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Pain Becomes Art

Dancer Maureen Fleming transforms childhood trauma into haunting choreography
July 18, 2017
Appears in February 2009
The Sphere. Photo: Edin Velez

Massoud Saidpour Artistic Director, Performing Arts

The Sphere. Photo: Edin Velez

Yokohama, Japan, late 1950s: An American mother drives down the street, her two-year-old daughter at her side. Suddenly a bicycle darts in front of the car. She slams on the brakes. The child flies through the windshield. In agony the mother catches a glimpse of the man on the bicycle riding away, smiling.

Flash forward to 1994: A dancer stands on her head, awaiting her cue. Something snaps in her neck. X-ray examination indicates that a bone spur has fractured in two. According to the doctor, the spur has replaced a disc between the dancer’s fourth and fifth vertebrae—a condition that would normally confine a person to a wheelchair—and the problem may have originated when she was a child. Can she recall a childhood accident? Through her mother the dancer discovers her involvement in a violent car accident at age two, when her family was living at the American naval base in Yokohama.

What is paradoxical about the earlier incident is that it prompted Maureen Fleming’s unknowing initiation into dance. Something had to be done to escape the excruciating pain caused by the car accident, so with an intuitive sense of survival the little girl began to create dances with slow, twisting movements. The twisting and untwisting of joints increases blood flow, leading to gradual bone regeneration.

The images of the child flying through the windshield and the smiling bicycle rider are both disturbing and intriguing. Why did the bicyclist smile? Perhaps it was to grapple with this question that the incident became the subject of two works by Fleming, Eros and After Eros, bringing together the composer Philip Glass, the playwright David Henry Hwang (known for his M. Butterfly), and the dancer in artistic collaboration. Hwang aptly comments that wedding Fleming’s story to the myth of Eros and Psyche seemed an intriguing way to explore themes of human transcendence.

Fleming does not demonstrate transcendence. She accomplishes transcendence. Like a master sculptor, she uses her extremely supple body to mold images that reach beyond the mind’s eye and into the subconscious. Pleasure, pain, ecstasy, and love are presented not as feelings or emotions but as states of the body—alive, vibrant, pulsating. This is in part due to the legacy of Fleming’s extensive training with two butoh masters, Min Tanaka and the 100-year-old dance legend Kazuo Ohno.

The Sphere. Photos: Lois Greenfield

The Sphere. Photos: Lois Greenfield

Butoh, a dance developed in postwar Japan amidst the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, departs from other Japanese and European dance forms by exploring the darkest side of human nature. It emphasizes the recurring themes of birth, death, and rebirth. As a pure dance form, butoh explores the transmutation of the human body into other forms (such as animals) or abstract ideas (such as the plague) and deals with taboo subjects expressed in grotesque but profoundly moving images. Here, the exterior form is but the manifestation of the inner image, the tip of the iceberg. Butoh, often improvised, is traditionally performed with slow, hyper-controlled movements, with or without an audience. The core idea is to lead a dancer to move from the essence, from the inside. In each moment of Fleming’s dance, she looks for the crossroad between the concrete and tangible reality that is before her and its relationship to existence before and after birth. 

Her departure from butoh’s “dance of the dark soul” is to permeate it with light. Her subjects have more to do with the “unbearable lightness of being” than the soul’s dark corners. This, together with a superb sense of theatricality, makes her art unique. In her multimedia performances, needle-sharp lighting, video and projected images, live music and designed sound, and extraordinary body techniques combine to create surreal movement poetry that calls for suspension of rationality. It is like seeing magic, except that it is not about trickery but sublime imagery.

For example, in The Stairs, set to Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis II,” the body is falling down—indeed, floating in mid-air—from a very steep staircase. The exquisitely shocking image is executed with such flawless precision that it forces the mind into disbelief, as if dreaming. In a piece called Mother and Child Fleming becomes both, and in such a masterful way that she conveys the imagery of two dancing figures. 

I ask Fleming, “Why did the bicycle-man smile?” She replies, “He could have been angry at us, Americans.” After a pause, she adds with a wry smile, “Or he could have been an angel, the type that [Rainer Maria] Rilke wrote about in Duino Elegies.


Every angel is terrible.
And still, alas
knowing all that
I serenade you
you almost deadly
birds of the soul.