The Arts Cure, Spring 2005
Feature Interview

Maureen Fleming
Butoh Dancer


About ten years ago, I went to see a performance by a young American woman who danced Butoh, a Japanese contemporary dance form. I had recently been very struck by a performance held in New York City by Min Tanaka, who is now a Butoh icon in Japan. I was interested to see Butoh works by an American, but, to be honest, her performance seemed to me simply an abstract contemporary dance. A decade later, in April 2004, I heard she was having a season at La MaMa. Somehow, I felt I had to see her again. In her work Decay of the Angel, created in collaboration with Gaho Taniguchi, a practitioner of Japanese Ikebana or flower arrangement, I found Maureen Fleming to have flowered as a Butoh artist of brilliant originality.

The Seed of Dance Planted in an Accident...

How did you start dancing?

Fleming: Since my father was in the military, I was born on a navy base near Yokohama, Japan. When I was two years old, my mother was driving down the street and a man on a bicycle stopped quickly. My mother stopped the car all of a sudden and my sister and I went through the windshield. While my mother was picking up bloody children, the man on the bicycle rode away, laughing. I never knew about it because, interestingly, my mother didn't tell me about the accident.

I would say that was my first dance, going into the windshield. I think that experience planted a seed in my body. That created a need. So all of my choreography which involved all these twists, extremes, was really an effort to relieve the trauma.

When did you start to take formal training?

Fleming: At about age seven. My parents moved here when I was three years old. I began to study classical ballet. That was my first experience with formal training.

My first actual exposure to Japanese Butoh was in 1984. When La MaMa E.T.C. invited Min Tanaka to choreograph Mythos Oedipus, Ellen Stewart, [La MaMa's) founder and artistic director, introduced me to Min. At that time I had already studied the Japanese martial art Aikido. I met Min and was able to be in the piece with dancers of his company, Maijuku. I was so enthralled with his approach to movement that I asked if I could stay with Maijuku, and he said, "Yes.” So, after the Mythos Oedipus tour of Greece, I went with Maijuku to Paris, Copenhagen and then... Japan. And I was there for about six months, receiving very intensive training that involved fasting and was unbelievably difficult.

Training at that time—it began at 8:30 in the morning and the first thing you did was jumping. You jump from one side of the room to the other for about two hours. This is called MB [muscle-bone] training. That was followed by manipulations, where the body is stretched to its limit, which takes over two hours, and then you have a 40-minute break. After that you start the imagination training. At the end of that, oftentimes there was a performance. So we would go to Plan B [Tanaka's experimental theater] in Tokyo. You don't have a moment to yourself.

Min was interested in going to the limit of whatever he was doing. And it's how he trained the dancers. People were throwing up in the bathroom. And of course I'm the only American. It was a very interesting challenge, being there and just being strong. The training was so rigorous that I lost my period.

After we had done this for about a month, then we fasted for eight days alone, in the mountains. You could go back at any moment if you wanted. The fasting was easy compared to the coldness. They gave you only one plastic sheet. It was very extreme. It was raining, and I was freezing, I remember one other experience when we stood under a waterfall in November.

Does that kind of training give you some sort of spiritual experience?
Fleming: You just totally shed a comprehension of who you are. It makes one lose the armor around the body. You have no choice but to find a way to breathe to make the body warm. It’s hard to sleep when you're really cold. But there's always this moment [at which] I can go back. It's very interesting... choosing to stay, choosing to find out what to learn, trusting him as a teacher.

I definitely saw a change in the movement of the whole group. When you are so physically empty, the quality of movement was different. And the idea of coming together as a group, and eating together, there's something very bonding about all of the experiences. It was a very important introduction into a way of approaching movement.

I remember the first night I slept in a tree. The space that you get to and the closeness to the earth that you feel... on the sixth or seventh day of the fast, I was probably happier than I’ve ever been in my life. The way I saw reality, the way I saw the flowers... I began to realize how little we need to be happy. I think I was getting to the edge. When I heard the wind I honestly started thinking I was hearing something [else]. It’s getting to these states where the line between conscious and unconscious becomes faint... isn't that what Butoh is about?

For example the imagery with the fire [in Decay of the Angel], I thought of that when I was on the fast. I saw this image of cloth and flame and a woman burning but not burning. I think often the way I choreograph is by having visions; visions come to me, through the life experiences I have had.

Curing My Body Led Me to Creating My Own Style

Fleming: After I returned to NY, I woke up one day and found that I couldn't lift my right arm. The day before, I was balancing on my head without my hands in a performance and something snapped in my neck. I must have pinched a nerve. I had to go to the doctor and he did X-rays. The doctor showed me this very long bone spur in my neck. "Look at the size of this bone. Something happened to you when you were very, very young and you don't remember," he said. "Ask your mother." So I asked my mother and she told me about the accident when I was very small. And that was the first time I understood why I always had this need to twist. [The doctor] said, "You may be beginning not to be able to see, because of the optical nerve. You need surgery."

I had no choice. I could either get the surgery or figure out how to heal my body by myself. Since I didn't want to have surgery, I started reading everything I could about breathing exercises of Taoism, change of diet. Anything that worked, I did. So that's how I created my own technique based on healing my body.

