Butoh, the Body, and Perception

by Alexis Clements on October 31, 2013

Maureen Fleming in B. Madonna (photograph by Emily Boland) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

Maureen Fleming in "B. Madonna" (photograph by Emily Boland) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

There's a moment in your first life-drawing class where your perception shifts and you start looking at the naked body in front of you differently. At least that was my experience. Instead of feeling uncomfortable with the nudity or paying attention to judgments and assumptions about the person in front of me, I started to look at the lines and curves of their body, the connections between joints, colors, and textures. I remember sculpting a face in clay one day and realizing that the easiest way to make a realistic pair of lips was to start with a face without lips and then slice into it with a sculpting knife, gently coaxing the clay on either side of the cut out and up. That discovery led me to think about how lips are formed in utero, how bodies and life come into being. Those experiences weren't just about seeing and rendering, they became rich meditations that challenged my perceptions.

Maureen Fleming's gorgeous performance work B. MADONNA at La MaMa is as rich with shifting observations and intense seeing as those early experiences of looking differently at the human body. And the layers of meaning in this work stretch far beyond the corporeal.

The piece opens with Fleming folded and flexed in such an unfamiliar way that immediately you begin to question what it is you're seeing: What body is this? Where are the legs, the head? Where could the center of gravity possibly be? From the outset, you're confronted with dualities — body/not-body, movement/not-movement, shadow/light. Perched atop a branch-covered, pyramid-shaped platform, floating in inky darkness save for a couple beams of light, Fleming shifts her body in ways that seem both minute and monumental. Rather than being incremental, her movements have a continuous flow, where conscious decision seems less the driving force than a tectonic inertia — inertia moving across eons rather than minutes or seconds. Through each of the nine movements of the piece, three of which include or feature Christopher Odo performing solo, Fleming seems to be calling up histories and mysteries that transcend the immediate moment. (In addition to contributing to the performance, Odo superbly executed the lighting and design for the show.)

Maureen Fleming in B. Madonna (photograph by Sandra Zea) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

Maureen Fleming in "B. Madonna" (photograph by Sandra Zea) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

Fleming has spent years studying and practicing butoh, a form of movement and/or dance that grew out of post–World War II Japan. It's difficult to describe in a singular way, but butoh often incorporates incredibly slow and controlled movement, along with dark or grotesque imagery. It's also impossible to understand the form without looking at what was occurring in that country at the time. Prior to the start of World War II, Japan was engaged in the Second Sino-Japanese War — a conflict in which Japan continued longstanding imperialist desires to gain control of Eastern Asia. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, that war merged with World War II . During those years of conflicts, it's estimated that the Japanese slaughtered millions of people, primarily in China and other countries of Eastern Asia (estimates range from 5.5 to over 20 million deaths). And hundreds of Japanese attacks were carried out using chemical and biological weapons.

At the same time, millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians were killed or died during World War II, including hundreds of thousands killed in firebombing campaigns that lasted more than a year and were followed up by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a matter of minutes, hundreds of thousands of people were killed or severely injured and many burned alive, the majority of them civilians. In the days and years that followed, hundreds of thousands more died of radiation poisoning caused by the bombs. On top of this, the American-led occupation of Japan during and immediately following the war placed enormous restrictions on an already ravaged country and population.

Ultimately, the occupation demanded the Westernization of Japanese society — specifically American-style government, industry, and education. That occupation officially ended in 1952, but throughout the 1950s, resistance to Western influences on Japanese culture grew, leading up to massive labor and student protests in 1960 and again in 1968. The work that's credited with being the first butoh performance, Kinjiki, premiered in 1959, and co-creators of the form Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno were seen as resisting not only the cultural influence of the West, but also rejecting the centuries-old Japanese Noh theater tradition, which reflected imperial values in both form and content.

Fleming studied for years with Kazuo Ohno. Not Japanese by blood or citizenship, Fleming was born there, the child of a lieutenant in the US Navy stationed in the country. The circumstances of her being in Japan at birth form a complex link between Fleming, butoh, and the country. In his program note, David Henry Hwang, the playwright who wrote the text for B. MADONNA, makes this succinct observation about Fleming's choice to use butoh into her performance work: "Were she of Asian ancestry, we would conveniently chalk this up to her ethnic origin. In the absence of such, our racially obsessed age perceives a mystery."

