A childhood injury shaped the style of Maureen Fleming's distinctive dance

March 18, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Maureen Fleming believes she has discovered the origin of her art: Her body created it instinctively when she was injured as a child.

The solo dancer, known for blending the Japanese butoh movement with a sinewy, lyrical expressionism all her own, sees her latest work, "Eros," as part of "a constantly evolving performance" she has been doing since age 2.

She tells a tale of artistic and therapeutic creation, reaching back to a time she does not remember, that mixes elements of Eastern myth and Western medicine.

"I was living in Japan, during the American occupation following the war -- my father was in the Navy -- and I was in a car accident, a very bizarre incident," she says. "A man on a bicycle darted in front of the car, my mother slammed on the brakes and I flew [into] the windshield, and the man laughed and rode away."

The dancer now likens the man to Eros, the precocious mythical figure whose passionate/jealous relationship with the princess Psyche makes up the myth Ms. Fleming has always explored with her dance.

Ms. Fleming completes a two-week residency at Towson State University's Dance on the Edge group with two performances of "Eros" this weekend.

"At that moment," she says of the accident, "I lost the disk between my fourth and fifth vertebrae, but I didn't really discover this until a month ago."

An X-ray taken for an injury suffered in a performance last fall revealed she had broken bones in that part of her neck -- bones that had apparently grown over the years to replace the damaged disk from her childhood accident.

Ms. Fleming thinks her lifelong impulse to dance, and specifically to move in her distinctive slow-motion style, was her body's response to the injury.

"My mother just said to me that I always danced, and it is a very strange dance that I do. I never really understood it," she acknowledges, laughing. "What I'm doing is a kind of slow-motion chiropractic method of twisting the body into extreme positions, where the blood builds up and stops, and then slowly untwisting so the blood flows more quickly, thereby creating a kind of cleansing of the body."

As a child, she remembers instructing her eight siblings in neighborhood plays, "asking them to fall asleep in different positions."

In her performances, she freezes her body -- often nude -- into what she calls "slow-moving sculptures." She creates forms that, with subtle lighting effects, often do not look human, then evolve slowly into recognizable living images, such as a child or an old woman.

Ms. Fleming performed an earlier work, "Water on the Moon," for Dance on the Edge in Baltimore in November 1990.

In a workshop this week with 20 students, who will perform demonstrations along with her performances this weekend, she was instructing them in imposing imagery upon movement.

The dancers begin on their backs in three circles.

"I want to see if you can make yourself float, as one by one vertebrae part," she instructs, moving between them to correct a position here or praise one there.

She asks the dancers to imagine elastic bands connecting their limbs, and to believe they are flinging drops of water from their fingertips.

"Explore the potential of your body," she counsels.

In the interview, Ms. Fleming explains she believes the human body contains regenerative power. "I think all bodies entrusted to their natural intuition will find the way of healing, if you really listen to your intuitive senses," she says.

She relates another story, dating back about 10 years, when doctors urged her to have surgery for pain she was suffering in her back.

"Of course, they said 'unfortunately, you'll lose all flexibility of JTC your spine.' And I said absolutely not, and at that point began to heavily research into the Chinese and Japanese and other ways of regeneration."

In Western medicine, she says, "there's very little understanding about a way of dancing that's actually regenerative, for example like tai chi, that actually increases the ability of the body."

Ms. Fleming teaches workshops in New York in what she calls "movement and metaphor," mixing imagery from many sources with motions that emphasize twisting, stretching and otherwise aligning the body's spiritual center, the spinal column.

"I get a mix [of participants]. I get a lot of artists, a lot of writers, a lot of dancers, a lot of theater people and a lot of people working with the voice, singers," she says.

Ms. Fleming studied with butoh master Kazuo Ohno and performed with Maijuku. Her performance is co-directed by her husband Chris Odo, lighting by Howard Thies, film footage by Jeff Bush and stage assistance by Chris Nieder.

'EROS'

What: Dance on the Edge performance features Maureen Fleming

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow

Where: Stephens Hall Theatre at Towson State University, 7900 York Road

Tickets: $15 adults; $13 TSU faculty, staff and alumni; $11 students and senior citizens

Call: (410) 830-3369

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