Molissa Fenley and Company

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The Modern Myth
Steve Ha, You Dance Funny, So Does Me
December 20, 2010

As you know, the majority of my blog’s content is related to ballet, with the occasional post about modern.  However, all of the reviews I’ve done for Seattle Dances have been about contemporary artists, with the most recent being on choreographer/dancer Molissa Fenley’s work, in an evening featuring performances of three pieces, which were then followed by a conversation between her and Pacific Northwest Ballet director, Peter Boal.  Despite my feeble attempt to be somewhat incognito by wearing my Clark Kent glasses, Peter (we shook hands, we’re on a first name basis now) said he recognized me from class—I think the people at PNB are on to me…I knew I should have upped the ante with a fake mustache but alas, at this point my regrets are my own.

Peter told a funny anecdote about how when he had nights off from New York City Ballet, he went to see Molissa Fenley perform, while other NYCB dancers (including his wife) went to see the likes of Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theater.  Fenley was also quick to note that she would see Peter perform with his respective company, so there was a mutual appreciation of the other’s art.  I don’t know that it’s very common for ballet dancers to find modern dance interesting, and it certainly wasn’t natural for me either.  We all know that I’m an Ashton junkie (well, Peter doesn’t know…YET) because the technical steps, characterization and musicality (among many, many other things) speak to my soul.  I took to ballet like a faerie to a forest but modern was and continues to be more difficult for me to process.  I can churn out a review of a ballet performance with relative ease but my Fenley review I had to drag out of my brain, kicking and screaming.

In some ways I was rather surprised to discover that Peter is such a modernist and it got me thinking about the gap between ballet and modern and popular misconceptions, like “modern is for dancers who didn’t make it in ballet” or even that it’s for dancers who retired from ballet.  Modern dance is for people who like modern dance—that’s all there is to it.  Yes, it can be less demanding on the body (and seems to demand less on the physical traits of a person), although I have to say that I’ve had a few minor injuries in dancing ballet, like pulled muscles and such but when I’ve had some of the more devastating variety, like the kind that last for weeks or more and they all came from modern classes.  I don’t know if it was a strange belief that I could do what teachers asked for, a willingness to try anything, throwing my weight around, or the Aries in me pushing one hundred percent, but modern hurt.  I think it would be more apt to say that modern doesn’t demand a physical capacity to perform precise, virtuosic feats in the way ballet does, but modern can be a mental obstacle course that in my opinion, can be worse.

First of all, there’s the “I-word”…which normally I do not speak aloud but I shall for the sake of clarity, remind you that this is my euphemism for “improvisation.”  It’s virtually impossible for me to create dance instantaneously and more importantly, continuously, and exercises in “I-word” make me an anxious squirrel.  I tried, but practice of it made me ridiculously uncomfortable, which of course happens to be the greatest inhibitor of “I-word.”  Or how about “retrograde,” meaning dance a phrase and then basically rewind it.  Maybe due to the advent of television’s rewind button we’re not so impressed with such a mind-boggling skill, but to see human bodies do it without the use of technology is really something else.  As someone who relies on music that recognizes a time and space continuum, to inform the tone or character of a movement, it’s just inconceivable…and many times modern dances won’t even have music at all, which is like a hellish nightmare for me.  The intellectual challenges modern dance provides are different, but by no means easier than physical challenges seen in ballet.  I would even argue that those mental challenges are in fact greater because the mind is limitless, whereas there are limits to what the body can do, and that vastness is why modern never fails to be “new.”

It may sound like I don’t like modern because of my natural tendencies and escapist point of view that favors the romantic, fantastical world of ballet but the world is more than romance and to me, that’s what modern explores.  It’s an art form that is indeed beautiful in its own way, but when I remember not to expect to feel the same after seeing it as I would a ballet, then the doors are open to experience whatever it is.  Of course there are things I like or don’t like, and in many ways learning to understand the subjective nature of the arts is a metaphor for human interaction.  I think of artists as having great responsibility in bearing their souls for an audience, because if we can judge them as we inevitably do but in a respectful way then we can claim that we are capable of doing the same for any person we encounter in life.  Perhaps it’s cliché, but this is why I truly believe that art appreciation is one of the keys to a world peace.  There’s a reason why patrons of the arts don’t go into museums, rip paintings off the walls and burn them if they don’t like them, which makes the fact that people are so willing to harm or even kill one another over differences all the more tragic.

So…I aim to never write a negative review for Seattle Dances, because people work too hard to have someone just blah on their creations.  I’m more open with criticism in this blog (though I try my best to keep it constructive and relatively inoffensive) but people read this specifically for my thoughts…a formally published review is not the appropriate forum for overindulgences into my ego.  I encourage any dance audience member to respect the validity of their opinions regardless of your understanding of dance…be judgmental, but don’t be a jerk.  There are even times when a harsh critique is perfectly appropriate; a good review does not imply seeing things through rose-colored glasses and some of my favorite reviews I’ve read aren’t sunshine and bunnies.  The secret is knowing when, where and how to express oneself and to be open to learning something before disliking it.  It wasn’t a simple process for me, but I had help along the way, in the form of education and encouragement I received from various teachers (for whom without, I would not be writing about dance as I do today!).  I came across a video a few days ago of sardonic New York humorist and author Fran Lebowitz, who in talking about her relationship with Jerome Robbins, sums it up better than I can: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWawmPG6i_c

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