Context Notes: Molissa Fenley and Company
Aaron Mattocks, New York Live Arts Blog
September 20, 2013
How do we perceive time? Time as a duration, how long something lasts, but also time as an experience, a continuum, a seemingly unending, circular flow of energy backward and forward, allowing for the possibilities of life, death, renewal, catastrophe, growth and loss. How does the physical body, its prowess, its beautiful challenges and limitations, its layered and often secreted histories, relate to time? And what of the witnessing of time, both on stage in a single work, and in the decay of our own flesh, the dysmorphia of aging, the body affected by time, over a lifespan, a career? How is this constantly changing body seen in space, in relation to other bodies, or to objects? How can it express itself– rhythmically, abstractly, narratively, sculpturally? To look at the career and, appropriately, the body and body of work of Molissa Fenley, a choreographer and dancer in her thirty sixth year of creating, we see the relationship of time and object to the body, explored with an intensity and integrity that seems unmoved by the shifting influences of trend, economy or politics.In the continuum of time, Fenley shows us that the only thing we ultimately possess is an expressive body, and the incredible range of this expression has kept Fenley occupied for over a third of a century.
It is 1980. A leap year that started on a Tuesday and saw the release of Empire Strikes Back and Pac-Man; Jimmy Carter deregulated the American railroads, signed a $1.5 billion legislative bill bailing out the Chrysler Corporation, and lost his Presidential office to Ronald Reagan; Jean-Paul Sartre, Alfred Hitchcock, Mae West and Steve McQueen died; John Lennon was murdered outside his home in New York City; CNN was launched; Iron Maiden, AC/DC and The Police all released new albums; and it would be the final year before the official recognition of AIDS in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who coined the phrase “the 4H disease”, since the syndrome seemed to affect Haitians, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and heroin users.
Molissa Fenley, who spent most of her youth living in Nigeria, premiered Energizer amidst just such a milieu. This athletic, perhaps even olympic dance, with its infectious techno-tribal score composed by Mark Freedman for the occasion from found objects and recorded percussive sounds, typifies the early period in Fenley’s decades long career as a choreographer -dancer. To say that it requires indefatigability is almost nearly an understatement. The full force, vigorous ensemble works from these years, including 1979’s Mix, with a cast that included a young Elizabeth Streb, Hemispheres from 1983 and Geologic Moments, which was premiered at the 1986 BAM Next Wave Festival, are full of intricate spatial design, beat, repetition, rhythm, and dynamic expressive syncopation. Action is a catalyst, allowing for a trance-like state in the viewer, as the dancers strive and perspire, vacillating between ecstatic states of euphoria and pure exhaustion. As Jennifer Dunning stated in the Times, about Mix, “Miss Fenley may be doing for the clap and bounce what Laura Dean did for the spin.” The comparison is an apt one, as the work seems strongly influenced by both Dean and her colleague in minimalist abstract motion, Lucinda Childs. Also present in the dance’s genealogy and execution are aspects of Merce Cunningham’s aesthetic landscape. What makes it entirely one of Fenley’s creation, however, is the unique attention to the upper body, the often semaphoric articulation of the arms and hands combined with the more sensual influence of hula or Samoan dance, both in the presentation of the body and in the self awareness of the dancers’ attentive performance state. These works, more than anything, celebrate the absolute virtuosic beauty of the trained body. Fenley was both in the original cast and, thirty three years later, is now in the duet at the center of its reconstruction. The word longevity fails to capture the experience of watching her dance next to the other spritely bodies of the revival cast.
After working for many years with small ensemble structures, Fenley turned her attention, for nearly a decade, to the solo form, exploring what it meant to be a woman alone in a theatrical space, often in relation to objects and commissioned sculptures, producing an abundance of singular dances. Perhaps the best known of these is her treatment of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, entitled State of Darkness, from 1988. Two works from this same period have been reconstructed for the present season: The Floor Dances (1989) with sculpture by British land artist Richard Long, and Witches’ Float (1993) with sculpture by the seminal feminist artist Kiki Smith. Due to a horrific injury to her left knee in 1995, with Fenley collapsing on stage at the Joyce Theater on the opening night of an evening of solo premieres, neither of these dances has since been seen.
The relationships between artist, object, subject and performer/creator are particularly relevant and predominant. The Floor Dances was created in response to images of the Alaskan coastline and its wildlife covered in crude oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, at the time the largest in United States history (eclipsed in 2010 by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill); Witches’ Float drew inspiration from the lore of the Salem Witch Trials, where women accused of witchcraft were bound to chairs and thrown in a river –if she sank, she was not a witch (but dead nonetheless), if she floated, she was confirmed a witch and was taken out of the water to be burned at the stake.
Fenley’s choice of sculptors in these pieces is representative of both her thoughtful consideration and passionate knowledge of contemporary visual art. In each case, the connection with the artist’s work is more than logical– it seems almost inevitable. Richard Long states, “I think circles have belonged in some way or other to all people at all times. They are universal and timeless, like the image of a human hand.” For Fenley, The Floor Dances was about limitation, renewal, change and catastrophe, and the ongoingness of time. It is accompanied by Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the second movement of which contains an aria based on a letter found scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in 1944, written by an 18- year old Polish girl: “No, Mother, do not weep, Most chaste Queen of Heaven, Help me always. Hail Mary.” Fenley poignantly explicates themes of grief and loss, and the ultimately cyclical nature of healing and rebirth.
Witches’ Float and its relationship to the female body certainly seems linked to Fenley’s earlier State of Darkness, and its powerful dialogue with Kiki Smith’s sculptural bodies is full of mysterious, dark, brooding energy.
“While [Smith] never flinched from looking at the derogation that the body, particularly the female body, has endured, there is nothing passive about the images she presents. In the process of reclamation, these bodies go through a kind of alchemical transmogrification. The coherence of the body is shattered and reassembled again in arrangements both horrific and elegant… The vulnerability of the human body, its wounds, scars and lacerations, are the very source of transcendence…” -Joanna Isaak, working in the Rag- and- Bone Shop of the Heart
Transformation and metabolic alchemy is something that Fenley returns to again and again, especially in her exploration of duration and the body’s relationship to time.
The premiere of Found Object represents, for now, the culmination of the most recent period of development in Fenley’s work, based on the notion of instructions that began with 94 Feathers (2010). Fenley created Feathers while teaching at Mills College, sending instructions across the country to two New York dancers and allowing them to generate movement based on the provided tasks. These newest works examine the potential, after decades of insular choreographic decision making, for Fenley to creatively free herself from constraint by soliciting instructions and following them, allowing parts of the process to exist outside of herself. In some way, it marks a return or, at least, a nod, to Judson- era devices, and certainly a relationship exists with Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances, allowing for the more capricious quality of “why not?” to enter the creative space. For Found Object, Fenley requested instructions from a group of creative collaborators, their only parameter being that each should take approximately five minutes of stage time to realize. Playwright John Guare juxtaposes how to dry flowers with the rights of prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. Poet Joy Harjo and novelist/screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer also contribute, in silent spatial patterns. The dance is episodic as it travels within and blurs the lines between each different instructive set, its opening sequence an homage to visual artist Jene Highstein (June 16, 1942 – April 27, 2013), who designed prop hands for Pieces of Land (2010) that reference the topography of landscape as seen from spectacular distance, and are here repurposed and reclaimed. It is the quieter, steady, confident and meditative work of a mature and incredibly experienced artist, dancing with and for and against the tides of time, reminding us again and again that we only have this body, in this moment, and soon, all will be gone.