Decay of the Angel - Boston Globe, February 20, 2004

Celestial Navigations


Watching Maureen Fleming at work is akin to watching a flower grow. Her choreography unfurls like shoots from an early iris, arms twisting out from shoulders that arch toward her legs. She does not dance, per se. Rather, this is botany, a time-lapsed photographic image that unfolds, blossoms, entwines, and laces in a style that is both raw and assured. It's not always pretty to watch, but it is startling.

Fleming will use her sculpted body and idiosyncratic forms tonight in the premiere of the solo work "Decay of the Angel," presented by CRASHArts at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. In it she asks the pressing post-Sept. 11 question: How do we regain what was lost? The work reaches back to Japan and the art it created to describe cultural and societal transformation. "Decay of the Angel," like most of Fleming's work, is based on the conventions of the Japanese post-war minimalist style known as butoh, where the dancer explores human emotion through movement that is at once erotic and primitive.

The story comes from the ancient Japanese tale Hagoromo, the story of a fisherman who finds an angel's wings lost at sea.

The angel, Fleming says, pleads for her wings, and the fisherman agrees to return them if she will perform a celestial dance. Fleming says she found the story a perfect metaphor for the current state of mind in the United States.

"On September 11 we lost our wings as a culture," she says. "Our challenge is to discover our own celestial dance and to ask the question: What is it to lose our wings and what is the dance I must discover to find and regain them?"

Answering that question, she says, is at once personal and freeing.

Along the way her performance will incorporate contemporary ikebana - the Japanese art of flower arrangement - film and images by dance photographer Lois Greenfield, and music by Philip Glass, performed live.

The program, funded in part by Performing Arts Japan and the National Endowment for the Arts, will be more theatrical, less intimate, than other works she has created. The piece begins with Fleming suspended from the ceiling, an imagining of the angel spinning and tumbling earthward.

Parts of this performance (as is true of many of her works) will be performed without costumes. Nudity is, artistically, a wonderful way to watch her forms. Fleming says that stripping her body of any cover, she creates a timeless universality to her work.

Two years ago, Fleming brought her work "After Eros" to Boston, an artistic rendering of a childhood car accident that happened when she and her parents were living for a time in Japan. She describes the accident as a form of terrorism: a young Japanese man intentionally darting in front of the car, the brakes slamming, Fleming's body thrown from the car. Slow extensions and stretching, she explains, released the pain from her joints when she was young. The exercise was reminiscent of butoh, before she knew it existed.

Fleming has traveled to Japan frequently to study dance and butoh with Min Tanaka, one of the premiere Japanese choreographers. Butoh, Fleming says, developed as a way to return art to the people, to strip it of aristocratic trappings that came to warp kabuki. In Japan, Fleming's training reflects the rigor and asceticism reminiscent of Japanese rural life. She has hiked for miles. She fasted for eight days alone in the mountains. The point is "to break down the armor in one's body so the spiritual essence would come through in the dance."

When her trainer buried her in dirt up to her head, it gave her plenty of time to pose that question that is so pressing in America today: What is really important?

"In these times it's important to rethink the role of the artist," Fleming says. "There are alternatives to violence. I ask the audience to reconsider that."