The Energy Crisis
Judith Mackrell on works by Amanda Miller and Molissa Fenley in the 'Now You See It' season at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
Judith Mackrell, The Independent II
August 8, 1994
Now You See It', the series of one-off performances at the South Bank, is particularly apt for dance. Not only does the one-night stand enshrine the transient nature of dance performance, but the two choreographers featured in the season, Amanda Miller and Molissa Fenley, are both rarely seen in London (and given the negligible funds for international dance exchange, might not be returning in a long time).
Miller made a name for herself as a dancer and choreographer with William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet and in her 1988 piece Pretty Ugly, Forsythe's influence is unmissable. The near impenetrable gloom of the stage lighting, the amplified musical Babel, the swipingly aggressive rewrite of classical language are all familiar from his work - as is the need for stringent editing.
But Miller has her own vision and is seriously investigating what dance is possible for the urban wastelands of the millennium. Her dancers try out different postures - erotic, exotic, classical, athletic - and trash them all with mocking violence. They swoop round the stage in souped-up ballet jumps, then lose themselves in a kind of head-banging entropy.
In Night by Itself (1992), the dancers have become a tribe - uniformed in urban grunge. The movement has lost much of its Eighties power play and its weirdly mesmerising mannerisms capture the aimless drift of inner-city life. Throughout the piece, the hard, clean lines of ballet dissipate into rather beautifully neurotic doodlings, the performers wander into apparently chance dance sequences then lope away again. There's a mild, wacky humour in the piece and an unsettling feeling of contingency that are underpinned by some very clever dance composition indeed.
Yet the movement's scaled-down energy becomes a serious case of lethargy in Two Pears (1994). To the music of Arto Lindsay, the dancers stray around making feyly eccentric movements that exhaust themselves before they have begun. The work's major shock comes when its cast of about nine dancers and musicians line up for applause and you can't believe that so many people could generate so little energy.
Molissa Fenley, however, is famous for energy. There's a sense in which her dancing is a private ritual - a solitary struggle to transcend her human limits through dance. But Fenley's actual choreography is also preoccupied by the sacred and the primitive. When she dances to Arvo Part's grandly solemn music, her hands are clasped in prayer, her face lifted to catch the glowing light. When she's sharing her stage with Richard Long's floor sculpture, a snaking pattern of bright white stones, she's constantly drawn to it, as if getting sustenance from some ancient ley line.
By placing her own endurance and her own vision so squarely at the centre of the performance, Fenley naturally cuts a singular figure. She also dances like no one else. Unusually for a woman, her power lies in her arms and body, while her legs look stiff in their fierce, tight kicks and turns. She is constantly tensed, filling the stage with the ferocity of her attention. This total lack of relaxation and repose can become a strain to watch. And, though Fenly works her material impressively hard, one woman can only do so much. Her final solo, to a disappointing score by Laurie Anderson, includes some strange and lovely arm movements, but is still burdened by repetition. By the end of a show that felt about half an hour too long, I had to concede my stamina was no match for hers.