Once, She Considered Herself Invincible
Terry Trucco, The New York Times
November 26, 1995
Last Jan. 24, as Molissa Fenley stepped onto the stage of the Joyce Theater before a packed house on the opening night of her weeklong season, injury was the farthest thing from her mind. In her 20-year career, much of it spent as a solo performer, the choreographer and dancer had never missed a performance and had never been seriously injured. As she herself put it recently, "I considered myself invincible."
So when she felt an odd tightening around her left knee about eight minutes into her first solo, she thought her stretchy velvet costume was to blame. And when the knee started to buckle, she assumed she would be all right if she subtly shifted her weight to her right leg as she danced. But 20 minutes after the first twinge, Ms. Fenley suddenly collapsed in agony, curled up like a pretzel.
Lying there, I felt I'd never dance again," she said. "I thought, they might as well shoot me, like a horse." She would have found it hard to believe that she would return to the stage less than a year later, for a series of seven performances that starts Wednesday at Playhouse 91, on East 91st Street in Manhattan.
In recent years, audiences have watched in horror as a number of well-known dancers crumbled from injuries while on stage, among them the New York City Ballet principal dancers Merrill Ashley in 1993 and Melinda Roy in 1991. But because Ms. Fenley is a solo artist, her situation was particularly upsetting. The mishap ended not only her performance but her season at the Joyce. And it illustrated all too vividly how vulnerable and fragile even a fiercely athletic dancer, like Ms. Fenley, can be.
The injury turned out to be a serious one; Ms. Fenley had torn her anterior cruciate ligament, a vital band of tissue that stabilizes the knee. She was told that she would walk again. But without major surgery and months of physical therapy, her dancing days were history.
"My doctor said: 'You're 40. Aren't you at the end of your career anyway?' " Ms. Fenley recalled wryly the other day, during a conversation at her studio in SoHo.
Instead, she agreed to undergo a two-and-a-half-hour operation -- a tendon from her hamstring was attached to her knee to replace the ripped ligament -- and an intensive rehabilitation program at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York. "They told me I'd dance again in nine months to a year," she recalled. "I said I would do it in six."
In fact, her return is coming just 10 months after her accident. She will perform the program's centerpiece, a new three-part solo called "Regions." The 30-minute work, which is cerebral and intense, has none of Ms. Fenley's signature jumps or spins but features the pared-down movement vocabulary necessitated by her injury. It also serves almost as an artistic documentary of her efforts to regain her ability to dance.
As a reminder of what she once danced -- and will eventually be able to dance again, she says -- the program includes two pre-injury solos, "Tilliboyo," performed by Michele Pogliani, and "Inner Enchantments," which the Canadian soloist Peggy Baker will perform. Ms. Baker will also dance "Pieces for Peggy," a new work Ms. Fenley choreographed for her.
For Ms. Fenley, creating these new works proved to be a much-needed form of artistic therapy, a spiritual balance to the hours of tedious physical therapy she underwent. "It was really important to have my mind working," she said, adding that her longtime friend, the artist Roy Fowler, was highly supportive during her recuperation.
MS. FENLEY BEGAN making dances while she was still on crutches, laboriously climbing the 56 steps to her top-floor studio each afternoon. But the early weeks after the incident were a period of considerable worry and self-doubt, and the choreography came slowly. "I'd make a little, then spend the rest of the time crying," she said.
Ms. Fenley had, in fact, expected to choreograph mainly for other artists during her recovery; in recent years, she has devised new works for the Ohio Ballet and other companies. But as a solo artist, she prefers to fit her dances to her own body, and the discovery that she could "return to business as normal in this new state," as she put it, meant that she could explore fresh creative areas in her customary way.
Her post-injury life eventually developed a rhythm. Mornings were spent at the gym and with a physical therapist, doing leg lifts, using the stationary bike and underwater treadmill and learning to plie again. Afternoons were devoted to choreography. "Making these dances saved my life in a way," she said after dancing "Regions" for a visitor. "They meant I was still a choreographer. But I had a new set of rules to follow."
It seems safe to say she would never have created "Chair Dance," the opening section of "Regions," had she not been injured. Seated in a slat-back wooden armchair, a metaphor for support, Ms. Fenley performs a remarkably physical dance without almost ever touching foot to floor. Instead, she balances atop the seat, extends her arms skyward and winds herself around the armrest, "since I couldn't wind myself around space," she explained.
"Ocean Walk," the second section of "Regions," is also a departure from Ms. Fenley's usual work, with its slightly tentative movements that mirror the fragility she felt while recovering.
As her return to the stage nears, Ms. Fenley has begun rehearsing with her eyes closed to get the feel once again of dancing with bright lights in her face. She admitted that she's a bit nervous about dancing under those lights but isn't worried about being injured again.
"I just have a sense of absolute joy and gratitude to be able to do anything at all," she said. "It's terribly exciting to know you can wipe out and patch yourself together."
Photos: Molissa Fenley in her SoHo studio rehearsing "Chair Dance," theopening section of her new piece, "Regions"--"I just have a sense of absolute joy and gratitude to be able to do anything at all," she says. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)