Resident for a Week: Molissa Fenley Fine Tunes Choreography in Carbondale
Christine Benedetti, Aspen Daily News
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September 11, 2015
Photo © Christine Benedetti
There’s a sense of peace and serenity that comes when watching Molissa Fenley and her two company dancers rehearse. The trio lightly float across the dimmed dancefloor, weaving in and out of another’s arms in a tilted stance, adding fluidity to the stage.
Given that the piece is the fifth in a seven-part series called “Water Table,” bringing the beauty of that element to life in a Carbondale studio, The Launchpad, is her goal. A prolific choreographer and head of her New York-based dance company, Fenley is spending a week in the Roaring Fork Valley for a residency with Dance Initiative.
“She's the most significant of the choreographers we have in our residency program,” says Deborah Colley, operations manager for The Launchpad, which houses the Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities.
This residency with Fenley is the second of three this year, but certainly of the most renown and community engagement. Throughout the week, Fenley and her dancers, Christiana Axelson and Rebecca Chaleff, hosted open rehearsals for the public to watch their progress, and Fenley gave a book talk at the Carbondale Public Library to present a recent compilation of essays she released. This weekend, the residency will culminate with a master class on Saturday afternoon for local dancers, and a public performance featuring “Water Table,” and two of Fenley’s earlier works.
In a career that spans almost 40 years, Fenley has choreographed more than 80 works that have been performed on every continent, including the United States’ Joyce Theater, Summerstage, The Kitchen, City Center, Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center OutofDoors, Jacob's Pillow and the American Dance Festival. She’s won the Bessie (dance’s equivalent of the Oscar), a Guggenheim fellowship and is an 11-time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowship.
Though petite in stature, she’s a tenacious force, continually producing new works. More recently these have addressed nature and its relationship with humanity. Last year, she debuted “Redwood Park” — inspired by Oakland, Calif., where she spends part of the year — at the Judson Memorial Church in New York. “Water Table” is a commissioned work in progress, which she hopes to finish and present later this year.
“It’s an artistic response to the finite amount of fresh water in our world,” she said between rehearsals on the patio this week at The Launchpad. “I am specifically thinking about two things: the amount of glacial melting that’s going on … and the amount of spring water that’s available. … We’re all very aware of the amount of water that we have. It’s the new oil. It’s very, very, very precious and my fear is it’s going to be a commodity like oil.”
Of the seven parts, the fifth, “The Pattern of the Surface,” embraces the beauty of water, danced to “Etude No. 20” by Philip Glass, a composer with whom she works with frequently. The dancers’ arms are held out and rounded, with their hands flat like rudders — almost perpendicular — in a signature Fenley style.
She stresses that Saturday’s performance is a run-through, and the audience can expect mistakes.
“There’s a caveat that it’s a work in progress,” she says with a laugh, “and that someone might forget what they’re doing, i.e. me.”
As the dancers run through rehearsals this week, Fenley will decide what else is shown on Saturday. Because Axelson and Chaleff are members in her 80-person company in New York, they are well versed in her repertoire which is continually updated for performances like the one here. Options include “On the Other Ocean” which runs into “Entrance,” amd “Esperanto,” reworked from 1985, which gives viewers a chance to see her evolution as a choreographer.
“Dance is so ephemeral,” she says. “It’s interesting to take pieces you’ve already made and put them into a new space because you’re dealing with geographic stuff. You get used to doing it in your own studio,” says Fenley.
It’s exactly that injection into a different environment which makes residencies so appealing to her.
“You’re in a place that’s completely new so you have that sense of discovery and development so you can clear the cobwebs out of your mind. You’re not taking the subway to the studio and things drastically shift.”
And while Fenley is appreciative of the opportunity to work in Carbondale, the community is equally enamored with her. Part of Dance Initiative’s long-term planning includes bringing more resources to local dancers and strengthening the dance community, says Colley.
Colorado Conservatory of Dance program director Patrick Mueller worked a three-month residency this spring, and his work will be shown again during Dance Initiative’s Spectrum Dance Festival on Oct. 16; local resident Ayla Howe is currently in the middle of her residency, with final shows Nov. 6 and 7.
“We’re really trying to build a community around dance,” says Colley.
If professionals like Fenley are able to assist in that goal, they may be less than a leap away.
Master Class with Molissa Fenley
Presented by Dance Initiative
Sept. 12, 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Performance: Molissa Fenley & Co.
Presented by Dance Initiative
Sept. 12, 6:30-8 p.m.