There is an old saying: The body doesn’t lie. Our fears and feelings show themselves in a twitch, an awkward stance, the eagerness with which we raise our eyes to another. But that doesn’t really go far enough. There are times – and Saturday night’s Festival Faculty Gala at the Bates Dance Festival was one of them – when the body tells a truth so deep that it transforms the way we look at life itself.
The dance was Maureen Fleming’s “Axis Mundi,” or Tree of Life. With stillness, strength and the naked force of one body Fleming took on the very essence of being.
The work began with her inert form resting in a shallow circle of water, like a gnarled root in the primordial ooze. From this stillness, the will to move appeared – at first just sensed, then rumbling through her torso in miniscule stretches. An arm began snaking slowly upward. Then her legs lifted in an impossible sideways twist. The slow, Butoh-like movements reflected in the pool beneath her, so that body and water created a whole new form.
Through amazing contortions, all done in trance-like slow motion, Fleming dissolved herself again and again. Subtle, shifting lighting designed by Howard Thies and Chris Odo enhanced the illusion. The twisting form lost its spatial references – legs became arms, shoulders became buttocks, and for brief, shocking moments, it wasn’t human at all. Fleming became another species. Every species.
Inevitable as it was, the sheer burden of her unfolding was awe-inspiring. The agony and effort of matter transforming itself. The sudden realization that she had transferred her life source from water to light, at the appearance of a globe that glowed behind her like a pressing planet. And, finally, the crucified majesty of her standing erect with branches in her arms, mouth agape, screaming silently.
Published in the Portland Press Herald, 1994.