Molissa Fenley is Energy in Motion
Anna KisselgoffOctober 17, 1982
When a new personality appears on the already populated experimental dance scene and when a force of the whiplash variety is actually the hallmark of that dancer, one is quite naturally jolted into realizing there is something different here. And when Molissa Fenley, that 27-year-old dancer and choreographer tells you that she commonly runs a seven-minute mile, that she is a wind sprinter, that she is looking for a running coach and that her philosophical mentor is the British polymath, Colin Wilson, it is obvious that Miss Fenley is not in the same corner as her other ''New Dance'' colleagues.
''Eureka,'' her most recent work at the Bessie Schonberg Theater, was a typical demonstration of her way with high-speed, stamina and endurance. To dance at such a peak of physical intensity for over an hour and a half in a solo is not customary practice for either dancers or audience. Miss Fenley is, in fact, a controversial dancer and choreographer. She can blast out across the floor with the impact of a human cannonball and she can, startlingly, subside into an undulating sequence of movement with conscious allusions to pictorial images from ancient cultures.
In ''Eureka,'' she throws out incontestably dramatic images. As she flashes through each gesture or stance, each image speaks with the impact of the moment - not as part of a linear narrative. And yet the overwhelming sensation is of a relentless stream of movement, underlaid by a throbbing beat. In ''Eureka'' it is also covered up with occasionally jazzy textures by the composer Peter Gordon. Amplifiers are de rigueur.
The bombardment of energy that confronts an audience in a Fenley concert is what made her first major success, a female quartet entitled ''Energizer'' in 1980, so disturbing to many. It was also disturbing in the best sense of stimulation. But perhaps it is the newness of her work that is unsettling - her effort to emerge from the Post-Modern Dance label in which experimental modern dancers have been enclosed.
She is, as she proved in a conversation about her dance concerns, most eager to reject that label. In her mind this esthetic is firmly tied to the Judson Church group of the 1960's and she professes a lack of interest in their stress on natural movement, use of objects and formal play with task-like games.
Instead, she says, ''I deal with dance - the pureness of continuous motion over a very long endurance period.'' Virtuosity and technique are paramount then. Yet while many choreographers fell into a systematized mode that made for dryness, Miss Fenley is all out to evoke and experience a visceral response. Thus, when she says that ''Movement for movement's sake'' is not her goal, one is inclined to take her word despite her own very strong formal rhythmic and spatial structures. Nor is the hypnotic, possibly mystic root of current repetitive pattern dancing also relevant to her own use of repetition.
The Sufi and Tantric Buddhist background behind Laura Dean's pattern dances is not operating in Miss Fenley's approach. Interestingly, however, one of her main influences does come from non-Western cultures. Having spent a great deal of her youth in Nigeria and Spain, where her father served in the State Department, before she graduated from Mills College in California, Miss Fenley was attracted by ''what all third world dancing seems to be about - the head, the hands, the upper body. This was for communication. The feet are just to propel yourself.''
From this personal style of movement, she has moved into the area that significantly separates her from other experimental dancers. The pure formalist approach has struck her as ''so slow and methodical. No one ever sweated and I guess I have the old Puritan ethic. Sweat does mean something is going on.''
Trained at Mills in mainstream modern dance techniques, especially in Martha Graham's, Miss Fenley speaks in terms that are not all that remote from certain Graham principles. The third and final part of ''Eureka'' is called ''Racial Memory'' - a Jungian concept that Miss Graham has dealt with in words such as ''ancestral footsteps'' and in works such as ''Dark Meadow.''
''In the 'Racial Memory' section, I want to go into characteristics that are part of the basic movement of other cultures. I go to the Museum of Matural History. I see Balinese dancers. I consciously try to emulate their essence. I study Egyptian friezes.''
A Fenley dance seeks to reach the viewer through sheer energy and in the choreographer's view, the sensation she seeks for herself is an unprecedented one. It is here that Colin Wilson, author of many books beginning with ''The Outsider,'' comes in. ''I'm interested in exploring what's hidden,'' Miss Fenley says. Mr. Wilson's book, ''The Mind Parasites.'' struck her with its point about, in her words,''our inability to overcome the habitual.''
To Miss Fenley, the need of people to have the understandable before them does not allow most Western cultures to reach deep into ''a racial memory that goes into an appreciation on psychological terms.'' Translated into her own work, this means creating ''movement that evokes a sensation.'' It is movement, she says, ''that leaves my state of mind altered at the end of the piece'' and that attempts to ''deepen'' a kinesthetic response in the viewer.
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This is then, no longer, the formalist purity we have expected in two decades of experimental dance. Nor is it the old psychological dance drama. A further clue to Miss Fenley lies in her admiration for the paintings of the early Czechoslovak abstractionist, Frantisek Kupka. The lines and curves of his paintings can sometimes be found in her floor patterns. But more important is her attraction to ''the lushness of these paintings,'' she says. ''It was not cold abstraction.'' This abstraction is not comparable, in her world, to movement for movement's sake. Kupka, also a spiritualist medium, was often compared to Kandinsky - both spoke of a spiritual dimension beyond the visible world. The abstract Miss Fenley admires is Kupka's -which she calls one ''that goes into the true abstract, of truth and beauty.''
Her self-appointed task is ''to develop a symbology to speak to all cultures.'' Her solution is found in personal preferences: ''I like to be athletic, fast, to sweat, to use my hands. In a television age, people have to be bombarded before they open their minds. You have to grab them through prowess.''
And so she has. ''Energizer'' had four women crisscrossing on separate tracks of movement at high speeds. The patterns were varied, rich and hard to follow. One reason was a sophisticated formal device keyed to an ''after-image''. One dancer immediately moved into another's path so that the images merged. Miss Fenley aims for what she calls ''a syn-esthetic effect,'' to evoke all the senses.
''Eureka'' is less broad-stroked, and the ostensible subject is how Miss Fenley's body is transformed during the performance. The movement she uses is obviously culled from several idioms, including ballet. And yet it looks different after undergoing changes in acceleration, context and rhythm. Miss Fenley ''treats'' the movement the way an electronic synthesizer treats sound. Yet to turn up the volume in movement terms, as a goal in itself, seems to head straight for a dead end. It is beyond such a formal objective, that Miss Fenley seems to be driving.
''Colin Wilson speaks of the will to go beyond the normal, to the peak,'' she adds. ''Part I of 'Eureka' is called 'Will Powers,' and it doesn't mean the power to keep going, but topping the mind, to go beyond oneself. I am searching for something that is not tangible and I am bridging the gap physiologically by working at an intense physical peak.''
It might be disconcerting to hear an ostensibly formalist choreographer speak in psychic terms. Yet this is the point. Miss Fenley signifies a change in dance, possibly a breakthrough, and an exciting one.