Getting to Know: Maureen Fleming!

Maureen Fleming's 'Immortal Rose' photo: Lois Greenfield
I had the immense of pleasure of watching Maureen Fleming's performance of “The Changing Role of Art in Society” at Skidmore this past February.  Her beautiful work, admirable concentration and use of creative props caught the attention of everyone in the audience from beginning to end. Maureen puts much thought and emotion into her work, and has much to say about her work as well as the world around her.

Remy: Part of what interested me about your work is your style of Butoh. Could you share a little bit about Butoh and what it is?

Maureen: My personal experience with Butoh has to do with the fact that I was born in Japan. The first meeting between Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, the co-founders of this art happened in 1954 in Yokohama, which happens to be where and when I was born.  That’s a mysterious fact that's very interesting to me. I was born in Japan because my father was a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy and during that time, the relationship between America and Japan was strained because it was only nine years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. So, when I was two years old, there was a man who was on a bicycle and my mother was driving down the road in Yokohama.  This man stopped quickly on the bicycle, my mother slammed on the brakes and I flew from the back seat and broke through the windshield. Then the man on the bicycle laughed and rode away. This experience was really horrifying for my mother, as you can imagine, but I think that was really my first dance. This incident created a need for me to heal through movement, I think that a lot of my need to twist one way and let the blood build up and then release that and twist into another direction was really how I created my choreography. As you saw with my work, Axis Mundi, the choreography involves this process of shape shifting and among other things, is a clear example of this process.

The way Butoh happened in my life is that it actually came to me. What happened was that I was a professional dancer in New York City in the early 80’s when Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa ETC, brought Min Tanaka, a Butoh artist, to New York. Ellen had seen my choreography and she just knew intuitively that my movement was related to Butoh, so she hired me as a dancer in a tour that started in New York and then toured three cities in Greece, which was an incredible experience. So my first experience with Butoh was to perform Min Tanaka’s choreography in the ruins of Greece in Ellen Stewart’s Mythos Oedipus.

The experience of working for the first time from an image, where it's not "put your foot here and put your hand here," it's, "imagine ten thousand butterflies moving in your body, and what's the movement?" That was a really profound experience, to see what it is to move exclusively from a transformational image. It was very different from any kind of contemporary or modern dance that I had studied or performed. The experience was so strong that I decided, "I really need to study this in Japan" and I did. Instead of going back to America after the tour, I continued as a member of Maijuku, Min Tanaka’s company, first with performances in Paris and Copenhagen and then in Japan. And Ellen, who was very supportive of my work, sent me $500 to help support my stay in Japan. I stayed in the Maijuku studio and studied with Min Tanaka and his company intensively. The training was very violent, physically, in that there was no warm-up. We would wake up in the morning and begin jumping from one side of the room to the other.
We fasted for days alone in the mountains and stood under waterfalls in November. Tanaka believed that by exhausting the body, you got to the body’s inner truth, and that was his way of choreographing a piece, his way of getting his dancers in a particular state that then allowed interesting movement to manifest.  His process of going to physical extremes was very life changing and opened my view of dance.

However, when I left Min Tanaka’s Maijuku, I was very injured from the extremes of the training. Doctors told me that I should not continue dancing. I decided that if I was to continue, I needed to find my own healing. Ellen Stewart gave me the opportunity to teach at the La Mama rehearsal studios. I did that for over 20 years and that was a very important transformation.

However in about 1988, I started training in Japan with Kazuo Ohno and his approach was completely different from Min Tanaka. Kazuo Ohno was much softer and worked purely from an image that he would discover from, for example, reading spiritual books. There was no ‘physical training’. For example, one day he read about Lot’s wife Ruth from the Bible who turned into a pillar salt. So we would become salt melting. However, the training with Min Tanaka served as an important background for the training with Kazuo Ohno. And then I had the great experience of living with the Kazuo Ohno family. I was working with his son Yoshito Ohno on a performance called ‘Eros’ that we brought to New York and performed at La MaMa for three weeks. This performance took place in 1991.

