that's part of my work: the question of can the soul be transformed from the body?” Fleming's training in classical dance began when she was seven and continued for years, but published accounts reveal little about the chronology of her formal instruction. Her principal teachers include Kazuo Ohno (born in 1906), who, with Tatsumi Hijikata, is considered the co-founder of butoh; the dancer and choreographer Min Tanaka (born in 1945), who studied with Hijikata; and, with a scholarship in the 1980s, the renowned ballet teacher Margaret Craske (1893–1990), a disciple of the great Italian ballet master Enrico Cecchetti (1850–1928). Also prominent in her development as a dancer are Yoshito Ohno, Kazuo Ohno's son, Ellen Stewart, the founder and artistic director of LaMaMa E.T.C., and the mythologist Joseph Campbell, who once said to Fleming after seeing her perform, “Your dance is your transcendence.”
Butoh is difficult to define or describe, because it is not based on a theory of dance and is not choreographed as a series of specific steps or movements; thus, it is not repeatable. It rejects the rigidity of classical Japanese dance (most prominently, noh), the strictly defined movements of classical Western ballet, and the narrative elements often present in those genres, and arose in reaction to the materialism (associated with the West) that had begun to supplant long-held Japanese cultural traditions in the wake of World War II. “Butoh was conceived as an art that would continue to rebel, even to rebel against itself,” Fleming told Misaki. “It was conceived as an art that would not become an institutionalized form, but rather remain alive and vital, continuously reinvented by innovators inspired by it. So the idea of the initial Butoh artists was to strip away anything that was technique-driven.” She told Neman, “What Butoh truly does is reduce movement to an essence, where the motivating inspiration is the spiritual energy in the body”; butoh, she said, is like “paintings that move in slow motion.”
Fleming met Min Tanaka in 1984, when he choreographed Mythos Oedipus for LaMaMa. Fleming's spiritual leanings and skills, including her knowledge of aikido, a Japanese martial art, impressed Tanaka, and he invited her to perform in Mythos Oedipus with his company, Maijuku, at LaMaMa. Afterward Fleming joined Maijuku and toured with the company in Europe. She then trained with Tanaka in Japan for six months, adhering to a routine that was “unbelievably difficult,” Fleming told Misaki, explaining that “Min was interested in going to the limit of whatever he was doing.” Every morning for about two hours beginning at 8:30 a.m., Fleming and her fellow dancers (all of them Japanese) engaged in “muscle-bone training,” which involved jumping continuously from one side of the room to the other. Then came over two hours of “manipulations,” in which “the body is stretched to its limit,” and several hours of “imagination” exercises. Often, with minimal rest, the dancers then gave performances in Tanaka's theater in Tokyo. The physical demands on Fleming's body were so great that her menstrual periods ceased during those six months. In addition, in a form of mental conditioning, Tanaka would have his dancers spend eight days in isolation in a mountain forest, with no food and nothing to protect them from the elements except one plastic sheet. When Fleming was in the forest, it was bitterly cold. “You just totally shed a comprehension of who you are,” she recalled to Misaki. “It makes one lose the armor around the body. You have no choice but to find a way to breathe to make the body warm. . . . The first night I slept in a tree. The space that you get to and the closeness to the earth that you feel . . . on the sixth or seventh day of the fast, I was probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life. . . . I began to realize how little we need to be happy.” During the fast she also had strange visions and auditory sensations and entered “states where the line between conscious and unconscious becomes faint.” “Isn't that what Butoh is about?” she added. Tanaka had told the dancers that they could leave the forest at any time, but Fleming remained. Her training under Tanaka, she told Misaki, “was a very important introduction into a way of approaching movement.”
Later, after winning a grant from the arts organization Creative Time to choreograph a new work, Fleming returned to Japan to study under Kazuo Ohno; she boarded in his house as well. “Ohno’s classes are really different from Min’s,” Fleming told Misaki. “It’s complete improvisation. And it's improvisation based on what he’s read that day. If he’s read the Bible, for example, about the woman who turned to salt, that day the improvisation is salt becoming water. The snow melting into water.” She also trained with Ohno’s son, Yoshito.