In this work Fleming explores the myth of Persephone, as well as the Black Madonna. The myth of Persephone is known, though widely and differently interpreted. Hades, the god of the underworld, abducts and rapes Persephone as she is gathering flowers in a field, then carries her down to his kingdom below the earth. Demeter, Persephone's mother, the goddess of the harvest, is so upset by the abduction of her daughter that she stops all plants from growing and sends a barren and icy winter across the land, resulting in a famine for all the mortals. Eventually Zeus negotiates with Hades for the release of Persephone, but before Persephone leaves, Hades feeds her pomegranate seeds, the food of the underworld. Because she has eaten them, Hades knows she will eventually have to return. And so, the gods strike a deal — Persephone can stay on Mount Olympus for two-thirds of the year, but for the final third she must return to the underworld. For this reason we have seasons, and winter creeps over the land for part of the year before life can renew itself again in the spring, when Persephone returns to her mother, Demeter.

Persephone's myth is also to life and death. As the scholar and writer Edith Hamilton so beautifully put it in her still-essential book Mythology:

[Persephone] did indeed rise from the dead every spring, but she brought with her the memory of where she had come from; with all her bright beauty there was something strange and awesome about her. She was often said to be 'the maiden whose name may not be spoken.'

Maureen Fleming in B. Madonna (photograph by Emily Boland) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

Maureen Fleming in "B. Madonna" (photograph by Emily Boland) (image courtesy Maureen Fleming)

It's difficult to know precisely what Fleming is referring to when she speaks about the Black Madonna, because scholarship is varied and ongoing around early paintings and sculptures of the Madonna (the woman said to have given birth to Jesus by immaculate conception) in which she is depicted with dark skin. In that mix, there are scholars who believe that some of the earliest depictions of a dark-skinned Madonna are attempts by Christians to incorporate earlier pagan goddesses into their religion. In addition, a number of individuals venerate the Black Madonna, both in the past and present, deeming her a powerful symbol of redemption and transformation. As Fleming notes in the program: "Persephone, a Black Madonna arising out of a lineage of Black Madonna dating back to the early Stone Age, symbolizes the return of spring, and the choice to wrestle light from darkness, each day."

You can watch B. MADONNA knowing none of this and still be enthralled by it. In the second movement, spinning kaleidoscopic projections layered across gauze scrims and a white backdrop at first seem to have no form, but soon reveal themselves to be composites of her body in motion. They call up images of Buddhist and Hindu mandala, as well as trance states or even hallucinations. Throughout, the mix of sighing accordion music, the sharp breaths and slices of air in the bamboo flute, the playing of a large taiko drum, and minimalist music by Philip Glass, frequently played live on piano, add to the sense of that we are both in the realm of the body and the soul at once. And the palpable emotions of Fleming's gestures express, at turns, yearning, beauty, grasping, grief, and wonder.

In one of the most striking movements, we hear Ruth Maleczech's voice — itself calling out from beyond death, as Ruth passed away just last month — briefly describe a car accident in which the narrator flies through the windshield while a man passes by laughing on his bicycle (this actually happened to Fleming at the age of two). Then, we see Fleming atop a tall, black, sloped staircase, her legs suspended overhead, her body held in place in a way that only gradually becomes apparent but is never fully revealed. Her body and limbs slowly descend — a quiet revelation of chaos, order, life, and death all at once, accompanied by the rolling progression of Glass's music.

The work is only further enriched by adding the layers of meaning contained in the stories of Persephone and the Black Madonna — by that "lineage" of spiritual imagery and practice focused on the cycles of destruction, death, and rebirth.

This show was such an intense experience, at least for me, that I wondered if I could stay engaged throughout; but just as I thought I might grow tired, it finished in grand flourishes of diaphanous fabric that connected Fleming to a lineage of dance that includes figures like Loie Fuller and Martha Graham.

There's much more that could be said about this production, but I'll leave it there, save to say that if you can see this work, you should. The coming together of talent is something you'd ordinarily expect to see uptown, but the fact that it's being performed at La MaMa, and that it's dedicated to Ellen Stewart, La MaMa's founder, who passed away in early 2011, only adds to its resonance.

Performances of Maureen Fleming's B. MADONNA continue at LaMaMa (74A E 4th Street, East Village, Manhattan) through November 3.