I had to find another way. I began teaching workshops at La MaMa. Ellen [Stewart] gave me free space. I developed my own way of teaching. Although it included some of the training that Min gave, my training involved three tracks for each movement: breathing exercises, the image, and the movement itself.

How did you actually heal your body?

Fleming: I began first just working with how to lengthen my spine. And so I began working a lot with alignment and images, images that create a transformation. For instance, I imagine the smoke ring moving up my spine, and did a lot of improvisation with the smoke ring moving. I also worked with Taoist healing exercises. And I did a lot of acupuncture. It was a combination of getting the acupuncture and doing the Taoist exercises and mixing that with the improvisation. I then created repeatable movement structures that I still do every day. This became my training.

I had to find the way to move from the innermost layer of muscles in the body because that's what was hurting me. I had to find a way to let the pain go. I found that fasting helped. I do it now with a doctor's prescription. Whenever I perform I'm usually fasting. Combining my daily training with fasting really helps me to get in touch with the innermost layers of muscle in the body as I dance.

Finally Gaining My Own Voice...

You studied with Kazuo Ohno too, didn't you?

Fleming: After the experience with Min, then I wanted to know Kazuo Ohno. I had gotten a grant from Creative Time to create a new work. So I just got on an airplane and I went to Japan. Finding out that I was there with very little money, he offered me [a place] to stay in this beautiful home in Kamakura.

Ohno's classes are really different from Min's. It's complete improvisation. And its improvisation based on what he's read that day. If he's read the Bible, for example, about the woman who turned to salt, that day the improvisation is salt becoming water. The slow melting into water.

When he read about a time in Japan where there was war and everybody was getting killed, you are one of the last survivors of a terrible war and you are very close to death yourself. You decide to make one last dance before you die. What is it? A story about the salmon. When the salmon gives birth, the children eat the mother. You are swimming upstream and you know you are going to give birth, and you know the children will eat you. You see a flower. You become the flower.

But these kinds of images with Ohno were such a fruit for choreography, for creating. People [who] would be in the class, some were dancers, some were non-dancers. It was not always the dancers who respond best to these images. It’s the sense of getting in touch with the most honest and the most real part of you. But I'm so happy that I had the training with Tanaka before studying with Kazuo and Yoshito Ohno. After my initial training in the Ohno studio, I returned to Japan and began a different kind of training. At 7:00 Kazuo Ohno would perform a solo. At 8:00 I performed a solo. A few days would pass and the process would repeat. It wasn't until Yoshito arrived in NYC to begin the three-week season at La MaMa that I saw the work he was to perform in our evening-length work Eros. Yoshito believed that dancers needed to work independently and that there would be a psychic connection that would join the images. I found this to be a profound, mysterious, and important part of understanding what Butoh is about.

I was also very lucky to have La MaMa in my life. Ellen always said, "You really have to find your own feet. If you want to be an artist and you want to survive as an artist, you realty need to not imitate your teachers. You find a unique dance that you were born to do." I think that I was really fortunate to have Ellen say these things to me.

And I'm really grateful that I had classical training because that helped me to deconstruct opposite movement vocabularies. That helped me to create something that was my own.

When did you feel that you had found your own voice?

Fleming; The first time was perhaps with the first piece that I did at La MaMa, Axis Mundi. That was in 1989. That was the time I began to really use my flexibility, trying to do all those extreme shapes with the open body, internal body. I think that's when I began to find my own voice. From there it just began to develop.

Butoh was a real revolution against the influx of a western technique [to Japan]. Butoh was conceived as an art that would continue to rebel, even to rebel against itself. It was conceived as an art that would not become an institutionalized form, but rather remain alive and vital, continuously reinvented by innovators inspired by it. So the idea of the initial Butoh artists was to strip away anything that was technique-driven. They were even stripping [away the techniques] of Noh and Kabuki. Now I said, “Technique is okay." That was a breaking point for me—where I want to evolve my technique and involve the principles of the open body of Butoh. How can I bring together these opposites and reveal a natural state of the Inside body?

I Feel My Dance Is My Connection to What Is Divine

You are a very spiritual person. What do you think the relationship is between art and the human being, or between the arts and the universe?

Fleming: Each person is here to find the vehicle [through which] they can transform their vibration. And in some cases it’s art. In my case it's art. I feel my dance is my transcendence. It's my connection to what is divine. I believe that the closer I get to that real experience, the happier I am. Truly, truly happy.

I think that the real happiness is when the body inside this body becomes born and begins to find its life and support of that outer body. This is how I physically experience It. The more we can find ways to make that inside body strong, then that inside body starts to overtake the outside body. I think that is the role of art... to give us the experience of that.

I use my dance to present an influence of hope for contemporary society. In the same way that I discovered a dance born from "woundedness," I ask all others to search for their celestial dance born from the experience we have inherited from our ancestors. I know that the transformation of society has to do with the experience of personal freedom that comes from the true freedom of spiritual energy alive in the body. What is the use of power and extravagance if you live with physical pain? What is the use of physical pain if you do not possess the knowledge to transform it? Through my art, my goal is to reveal the transcendent through images, which focus on the human body as a vehicle of transformation. I am specifically defining a universal art which touches the evolutionary traces embedded in human experience and transcends the limits of nationality and gender placed on us all, with the aim of discovering what is truly universal about being human.

Photo Credits: Lois Greenfield, Ellen Crane, Maje Waldo, Philip Trager