Decay of the Angel - Boston Phoenix, February 13, 2004

Turning Japanese?
Maureen Fleming in Decay of the Angel


For American audiences, the memory of white-faced men with shaven heads performing slow-motion movements evocative of hopelessness distinguishes the performance art called butoh that originated in Japan after World War II, in part as a reaction against the horrors of Hiroshima. So it’s a bit of a surprise to realize that American choreographer and solo dancer Maureen Fleming is one of the most ardent followers of the form. She brings the Boston premiere of her most recent work, Decay of the Angel, to the Majestic Theatre next Friday and Saturday.

Fleming who appeared in Boston two years ago in After Eros, makes her entrance in Decay of the Angel (in parts of which she appears nude) "from the top of the stage, the descent from the heavens of a circling woman." She based the work on the ancient Japanese myth of Hagoromo, in which a fisherman finds the cloth of an angel’s wings caught in a tree branch by the sea. The angel begs the fisherman for the return of her wings; he relents only when she promises to perform a celestial dance. "The work is about the person losing her wings, her innocence, her freedom, and how this theme has been treated in so many cultures, like the expulsion from the Garden of Eden in Genesis. There’s an association of the loss of wings that happened with September 11. We’re all looking for that celestial dance, to regain something we’ve lost. The fisherman and the angel are contained in one person."

Decay of the Angel is a multimedia piece incorporating contemporary "ikebana" (the Japanese art of flower arrangement) by Japanese artist Gaho Taniguchi, film and images by dance photographer Lois Greenfield, and music by Philip Glass that’s performed by a pianist on stage." It’s a melding of dance and visual art. We did a photo shoot with Lois with a cloth that looks as if it were on fire. Burning can be an ecstatic experience or can suggest death by fire. I allow the audience to project their meaning on the images."

Born in Japan to American parents but raised in the United States, where she trained in classical ballet and modern dance, Fleming has returned many times to study in Japan with both Kazuo Ohno, one of butoh’s founders, and choreographer Min Tanaka. "When Min Tanaka came to this country, I was hired to tour with his company and then moved to Japan for two years. In terms of the butoh training, what impacted me most was the use of an image that allows me to move from the inside of my body. I’ve performed often in Japan. In 1990, I performed in a butoh festival." Was she the only American woman on the program? "Of course."

Fleming adds that she is in the process of "creating a technique into a way of dancing to heal my body. Most Western techniques work toward destroying the body. I work with a lot of breathing techniques and using gravity so that you learn to trust the earth, similar to the foundation of Ohno’s research into butoh. When you consider that he’s still performing at the age of 97, you have to respect it."