Artists refer to the "happy accident," the mistake that adds a kind of beauty that intention could not have conceived. What happened to Maureen Fleming is quite a bit more significant. She was two years old and living in Japan, where her parents were stationed a decade after World War II. Fleming's mother was driving with her and her sisters when a man on a bicycle stopped suddenly. In order not to hit him, her mother slammed on the brakes, throwing Fleming through the windshield in a bloody and near-tragic crash. The man rode away.
But instead of tragedy, Fleming made something beautiful of her injury. She lost the disc between her fourth and fifth vertebrae in the accident. Her mother never told her about it.
"I intuitively, as a child, started doing very slow, twisting movement - intuitively finding a way to regenerate lost tissue and also to encourage circulation," she says by phone. "I think it was not conscious that as a baby I was doing that, but I think in some ways it worked."
Her persistent twisting and stretching helped her cope with the steady presence of low-grade pain. As she began to study classical ballet, those movements blended with her dance training.
"My classical training as a dancer combined with that idiosyncratic movement and it just became my choreography," she says.
Fleming had been studying ballet with Margaret Craske in New York when she went back to Japan in 1984. She found herself drawn to Butoh, a dance style that evolved after WWII, as students began to reject both western and old Japanese conventions.
"It's an art created by images," she explains. "You imagine, for example, that you have an elastic band connecting your toe to your ear. That gave me structure so I could develop the movement vocabulary that I had created."
The form is not strictly defined, but for Fleming, it has melded with contortion in a captivating, slow-motion performance art, expressing ideals of form and archetypical beauty. Her performances are sculptural as much as they are movement-based, with light and music as important as the movement itself. Fleming often performs nude or follows the Butoh practice of covering the body with white paint.
In Cleveland, she'll perform her works "Stairs, Driftwood," "The Immortal Rose," and "Dialogue of Self and Soul." She'll also show a video of her work "Mother and Child." In the program, with a few spoken lines, she's associated the dances with poems by William Butler Yeats.
Fleming sees the kind of transformation she went through after that childhood accident as a key to true happiness. "We all have those man-on-a-bicycle moments. To have found a transformation through a country that created the need for that transformation - what's important about my work is that the 'tit for tat' patriarchal idea of justice doesn't seem to be working. What's more important is to take it upon ourselves to find our own solutions. That is where true happiness lies."
THE CREATION of Alex Ketley's new work for GroundWorks Dancetheater has been at once more and less personal. Rather than find the movement completely within himself, he roughed out some ideas during a residency with GroundWorks in December, and then went back to the West Coast, leaving David Shimotakahara's company to fill in the framework with movements their own. Groundworks gives the world premiere of the new dance, "For You," this weekend, a week before the company makes its New York debut.
"When I arrived, I didn't have anything set about what to do," says Ketley. "I tend to just generate movement material and watch how that works with the dancers. This piece reflects the push and pull of relationships in three couples, and it ends with a duet that is much quieter, a kind of resolution. The deeper backstory [that] I wasn't necessarily trying to process was a long relationship that dissolved. I was a little fascinated with the dynamics - that you could be tremendously intimate with someone for a long time and end up on different pages and drifting away from each other."
Ketley doesn't find motivation in music - quite the opposite, in fact. "One of the things I realize is that the dancers, when they are given freedom, their own rhythmic movements are captivating. Rhythm tends to dampen down their intuitions."
In addition to the work by Ketley - which is not among those the company will take to New York - this weekend's lineup includes a couple of pieces that they will show there: Shimotakahara's Circadian and Nano, both with original music by Gustavo Aguilar. The New York program also includes works by other recent artists in residence, KT Niehoff and Keely Garfield. Shimotakahara says the New York shows resulted from a visit by another guest choreographer, David Parker, who curates a dance series at the West End Theater, located in a United Methodist Church.
"When he was here, he came into rehearsal one day and said, 'I think you should be seen in New York,'" says Shimotakahara. "During our 10th anniversary, I think we're ready to be seen."
Maureen Fleming Dance 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 28 Ohio Theatre 1501 Euclid Ave. Tickets: $41 216.421.7350 clevelandart.org. GroundWorks Dancetheater 8 p.m. Friday, February 27 and Saturday, February 28 Westfield Insurance Studio Theatre 1375 Euclid Ave. Tickets: $18-$22 216.241.6000 notsoobvious.com