Molissa Fenley and Company

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Letter from Seattle, 7-12: Rites of Spring
From Balanchine to Fenley to Lowenberg at Pacific Northwest Ballet & School
Renée E. D'Aoust, The Dance Insider
© 2007 Renée E. D'Aoust
July, 2007

SEATTLE -- Post-modernists often deconstruct great works of art, but in "State of Darkness," set to Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," and performed May 31 - June 10 by Pacific Northwest Ballet at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Molissa Fenley doesn't concern herself with un-doing Nijinsky. Fenley places just one dancer onstage. Instead of an ensemble, we see a physically actualized dialogue of soloist and musical score, which was conducted with verve by Stewart Kershaw, PNB'S music director. (The acoustics of McCaw Hall are superb, and apparently these performances were only the second time "State of Darkness," created in 1988, had been performed with a live orchestra.) In the two performances I caught, Rachel Foster performed June 1, and James Moore danced the June 2 matinee. David Moodey's stunning lighting design involved dramatic shifts of opaque white to midnight blue that seemed to syncopate with Stravinsky's savage rhythms. The lighting often foretold the movement, changing a second before the soloist switched from walking a diagonal to carving a circle, or when she transformed from bird to cat.

It is impossible to describe Fenley's piece without reverting to animal descriptions. "State of Darkness" has different movement themes that could just as easily be thought of as different animals, yet the human is always present. There is a signature circling of the arms, and it occurs in three ways. In one, the arms circle almost like a jogging warm-up or a boxer readying to enter the ring; there is a straight line, and we follow the line through the air to form the circle. In another, the arms circle with the elbows bent, so that the sensation of flight is created. The hands are still up in the air, open in a wide "V" -- a Fenley port de bras and a vigorous invocation. And finally, the arms circle with the elbows entirely bent, the port de bras no longer moving from the shoulder or the back, the hands clutched into the body, the wings now broken. It hurts to watch.

On June 1, Foster coolly demonstrated her ability to defy black holes by negotiating the pull of emptiness. She is not sucked into darkness, nor is she cornered by the exotic madness that is the call of Stravinsky's high bassoon. Rather, she stands in the central circular spot of white light, surrounded by that midnight blue, and suddenly descends, one leg bent, one leg straight to the side. The descent is lyrical, powerful. Foster pushes gravity down, deeper into the earth, elegantly revealing a way to negotiate our earth-bound lives.

She sculpts and shapes the air around her body, expressing through one sharp motion across her throat, performed starkly and quickly, the very ordinary strength required to face each day. The arm across the throat repeats across the forehead, causing me to think to myself, "This maiden might dance herself to death." Fenley wouldn't succumb to such sentimental weakness. She insists that our individual lives matter. The dancer withstands the force of ritual, withstands the force of darkness in our culture. This dance dialogue with Stravinsky ends in with a virtuosic step forward. Choreographer and interpreter show that no matter life's curves, it is possible to breathe. The dancer's feet are firmly on the ground, the movement is recognizable, accessible, athletic, and as if that weren't enough, Foster is full of grace while encompassing the magnitude that is "State of Darkness."

At the Saturday matinee, James Moore performed a different, no less important, more febrile interpretation. The difference between the two interpretations was not simply one of gender. Moore's long torso and short legs are uniquely suited to Fenley's work. He performs minute movements that resonate throughout the theater. His listening skill is amazing; the right palm cups over the top of the ear, and he oils his eardrum. Of course, that's impossible to witness, but I think you get the sense of how I saw an interior organ on the exterior of his body.

Fenley's choreography includes subtle allusions to Nijinsky: the archaic arm briefly stopped mid-flow and the slight, occasional protrusion of the buttock muscles evoking a primitive sense of propulsion. Closed movement that arises out of the small performance spaces of a downtown choreographer are present, but on McCaw Hall's proscenium stage, and as performed by Moore, these smaller motions weren't lost, merely writ with palpable ease, particularly the crumbly contractions of the abdominal muscles and the tiny, intermittent, scratching hand motions that referenced and in some cases paralleled the abdominal isolations. Yet if I describe these movements as primitive contractions and isolations, I do not give due credit to their refined, receptive, and rippled qualities. Think of bird bones, which are laced with air cavities, combining lightness and strength. Then hear the pumping, barbaric rhythms of Stravinsky's 'Sacre.' Molissa Fenley crafts the body as a hollow cavity; instead of blood coursing through arteries and veins, Stravinsky's rhythms pulse through, making emotions and the subconscious visible.

"State of Darkness" is audacious in its simplicity and utterly bold in its ability to turn our way of seeing the world into a spiral instead of a line. Fenley choreographed the dance during earlier desperate days of HIV/AIDS. Now in 2007, our "State of Darkness" shows the dying gasps of American Exceptionalism. What redeems us is not death, but humanity in the presence of loss. We stay. We live. We step out of the human ritual of war. It's possible -- to stop. Writing in 1989 in High Performance magazine, Ann Daly called the work "an incantation: a rather desperate act of faith in the future of humankind." The incantation is one we still need to hear and to heed. (New York audiences will have the opportunity to do so in December, when Fenley's company performs the piece on one of her Joyce Theater programs.)

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