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Maureen Fleming Dancer and choreographer

Power of the
Black Madonna

In a new dance work, Maureen Fleming explores universal themes of loss and rejuvenation

any artists begin creating out of pain, out of a need to escape a particular reality. The need to go somewhere else puts one close to the unconscious and engenders a reciprocal relationship between life and art that strengthens as we experience higher levels of contact with the "beyond" that we can sometimes reach through the dance.

The 10th anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, inspired Black Madonna, a new evening-length work that embodies the five stages of the mystical cycle common to the world's inner traditions: awakening, fulfillment, loss, mourning, and reunification with the divine. With music by John Cage and Philip Glass performed live by pianist Bruce Brubaker, the performance juxtaposes original living sculptures against video by artist and light designer Christopher Odo. Three-dimensional projections contrast the live movement.

A traumatic childhood event unexpectedly initiated me into dance. My father was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, and I was born on a military base near Yokohama, Japan. When I was two years old, my mother was driving and a man on a bicycle stopped quickly in front of the car. I went through the windshield, causing me to lose the disc between my fourth and fifth vertebrae, an injury that doctors have said could have kept me in a wheelchair. But through an intuitive sense in subsequent years, I began creating dances with slow, sinuous movements. The twisting and untwisting of joints increased blood flow, which perhaps became a gradual method of regeneration and also allowed my body to retain its childlike and idiosyncratic flexibility. This became my choreography.

This incident was the subject of my previous work, "After Eros. Eros was created with Yoshito Ohno, the son of Kazuo Ohno, cofounder of the Japanese avant-garde movement butoh. Butoh, a dance developed in postwar Japan on the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, explores the darkest side of human nature. In After Eros, I collaborated with composer Philip Glass and playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly). Hwang felt that wedding my life story to the myth of Eros and Psyche was an intriguing way to explore themes of human transcendence. The man on the bicycle from my childhood accident became Eros, raising compelling questions about the relationship between eros and violence." My work departs from the butoh "dance of the dark soul" in that my subjects have more to do with a search for archetypal images beyond pairs of opposites: in my work birth and death or pain and ecstasy are present in the same moment. Strongly grounded in my belief in the body's own regenerative powers, my choreography explores the evolution of my wounds in what I consider to be a feminine response, one of facing one's pain and moving through it, with the female body as a symbol for the earth's cycles of regeneration.

 

On September 11, 2001, a tragedy occurred that parallels Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not only in the number of people who died that morning but also in the several hundred thousand deaths that ensued. I hope my work can help us begin to look at the mythological values that have brought about the repeating human tragedies involving wars of annihilation and lead us to consider a different mythological perspective. Black Madonna invites us into our depths, where illusions are broken apart and the truth resides. It delves into the truths that underlie all religions.

The universal archetype of the Black Madonna, a woman born of a seed planted in the black earth, ex- presses an ancient idea of transcendent feminine power. Observing the cycles of the earth and moon, the earliest people noticed that females of their clan miraculously bled in exact timing with the moon. They sensed that there must be a connection between women and the sky and the creation of life. Their intuitive answer to the question of "where did we come from?" was "from the Great Mother bigger than the sky." They imagined her as large and rounded and pregnant with all of life, and they represented her in carvings of stone or bone or horn throughout the Upper Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Copper ages. Pregnant goddess carvings dating from about 35,000 to 5,600 BC have been found across the Eurasian continent. But not all parts of the earth are fertile. When certain tribes were forced to live in barren lands, they had to become nomads, taking what they needed from a place and then moving on. Iron Age weapons and the domestication of the horse enabled men to take what they needed by force, and fierce warriors became more vital to a tribe's survival than the life-givers. A "Great Warrior" became the spiritual source of strength and power, and strong male gods came into being. Images of the first male gods coincided with the first wars of annihilation.

That these two very different belief systems would collide was inevitable. When the nomadic tribes swept in from inhospitable regions and saw the abundance of the fertile areas, they conquered the agrarian people and destroyed virtually all evidence of the earth-based goddess cultures. The winners of a war not only write the history, they redefine the sacred. For about 5,000 years, male gods based on the warrior model have pre- dominated. How do we understand both the mythology of the warrior and the values of the goddess cultures that thrived for more than 15,000 years before the existence of wars of annihilation? How can we transcend this contradiction?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to dance in Dream of Kitamura, a play directed by Jean Erdman. After the performance I found myself in an elevator standing next to Jean's husband, the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. Suddenly he turned to me and said, "Your dance is your transcendence!" This profound, simple statement opened a world to me where the divine is both a personal mythology and a universal expression. Divinity can reside in the body, and the occasional gift of the spirit is where the true self lies, a place where pairs of opposites are revealed as illusions. The contradictory moments that become my dance are my experience of transcendence, a transcendence that we hope to share through the performance of Black Madonna.