The Joyous Attack of Molissa Fenley
Andrew Boynton, The New Yorker
September 27, 2014
Photo © Julie Lemberger
Molissa Fenley is a force of nature. Since the late seventies, when she was just out of college, she has steadily delivered her uncompromising version of dance. Though she is now approaching sixty, and still small and spare in frame and almost birdlike in aspect, she possesses the same rigor that she developed in the early part of her career, and which she translates to the bodies of her dancers. Her choreography requires formidable physical gifts, and these are impressive, but it is always Fenley’s own internal power and determination that become visible in her dances.
At Judson Memorial Church recently, Fenley presented a world première, the second part of a work called “Redwood Park,” which itself received its first performance in May, in Oakland, California. “Redwood Park” is grounded in nature—it was inspired by Fenley’s walks through the Oakland hills—but it fit beautifully in the church’s Italianate hall, with its soothing blue walls and golden coffered ceiling, the capitals of the Corinthian pillars and pilasters resembling vegetation. (In Judson’s magnificent space, the history of dance in the past fifty-plus years—the experimentation, the improvisation—resounds. There’s nothing like it.) In “Redwood Park (Part I),” Christiana Axelsen and Rebecca Chaleff wore asymmetrical culotte-dresses of orange and pinkish-red, respectively, calling to mind the flesh of the giant trees. Evan Flood and Matthew Roberts were in black pants and white tank tops, offering a stark, urban counterpoint.
To Joan Jeanrenaud’s score, full of Asian-inflected percussion, the dancers remained in constant motion, weaving in and out of unison quartets and breaking into smaller groupings. Fenley’s movement still bears significant traces of Merce Cunningham’s vocabulary, which she studied when she was younger, the body tilting to the sides, front, and back as the arms are held purposefully rounded, away from the torso, or slashing straight through the air, the hands flattened like blades. Although the stage was alive with motion, causing the eye to flit here and there, Fenley somehow managed to imbue the choreography with stillness and serenity, even in an impish repeated motif of stylized flexed arms and fists—a gentle play on a pugilist’s pose.
After a brief pause, “Redwood Park (Part II)” began, in silence. Chaleff took the stage alone, and shifted slowly from shape to shape, each one made up of the arms and legs bent in different combinations. Here, the stillness was absolute. With the chimes, bells, and clicks of Jeanrenaud’s score gone, and with a single dancer onstage, the effort of the movement was easier to see. Chaleff is a strong, clear performer, with high extensions and a concentrated mien. Roberts eventually joined her, and mirrored her movements, his calm, open demeanor and stiffer—though no less accomplished—manner of moving providing a welcome contrast to that of his partner. Together, they were a classical pair, pristine in the elegant Judson hall. He handled her delicately, supporting her as she arched over his outstretched arms, her sternum drawn to the ceiling by an invisible thread.
Axelsen and Flood replaced her, and entered into a duet of their own, marked by a series of slow movements whose difficulty was accentuated by their being performed with the feet in forced arch. At one point, Flood left Axelsen in a wide stance, on her toes, the legs in slight plié, her chest reaching up as Chaleff’s had done, her arms extended beside and behind her, her hands fluttering slightly, strangely, as if waiting for his return. But it was Roberts who came to her, and joined her in a duet, manipulating her, formulating her patterns, until, in a subtle though stunning development, Axelsen seemed to snap out of a reverie and pulled Roberts into a new duet, supporting and guiding him as he’d done to her. Where Part I buffeted us with the physical sensations of the natural environment, Part II’s deliberateness seemed based in our emotional and intellectual responses to it, and in the way it elevated us, and connected us.
The two parts of “Redwood Park” lasted only thirty minutes altogether, but it was a rich half hour. Fenley structures her dances in such a way that they can seem like stones skipping across water, each light landing point describing a new, brief universe, adding up to a kind of stream-of-consciousness travelogue. “Dance an Impossible Space,” a piece that Fenley premièred last year, as part of a residency at the Bogliasco Foundation, in Genoa, Italy, followed “Redwood Park.” It was a more restrained, circumscribed work, and navigated a quirky territory between playfulness and austerity.
Fenley and Chaleff, and later Axelsen, were joined by the work’s composer, Erin Gee, who stood in the upstage right corner, dressed in street clothes, vocalizing into two handheld microphones. Speak-singing uncategorizable syllables and sounds into one mike and then the other, Gee kept up a burble that seemed to respond to Fenley’s choreography. The dancers, in off-white tunics and tights designed by Jill St. Coeur, never strayed far from a small area upstage center (the work’s title refers to the constraints of the rehearsal accommodations), and were a small, tight-knit group as they cycled through themes and variations in Fenley’s style, full of legs held in attitude and feet flexed, with whimsy interleaved.
The lack of melody and verbal referents in Gee’s score left us in an untethered state, and we had only the dance, and its undeniable warmth, to center us. As in “Redwood Park,” nothing was belabored; passages registered and then dissolved into others. It took a few moments to comprehend the rough intricacy of a beautiful phrase in which the women strode stiffly, torsos bent forward, their arms interlocking on every other step, and just when you wanted to see it repeated the women had moved on. Later, they coalesced into a snug nesting group, Axelsen and Chaleff spooning Fenley, protecting her, as they peered to the side to look at us.
Closing the program was “Esperanto,” a work from 1985, when Fenley was making group works that were marvels of technique and stamina. Axelsen, Chaleff, Flood, and Roberts, each in tights and a sleeveless top of a different deep hue, moved incessantly around the stage, filling every corner, to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score, which churned one moment and emptied out the next. The balletic/Cunningham aesthetic was on full display, and Fenley had added in little glimpses of drama, as when a dancer, after a difficult passage—a line of brisk chainé turns, say, spun out into a quiet, ethereal relevé—flicked her head in an almost imperceptible spasm, her arms responding in a sinuous ripple.
One of the joys of Fenley’s work from this era comes in watching the dancers’ bodies react to the relentless demands placed on them by the choreography, when speed and placement and technique are all subject to decompose as the minutes (in the case of “Esperanto,” almost forty) tick by. It’s not a pleasure to see them gradually degrade. The pleasure is in seeing how little some dancers break down at all, and, for the ones who inevitably do, to different degrees, how their personalities become more available to us as form and energy leave them. Flood and Axelsen became more relaxed, almost sunny; Chaleff sterner, though technically as sharp as ever; Roberts blissed out. At the end, they were spent. But they looked content.
It was fascinating to watch Fenley’s newest works first, followed by something from thirty years ago—to go from exquisite coherence to lush profusion. It felt like a blessing to see her still seeking, still recognizable in her joyous attack and in her clear, reverent immersion in the art of dance. And at Judson, no less.