Decay of the Angel - Cincinnati CityBeat, September 26 - October 2, 2002


The 30th anniversary season of Contemporary Dance Theater (CDT) opens this weekend at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater with Maureen Fleming performing "Decay of the Angel." Fleming is an internationally recognized performer whose extensive experience in the Japanese Butoh style deeply informs her own dance/theater works. Dancers from the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) will join her onstage.

CDT's season is also a significant marker in longevity for the local presenter, still headed by founder and Artistic Director Jefferson James. Regularly bringing an impressive selection of modern dance artists and their companies to Cincinnati was only part of James' original vision, but it has become the most enduring. About this anniversary of the organization she founded, James says, “It will be another festive year, and it won't be the last! We are already planning for the 2003-04 season."

James and Fleming each have a fascinating history. I spoke with both of them recently about their art and their ongoing aims. Arriving a few minutes late at Myra's Dionysus restaurant on Calhoun, I glance around the small dining room for Fleming. A vivid presence with dark hair, she's at one of the small tables, already set with a small cup of black bean chili and a corn muffin. I order the same, and soon we are talking nonstop as I struggle to eat tasty spoonfuls between scribbling as fast as I can on my yellow legal pad.

I’m not familiar with much about Butoh, but Fleming quickly fills me in. "After the war (World War II), in Japan, there was a search for identity — especially, 'Who are we now?’ She explains how the movement style evolved from the artistic avant-garde in the 1950's as an antirational protest against Japan's industrialization. It focused on very slow motion as a wake-up call to discover instead a surrealistic essence, with its underlying eroticism.

”It was brash," she says, "in fact the first Butoh featured a decapitation, designed to shock the audience from complacency." I want to ask if the bird was a prop, but by now, she's forging ahead with references to the Yukio Mishima. (a Japanese writer who committed hara-kiri as a political statement) and expressions of "the soul's beautiful search for a true religious experience."

Fleming's résumé lists study with seminal Butoh figure, Kazuo Ohno, and performances with his son, Yoshito Ohno. She talks about her research into the archetypal images she uses, about Joseph Campbell and Jung, and about how she has modified her version of Butoh to one that relies on a repeatable method rather than total onstage improvisation.

Her most fascinating story about images involves an accident. As an adult, told by a doctor to ask her mother what might have caused scarring from an apparent trauma to her neck, she discovered that she (at the age of 2) and her sister, both born in Japan, had been thrown from a car. The Japanese bicyclist their mother had braked to miss simply laughed and went on his way — Americans weren't getting much sympathy in those days.

"The accident explained one of the ways I'd twist my body in dancing," she says. "In a sense, the man who laughed and ran away was like a spider bite. In my art I'd found a way to move beyond the truama to release the subsequent atrophy in my life."

In interviews, Jefferson James tends to be more personally reticent. She often insists, “It's not about me — it's about the art." Yet anyone who knows James, knows differently: Modern dance in Cincinnati today holds such a high profile almost entirely because of her persistence and passion.

"I started in New York as a modern dancer at Juilliard, and then branched out with classes at the Metropolitan Opera, Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham studios, and went to Columbia College." She moved to Cincinnati when her huband. bassoonist Martin James, was hired by the Cincinnati symphony.

She formed CDT a few years later, in 1972. At first, the fledgling CDT was "a way to stay in dance, a vehicle for myself and other performers in the area," she says. Gradually, she found dance spaces, choreographers and teachers. And something else — “an eclecticism of our subject matter." She became a presenter of guest artists and companies too. "So the vision ‘stuff’ sort of evolved.

"It's interesting.' James says of CDT's evolution, "I wasn't sure that when I stopped dancing I would still want to be involved ... but, after the first concert I attended after I had officially retired, I didn't respond to dance any differently. It was 'OK. I'm not dancing, but these people are and they are wonderful.' It was sort of amazing to me, the switch from dancer to administrator."

James notes that CDT is "slowly and carefully moving into commissioning and co-commissioning work. This season we are doing it with Maureen Fleming.” Additional commissioners are the National Performance Network and the Minneapolis Dance Alliance.

Though she's afraid to leave somebody out after 30 years of presenting, James especially remembers the “wonderful artists like Bella Lewitsky, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, Doug Varone, Urban Bush Women, Sean Curran, Mark Taylor, Bebe Miller” and “great friends like Danny Buraczeski.”

"I would have never thought, in the beginning," she marvels, "we could bring them all to Cincinnati."