During my time in Japan, I was invited to perform in a Butoh festival in Japan, I believe I was the first and only American to perform in a Butoh Festival in Japan in 1990, and that was very emotional. Akiko Motofuji organized this festival in honor of Tatsumi Hijikata’s death day.
Some of the first Butoh performances were a protest against the American occupation of Japan.  So, to be an American that had studied deeply with one of the founders of the art, and then to perform in a Butoh festival, it was very controversial. However, it is through this experience that I became very interested in the process of the role dance can play to break boundaries and expectations about human beings. I believe that by confronting and voyaging cultural boundaries we can really find an evolution. It is possible to break these patriarchal boundaries that are set up, that divide us. And so, I think that the experience of crossing cultural lines has really transformed what I do. There was a composer in Japan named Stormu Yamashita who once said to me that he felt that my dances were really personal rituals involving an extreme of internal freedom, and that someone could not have created them if they were from New York, or could not have created my dances if they were exclusively from Japan, but that it was because I had gained deep cultural experiences in both places that I created my work. And I feel that's very true.

Remy: Talking more about your work, something else that I really enjoyed about your piece was that, with each different section of you dancing on stage, you used a different prop or medium.  For one you had a giant band that spread across the stage, then a staircase, and then a dome.  How do you come up with ideas about what props to use and how do you best use them to your advantage? I thought that the way you used them was very interesting and added something special to the piece.

Maureen: I study mythology daily. I have always admired the work of Joseph Campbell and I actually had the great pleasure of knowing him. The idea of looking for universal symbols that repeat across cultures, ideas that underlie all religions, has been a very important search for me.
For example, the simple idea of a relationship to a spiritual ascent, symbolized by the white cloth in my work Dialogue of Self and Soul, is a direct way communicating this idea. And the sweep of the cloth connects sometimes visually to the idea also of a crescent moon. Most of my work originates in an idea that reveals more than one perspective, simultaneously.

Water is also a universal symbol of the feminine. We're born out of water. And then falling, a woman falling, that image is a falling inside your body. These ideas come from studying mythology, and I really recommend that every dance artist reads philosophy and world myths, especially the Greek myths, and asks what are these myths really trying to help us understand or experience in terms of spiritual evolution? This ongoing study, coupled with my life experience is how I've come up with my ideas.

Now I'm working with the mythological and historical phenomenon of the Black Madonna, an embodiment of the universal sacred feminine, found and worshiped even today, throughout the world. I hope that my new work, O, Black Madonna, will raise awareness of the values that have led us to make choices perpetuating the cycle of violence begetting violence. Our goal is to create a visual art theater that presents another perspective, one of a universal mythological origin, through the iconic image of the Black Madonna, where our internal world and the black beyond the stars become one and the values of the transcendent feminine and a global alchemy are celebrated.

So it was really interesting that, originally, the first view of God was a very universal image that was not culturally exclusive in terms of race or in terms of geography, but was inclusive. And I think that is something that we need to step back to, because most the patriarchal cultures have created ideologies that have separated people into ‘us and them’ and this has created a rationality or permission that allows one to take something from someone else, if you can dominate or conquer. I think that we really need to stop approaching life from that perspective and try to live more from the idea that we all share the earth, that it's important to look towards the values of deities that have existed for 30,000 years. According to Joseph Campbell, the first male gods coincided with the first wars of annihilation in approximately 5,600 BC.  So, I think it's very important to start to find out what are values that find balance between male and female energies and that's the subject of my next work, O, Black Madonna. 

I've been researching that and I'm hoping to create a group work in conjunction with this work. O, Black Madonna is scheduled at La MaMa ETC in NYC for three weeks in 2013 and I will be doing a presentation both in the Ellen Stewart Theater and in La Mama’s gallery.  In the gallery there's going to be a kinetic sculpture created by Christopher Odo that will move with the choreography. My idea is that people from different groups...from different places in the world would perform this work on different evenings during the run. It's similar to ‘Dialogue of Self and Soul’ in that the performers are connected to one point. They will be connected to elastics that will be on their feet, and it will be a way of everyone being connected to one point, and it will move. This is a structure I'm trying to create with different groups from around the world. I hope to have a group from Skidmore if there is interest. I think it's an interesting project because my work is very alchemical. This choreography is a strategy working towards a global alchemy.

