Transcendence With or Without Wings
BY CELESTE SUNDERLAND
Stillness shrouded the full house at La Mama as the audience sat enraptured by the harrowing grace and transcendent beauty of Maureen Fleming's body. With movements many times slower than the pulse of a human heart, she arched, stretched, and curled her torso and limbs into forms evoking myriad emotions and imagery.
Decay of the Angel combined Butoh, Ikebana, exquisite lighting design, and costumes that occasionally added texture and hue to Fleming's bare body. Music by Philip Glass, Arvo Part, and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki was played by solo pianist Peter Phillips, or transmitted through recordings of reverberant electronics, sumptuous strings, or zealous organ. Each element complemented the others perfectly, and contributed profoundly to the magnitude of the performance, yet the focus was always on Fleming.
Based on the Buddha's sutra teachings on the five stages of the decay of heavenly beings, the dance also described the myth of Hagoromo, the tale of a fisherman who finds the cloth of an angel's wing in a tree. He returns it only after she dances for him. Fleming's character incorporated both parts, angel and fisherman, and likened the angel to western culture, on its own quest to regain its wings.
As the audience's eyes began to adjust to a white object slowly illuminated like the dawn caressing a pitch-black horizon, we sat transfixed by Fleming's graceful body suspended high above the stage. Later, the recorded string section cascaded into a furious descent as Fleming, shrouded from the waist up over her head by an orange gossamer cloth, seemed to blaze like a burning flame. Hauntingly gorgeous moments like these comprised the first half. Her distance from the audience and the magnitude of a surreal yet organic set created an extremely powerful presence.
Fleming moved downstage for the second part of the performance. The pool of water, which originally reflected her every move, now engulfed her. The shallow water surrounded Fleming's nude body as she maneuvered herself with barely perceptible motion into curves that resembled sea-shells, an arched pose with outstretched fingers that seemed an extension of the large piece of driftwood behind her, and a slouched, upright stance mimicking a body crucified.
In the end Fleming regained her wingsyards of filmy, white fabric ebbed and swayed with her flapping arms, mingling with the wild black hair let down from its perch atop the crown of her head, and gently grazed her satiny nakedness.