Molissa Fenley and Company

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Fenley Remains Ageless Wonder
Women on the Way Festival, Week 2: Dances by Printz, Fenley and Punkki
Allan Ulrich, Voice of Dance
January 22, 2007


Photo © Paula Court

Do choreographers get paid by the minute, or what? Is an hour-long dance four times as valuable as a 15-minute opus? It was far too easy during Friday evening's (Jan. 19) protracted entry in the seventh annual Women on the Way Festival to believe that underwriters pay for dances the way they buy bolts of cloth, by the yard. Even the miraculous Molissa Fenley, the only memorable entry on this bill at San Francisco's Dance Mission, succumbs occasionally to overstatement. WOW Festival producer Mary Alice Fry is a friendly, generous soul who believes in heaping platters of movement on a patron's tray, but, this time, I'm afraid she miscalculated.

I've never been able to discern the artistic policy guiding WOW, and Friday, I remained mystified. Did Stacey Printz's entry level modernism merit two spots on the program, both with previously seen efforts? And juxtaposing Fenley's two solos with an overextended duet by Raisa Punkki lent an uncomfortable sameness to the fare. Then, at the two-hour mark, we were greeted with a staged cantata, Cats, Dogs and Divas, composed and performed at the keyboard by Mark Alburger. The defections were substantial; I regrettably took my leave at the 35-minute mark and would welcome hearing the work again under more favorable circumstances and with more assured vocalism than this effort from the women of Goat Hill Productions. There comes a time when artists are left speaking to themselves, and it's wise for us outsiders not to intrude.

Fenley, schooled at Oakland's Mills College and based in New York, remains an agless wonder. I can only hope that the other choreographers on the program found the time to observe her barefoot movement monologues, her intimate relationship with the music (the evening focused on collaborations), her preternatural polish in launching and finishing a phrase and her gift for investing her dances with both emotional inflections and structural certitude. She is a formalist with feelings and she dares you to look away. A minimalist Philip Glasspiano score propelled Dreaming Awake (2006), a multipart essay that begins with Fenley, in full presentational mode, opening her arms to the world. She pivots artfully, hinges her arms, rolls and recovers and skips around the space. The tone, however, is distinctly meditative, and the vocabulary is mixed; a tendu here and there, radiated much conviction.

Fenley changes costumes, from gray to crimson, for Four Lines (2006) with its spiky Jon Gibson saxophone music. The movement trajectory inclines to the rhythmically defined and the interaction with the music often seems improvisatory in its shifting dynamic. What is perhaps most remarkable about Fenley's solo is the manner in which she incorporates disparate gestures, like a flexed foot, and blurs the distinction between a cadence and the launch of a new phrase structure. What was missing here (and I'm not necessarily complaining) is the intensity that Fenley brought to everything a decade ago. Age or the serenity of maturity, perhaps?

Punkki, a Finnish native who prepared Red Xing for the 2006 Full Moon Dance Festival in Finland, is more interesting than her material. With the collaboration of dancer Kakuti Davis Lin and composer Albert Mathias, she offered here a long essay in postmodern minimalism. Alone and then together, the performers traded and inverted phrases. One could admire the legato and the effortless transitions of the movement. One could exult in the dancersendlessly flexible spines. Yet, Punkki's sense of time is her very own and, as this austere offering neared the half-hour mark, one reached for the metaphorical pruning shears. Mathiasscore furnishes a measure of interest. The problem, aside from length, is that Punkki doesn't transcend steps to deliver us the requisite tension between the performers. All the descents, the rocking on feet and the artful swoops just don't add up.

Printz's problems are two-fold. None of the other dancers in her Printz Dance Project can deliver her ferocious attack, and, more, seriously, she seems afraid of boring us. Finding the Morning was generated after a prolonged injury and it starts impressively with Printz's own nervous, gestural solo. But the other six dancers don't develop the movement material the choreographer has proposed. The piece rushes madly from encounter to encounter. Jutting elbows meet (a particularly ugly phrase), dancers clamber over each other's backs, unisons with raised arms proliferate, and the performers struggle to get out the steps, let alone, color them with any kind of emotional inflection. The score was by The Notwist, edited by Matthew Kratz.

At least, Beat Sequitur (version 2) is shorter and livelier, if not particularly distinctive. The collaborator here is live beatboxer Carlos Aguirre whose percussive vocal flights set the seven dancers flying in a mixed vocabulary of hip-hop and Asian modes. The piece keeps the attention, but Printz's group maneuvers never take off. I wondered why the performers were scrunched like beetles hopping as if someone had lit a match under them. Call it a case of the terminal cutes. A complement of friends and admirers, who fled immediately after Printz's second number (how tacky!) ate it all up.


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