Remy:  Something that you talked about a bit during your performance and briefly touched upon earlier was the injury that you have in your back, and I remember you saying that dance helped you to deal with that injury. Could you talk a bit about that and what dance did for you?

Maureen: Well, I have experienced that a shortening in the deepest parts of the body is the result of most injuries. And I believe that, by constantly working with images that open those places that are shortened, that opening, leads to more circulation, and the more circulation leads to taking out whatever is not good, it moves it out of the body. I think that the very simple process of imaging, like you have ten million flowers opening in your body, that kind of idea, and then not only imagining that but working from that perspective on a daily basis, I think it fundamentally leads to the loss of constriction. Recently, in the last five years, I've also been working with voice so that the voice becomes a thermometer for the openness of the body. As we do the training, we make sound and each person listens to the sound to see whether or not the sound has resonance free of tension, and then they know if they've found the correct alignment because in order for the sound to be resonant, the alignment has to be connected where the diaphragm is down through a connection with the psoas muscle. And if you can get to the psoas muscle, into that inner core, and you're strengthening the body from that place rather than the outer muscles, then you're working towards a body that has openness in the joints and in the different parts of the body. The ‘voice thermometer’ is one way, however, there's hundreds of ways to open the body, but essentially I think that's what it comes down to, how to open that inner regenerative ‘soul body’. It's very interesting to realize that, when we die; our body becomes a little bit lighter, so in fact the soul body has a real place in the body. I think that the idea of dance being a process of putting one in touch with that and being able to experience that inside of movement, is how the healing process takes place. That is my experience.

Remy: So you've said that your work is all about an image, and you have an image in your head that you're going along with. What kind of images inspire you in your work, what kind of images do you use to create a piece around?

Maureen: Well, the images that I have studied have origins, generally, in mystical writings and teachings. I've organized the images down to ten of the most significant images that I work with for daily training and then, generally when people are doing really simple exercises, they memorize the ‘Ten Images’ that I experience really align the body. They speak them and perform a very simple exercise, for example, a plié...or a sit up. But often now I'm using resistance, a training I’ve created called Fleming Elastics, so as you roll down saying the ten images you are attached to a point that is maybe 20 feet in the air, that is creating a resistance and allowing you to go deep in the body so you can really clearly and easily experience that image. But the images I've studied, I read poetry constantly, from Rumi to Yeats, and Kazuo Ohno and Tatsumi Hijikata came up with numerous images that created a change in movement, and so there are so many thousands of them. But more, what I think is important is to engage in the process of looking.

A very simple one is, in Egyptian art there are often images of gods depicted who have a horse head…they're wearing a horse head. So you imagine that your head is a horse head, that you have long ears and the hair of the horse is growing down your back, and the top of the hair is growing and you have large eyes and a very big nose. Just the horse's body creates a presence and an opening in your body that is connected to mythology, and the reason it's connected to mythology is because, when you imagine it inside of yourself, there's an opening.  And another very, very simple image that is found in cultures around the world is the cross. I imagine the cross in my chest, reaching to the horizon on both sides, and then up and down to touch the planets on each side of the earth, you imagine your body opening in those four directions. There is an expansive sense that is present in this image and there's a reason that the cross-is found in so many cultures. It's a symbol of the temporal world, or that world which we experience in our daily lives...and the eternal world, which is beyond. The crossroad of these two realities are symbolized by the image of the cross, and these things become a part of life if we open our eyes to symbols, like the universal symbol of the angel for example...  These symbols, which are painted and sculpted, they're really about you … you imagine them, and in essence you become them. I research images across artistic and spiritual disciplines and I continue to open myself to new images wherever I can find them.

Remy: My last question: are there any artists, either dancers or non-dancers, who really inspire your work?

Maureen: I would say Joseph Campbell has been the most significant. And then, of course, Kazuo Ohno has been an enormous influence in my life. I was recently at his funeral and that was really quite an emotional and amazing experience too profound to find words to describe. Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa E.T.C., who also recently passed away; was very important for my artistic development. I can’t really believe she is gone because she is still so present to me. I would say these three people have been the greatest influences in my life thus far.

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