An image of Fleming in Birth Song (1984) is the earliest of the dance photos on her Web site. Far better known among her dances is Axis Mundi (“Tree of Life”), which premiered in 1989 at La MaMa E.C.T. and remains in the dancer's repertoire. Long, crooked, forked white branches held in either hand figure in that work. Writing for the Canadian magazine Dance Current (March 2005, on-line), Kaija Pepper described Axis Mundi as a “meditation on the human body, gorgeously lit, with huge, engrossing film and photographic images projected on an upstage screen” and wrote that Fleming “most often moves like a slow, natural process--a flower unfolding or landscape shifting.” Fleming's Water on the Moon also debuted in 1989. At the 1990 Butoh Festival, held in Tokyo, Fleming--the only non-Japanese dancer invited to participate--performed Axis Mundi for an audience that included her butoh teachers and mentors. The next year marked the premiere, at LaMaMa, of Eros, in which she and Yoshito Ohno appeared on stage separately. Indeed, Ohno had created his solo without consulting her. “Yoshito believed that dancers needed to work independently and that there would be a psychic connection that would join the images,” Fleming told Misaki. “I found this to be a profound, mysterious, and important part of understanding what Butoh is about.” In 1996 Fleming premiered After Eros at the 96th St. Y, in collaboration with the playwright David Henry Hwang and the composer Philip Glass, weaving Fleming's life story into the tale of Psyche and Eros from Greek mythology. Jack Anderson wrote for the New York Times (December 25, 1996, on-line) that Fleming “seemed to transcend the material world and enter a realm of pure spirit” and that the work featured “wondrous choreographic metamorphoses.”
Fleming's Web site lists her dances in order of the dates they premiered; the posted dance photos bear the dates on which the pictures were shot. In addition to Birth Song, Axis Mundi, Water on the Moon, and Eros, there are images of Fleming performing Mother and Child, Sphere, Womb Mandala, After Eros, Flower, Flower Revolution, The Stairs, The Driftwood, Dialogue of Self and Soul, Decay of the Angel, Effulgent Wings, and The Immortal Rose. “One of the principles which underlies my work is the creation of the ‘archetype,'” she explained on her Web site. “An archetype is a universal symbol that embodies a pattern of life experience. For example, in The Sphere, the universal symbol of a circle forms and deconstructs. The image bespeaks a reality beyond the pairs of opposites such as birth and death or pain and ecstasy and contains them in the same moment. The image, encompassing an interface between music and light, creates a state which allows the observer to reflect on their lives and watch the image like a dream.” According to her Web site, in creating a dance--a process that may take her as long as 10 years--Fleming “records her improvisations and begins the process of identifying the archetypal moments. Through a studied process of dissolving original images one into the other, she documents her choreography in her studio on video, establishing the concept, choreography and title of the work.” Fleming recently premiered Dances from Home, an installation at LaMaMa Galleria. A piece about Fleming in TimeOut New York in 2009 featured a photograph she took of herself using natural light.
From the early 1990s through 2009, Fleming performed solo and group works in Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, Iceland, and South Korea as well as the U.S. and Japan, at festivals, universities, embassies, museums, arts centers, and other sites. In one representative assessment, posted on her Web site, Massoud Saidpour, the coordinator for performing arts at the Cleveland Museum of Art, wrote in 1998, “There are artists who words cannot describe. You can only recommend ‘GO SEE HER!,' and that was all I could say to those who later inquired about her performance. . . . Alone in the presence of others, in the vulnerable state of a naked child, totally disarmed, she began a spellbinding performance. Her total disarmament toward the others, combined with the mastery with which she executes the most unbelievable body movements, her amazingly beautiful use of film, live and taped music, her keen sense of choreography and scenography, all worked together to put . . . a silent spell over the auditorium. Just as in a dream, her work allows for a flight of the psyche.”
Fleming has taught in dance-residency programs at the Tisch School of the Arts, a division of New York University, and the Juilliard School, in New York City, and is an artist-in-residence at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, in South Korea (2006–2010). She has conducted workshops at the Kripalu Center, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, in Burlington, Vermont, and other places. She lives on the Lower East Side of New York City with her husband, Christopher Odo.