Molissa Fenley at Judson Church
Maura Donohue, Culturebot
January 4, 2012
Molissa Fenley presents two NY premieres on a single evening program, at Judson Memorial Church, Monday, January 9, 2012 at 7pm. The one-night-only program features two new ensemble works, Credo in US, set to music by John Cage, and The Vessel Stories, set to music by Philip Glass. Fenley has choreographed over 75 works in her 35-year career in dance. Both Cenotaph and State of Darkness were awarded Bessies for choreography in 1985 and 1988 respectively. She is an associate professor of dance at Mills College, in residence in the spring semesters, and often teaches choreography at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University.
Having been immersed in large-group, college-based ensemble dances as an undergrad, Fenley’s State of Darkness was something of a game-changer for me as a young dancer. Performed to Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps Fenley was a small, powerful female artist who revealed a durational depth for solo performance that I was completely unprepared for. We spoke this morning about her newest works and the shifts between her solo and ensemble works.
Can you tell me about these newest works? How did you come to each of them?
Credo in US is to the work by the same name, composed by John Cage. I was commissioned by Mills College to use this piece of music. It’s great to be given an assignment like that and another stipulation was that it had to take place in the Mills College Art Museum. Our college was welcoming a new president and we wanted to showcase the new gallery. I walked in to check out the space and there were these walls everywhere and I decided to use live feed so that anyone anywhere in the gallery could see what was happening elsewhere. Of course, Judson doesn’t have that and we’ve also done the work in a proscenium space, which gives us a different way through the work, as well.
Last year’s Prop Dances at Joyce Soho was a foray into working with whatever items the various artists made. I would have to live with what they gave me, so I got into this idea of working with props, so I asked the dancers to listen to the music and to write free associatively with any images that came up. They did this for two days. Pots and pans came up – the music is a range with gamelan, radio, buzzer, a wonderful cage work where it’s all over the place, piano and a boogie woogie sound and early jazz – so the dancers gave me these images of a foot stomping diety, call and response, helmets, fighter planes, soldiers, forks and knives. I put their lists together, pulled out some similarities and went to Home Depot and found anything I could in common with their images and with these props, the work made itself. I also asked each dancer to choose a minute of the score and to make a phrase from it and incorporated them into the whole thing. That’s one of those shifts from my solo to group work, where I involved the group in my choreographic process.
Vessel Stories is a very different affair. It’s a Philip Glass string quartet composed in 1987 in homage to Brian Buczak, an artist who had died of aids and was a partner of the Fluxus artist Geoffery Hendricks. Geoffrey was celebrating his 80th birthday and he commissioned me to make a dance piece to the music piece he’d commissioned many years before. It’s in 3 parts. I was using ideas from Brian’s writings and his interests in Masonic architecture and I’m using the space as he would have used a painting. The music is very beautiful and melodic, not what you’d associate with Glass. His string quartets are very romantic, gentle and moving. That’s something Im focusing on – gentleness and togetherness.
How is the work changing for New York?
The last time we performed at the Judson Church, I really enjoyed the 3-sided audience versus just the one front. As a dancer, performing that way, it’s interesting to have wherever you are serve as a new front. Credo’s been done with a front that’s everywhere and a proscenium, this will be it’s first time with the 3 sides, that takes it back to its original form. I’m looking forward to that. And the Judson is so wonderful, warm and embracing and that floor is beautiful. We’re not bringing in lights and embracing the intimacy. It allows you to truly see what you’re seeing. Theatrical lighting puts things at a distance and the ambient light puts us all in the same space, we’re not in the void and the dark.
It’s wonderful to see your company working too, to see these wonderful dancers do this work. Are you working more collaboratively with your dancers now?
For 94 Feathers in Prop dances, I was at Mills and my dancers where here in NYC. So, I wrote out a series of instructions like plie here and stretch here and sent it to them and asked them to translate it in their own ways. There is a clear understanding between us, so if I said “use your arm like it was an axe” they know what that means in my vocabulary. They introduced their own idea of what it might mean and what it might do. I used that more in Credo in the sense that they would come up with the phrase, but I worked very formally in Vessel Stories. No one made up any material but me. I’ve been interested in exploring in new ways of creating, but I have a deep interest in formal choreography.
How do you manage the distance creation?
I’m usually at Mills from Mid Jan- Mid May and then I come back. I have a New York gang and a California gang. The California dancers have just arrived, so I am getting the New York company together with the California company. I have this bi-coastal life, having been at Mills since 1999. There are a lot of dancers out there that I have personally trained. They’re dancing coming up through the MFA program and go on to their own work. The program is very intimate, I spend a lot of time with the MFA candidates on their projects and final thesis concerts. We all keep in touch.
It’s been 12 years of this bi-coastal process. The semester goes by very fast. I don’t feel this huge separation. I feel that I’m continuing what I would normally do here. It hasn’t changed how I work, though I have less time. There’s no time in the studio by myself during the semester. By the summer, I am ready to make a new work. A lot of my teaching choreography is a way for me to come up with new ideas, it’s when new things get put in the back of my mind to explore for myself too. When you are mentoring someone who is doing something interesting, it becomes a diaologue that you can put into your mind about new forms or new methods. It provides me with a new way of thinking about getting into the studio. I give myself those assignments. I like to use the teaching as a real laboratory of remembering those experiments, then formulating them for myself and using the new ideas.
When you are training dancers, what are you working on? How do you work with them to get what you want from your dancers? There’s such a clarity of aesthetic that your dancers perpetuate.
There is a lot of emulation, I’m doing the phrase right next to them. I give them a phrase and we go over it and over it. The actual translation is very close. I’ve had a rehearsal director to makes sure the translation is close. There is also the eye you have for your own dancing. You can see if someone is doing something quite differently, some of it comes out of the corner of your, or a intuition. We do a lot of pure drilling and going over it like “the arm does this and the weight shifts there.”
How have your shifts from solo to group to collaborative been prompted. Does much of it come from necessity or from different interests?
Often, I want to make a work and I’m the only one around. So, it’s a solo. I’ve gone through my career of shifting from solo to group a couple times. Invariably everything could be done as a solo. It could be my part within the group form. But, sometimes I’m working with a group and someone moves on from the group or something disrupts the situation and I think now it’s time to trench in a make a different kind of work. I’d rather go somewhere new, rather than having to bring in a new person and restage repertory. Often, something I worked on as a soloist becomes a group work. In fact, quite often it happens that way, especially when I’m working with a new company where I take phrasing from solos and make it into a group piece and they shift. They happen side by side.
How do you work with other companies?
When I work with other companies – ballet companies – I come in completely prepared with what I’d like to do. The actual spacing is contingent on the dancers, it’s pure traffic between bodies. Dancers are great in being able find their paths, to manipulate the space to create a way to fulfill that. The actual phrasing and movement vocabulary is pretty clear. I don’t arrive and say “now what?” I have a game plan figured out. I find those situations so interesting to meet new dancers. Often, I get there and the dancers have been chosen. Rarely, do I audition them. Directors usually chose those with an affinity for what I do. It’s always been very successful, not easy, but a nice translation. The director’s usually have an idea of what I do before they ask me.