Molissa Fenley Dances With Art
Deborah Jowitt, The Village Voice
Nov. 10, 2010
Photo © Julie Lemberger
It’s possible to admire a dance more than you enjoy watching it, and vice versa. When Molissa Fenley first began to show her choreography in the 1970s, I admired her power, her athleticism, and her stoicism in pursuing extreme repetition. I’d see a dance of hers, impressed by the patterns that her non-stop traveling steps were making in space and by her fluid muscularity—imagining a new Olympic category that didn’t involve sway-backed posing and triumphantly upflung arms. But I seldom felt a craving to see that dance again.
Over the years, as she gradually enlarged her vocabulary and attempted new challenges without abandoning her essential minimalism, I found myself struck by the beauty of some of her productions and moved by the image of heroism and integrity she could project. One small, strong woman dancing alone to Stravinsky’s entire Rite of Spring? Mindblowing.
In recent years, Fenley, now in her mid-fifties, has been both inviting others to perform her solos and making pieces for small numbers of women. For her new The Prop Dances, which premiered at the Joyce Soho, she commissioned objects that can be held from visual artists, agreeing to use whatever they came up with, and chose fairly spare and evocative music by contemporary composers to accompany the five sections. Each small dance is set off by David Moodey’s fine lighting and by a variety of simple, elegantly cut costumes by Jill St. Coeur.
Inevitably some props elicit and enlarge dancing, while others focus your attention on the objects themselves and the efforts of the dancers to work with them in meaningful ways. The most satisfying section is the first one, “Pieces of Land.” To music by Jason Hoopes, dancers Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey, and Fenley wield largish paddles by Jene Highstein that have molded-semi-cutouts with long, dark-red fingernails into which their hands fit. As the women interweave around the Joyce Soho’s intimate white space—springing, turning, flinging a leg up, sometimes pursuing their own patterns, sometimes in unison—the objects look both like extensions of their arms and like kites on a breezy day. I’m also aware of how three-dimensionally Fenley presents the dancers; you see each move from all angles, as if the women were statues being turned on pedestals (except that they never stand still).
The three large, flat objects that Roy Fowler devised for the third section, “Planes in the Air,” aren’t connected to the dancers; the big white creations that remind me of skates’ wings must grasped in one hand These are certainly beautiful and can make the performers appear to be cooling themselves with mammoth fans or sailing on a billowy sea. But your attention falls more on the designs that can be formed than on how the dancers are moving to Jean Jeanrenaud’s music. On the other hand, in the solo, “Mass Balance,” Fenley and the reflective, 10-foot white pole by Todd Richmond seem to have embarked on a serious voyage together to Cenk Ergun’s music, amid a light pattern of poles strewn on the floor. Fenley isn’t just making designs, she’s trying to hold the disturbances caused by climate change in equilibrium, and she endows every move she and her “instrument” make with impressive power.
Merrill Wagner’s three small sculptures embedded with upstanding feathers for “94 Feathers” are intriguing, but fragile. All the performers can do is hold them out or up in various ways, lie beside them, or fit them against their reclining bodies, although the style of the objects does inspire some small hopping steps that evoke Indian dances of the American southwest. And the white Styrofoam panels with a hole or two and curved notches that Keith Sonnier created for “Prop Dance #5”—along with two large plastic tarps bearing a subtle design on one of their sides, plus a kind of wire half-cage—would tax any choreographer’s imagination. It’s rousing when the dancers whip the tarps against the howl of Lainie Fefferman’s Tongue of Thorns for Dither’s four electric guitars. But you feel the choreographic wheels grinding, as dancers stick their limbs through the stock-like panels’ holes or rest their necks in a notch.
At Joyce Soho, Fenley performed the first section of her 1995 solo suite, Regions: Chair, Ocean Walk, Mesaand featured her impressive colleagues in the other parts. Tall, slim, and handsomely garbed in Jeffrey Wirsing’s garnet tube tops and tight velvet pants, Mey is a real Fenley protégée, with seven years experience in the style. She uses her lean, muscled back the way Fenley uses hers—not only arching and bending it, but making you feel it power those swinging, lashing arms. McGreevy is every bit as strong, but softer and plushier in the spacious steps and distant gaze of Mesa.
The program was a long one (with pauses for costume changes between sections). Some of it I’d gladly see again.