Molissa Fenley and Company

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Meeting of Minds
ClassicalTV
© Classical TV 2013
September 26, 2013


Photo © photo by Ian Douglas

FOR POSTMODERN CHOREOGRAPHER Molissa Fenley, inspiration can come from almost anywhere. For her newest work, Found Object, Fenley asked her friend the distinguished playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) for “objects” of language that she could respond to as instructions. The result will be on view next week, when Fenley premieres the work at New York Live Arts on a program that contains several of Fenley’s previous works, including Energizer (1980), The Floor Dances (1989). and Witches’ Float (1993).

We were lucky enough to speak with both Fenley and Guare about their collaboration on Found Object.

CLASSICAL TV: Molissa, am I right that your making dance in response to a “found object” reflects a desire to go beyond your usual inspirations, in search of something surprising or unexpected? In your request to John for a “found object” of text, did you need to balance this desire for surprise with any practical or structural needs for the dance or your process?

MOLISSA FENLEY: Yes, I started the idea of responding to instructions after I found an entry in one of my choreographic journals where phrases of movement were written out in my descriptive dance language.

It was very interesting and freeing to me to respond physically to language and to follow the instructions as closely as possible without any kind of judging or editing as I went. The dance that I made from those instructions became Cross Bridge, the work that was premiered in December 2012 at the La Mama Club (in collaboration with Holley Farmer, John Jesurun, David Moodey and Rosemary Quinn who also responded to the idea of following instructions)

In my letter to John Guare requesting some instructions, I wrote:

"Dear John,

I am working on a new project: Found Object - to be premiered at the New York Live Arts in early fall 2013.

Found Object started with my finding an entry in one of my choreographic journals in my archive at Mills in which 33 movement phrases were written down but never actually made into a dance. I am interpreting the language of those phrases now - (the phrases were written around 2000) responding to the instructions/directions with my sensibility/body twelve years later.

An example:
Arms open wide - change your stance, turn Left, foot moves as if to initiate a movement but then stills. Slide foot along floor - kabuki ronde de jambe, Left, Right

(Without a video, something like a "kabuki ronde de jambe" is mysterious)!

Another example:

Lunge and pull back on Left - slow bow - leg extends and a hip out. Two turns in parallel, arms opening and closing.
(More readily apparent)

I'd like to ask if you would write a short series of instructions/directions that I could interpret as a Found Object. The instructions could be movement based, task based, text based, etc - anything that is of interest to you, instructions that in my fulfillment of might add up to 5 minutes or so of stage time."

Upon receiving the text from John-- which he sent about three hours after receiving my email!!- I was happily surprised that he sent two series of instructions:

1. excerpts from instructions of how and when to dry flowers
2. excerpts from the policies of the Geneva Convention on the rights of Prisoners of War
As I read the texts out loud, they took exactly 5 minutes to recite

In Cross Bridge, Rosemary Quinn and I performed a dialogue written by John Jesurun - and so I was happy to return to the idea of speaking on stage (still very new for me, the John Guare text is just the second time of learning, memorizing and delivering lines).

At first I thought that one of us would be the voice talking about drying flowers and the other the voice of the Geneva Convention, but, as Rosemary and I continued to rehearse, it was more interesting to break it up, to alternate so that we both recite both sets of instructions.

We each choreographed movement phrases - circular for drying flowers, angular for POW - and then I decided to break those up too so that often when someone is reciting the POW instructions, she is actually dancing the "drying flowers" movement.

All very fascinating for us as performers! I am thrilled with what we have made - it is surprising to me, it's an entrance into a new direction of experiment and yet structurally fits into the way that I put a piece together - simultaneously objectively and intuitively.

And there's a wonderful surprise when I say the line "2 small vases" - which I will keep as a surprise for you and your readers, you'll just have to come and see!

CTV: John, I’m curious to know how your approached Molissa’s request.

JOHN GUARE: I know her work. How could I be surprised by anything Molissa does?

CTV: Have you contributed text for a non-theatrical work before?

JG: Never. Which is what made it attractive.

CTV: How did you envision the use of your text—as a sound score? As “décor”? As process-- private instructions for Molissa?

JG: I wrote it as an act of homage for Molissa. I just felt it was an honor to make something for her and then have the pleasure of seeing what she might do with it - even if that means discarding it.

CTV: Did you use any of the traditional playwrighting tools—like character, narrative, etc.—in creating this text?

JG: Sure. Those are the only tools I have.

CTV: Molissa and John, how did you two meet each other, and did you know each other’s work at that point?

JG: Courtesy of the American Academy in Rome, where all roads meet. I don't know if she knew my work and never dared ask. I was certainly aware of hers. She made a tremendous impression and success in Rome during her stay at the Academy, a time with which I fortunately overlapped.

MF: Yes, we met at the American Academy in Rome in 2008. I was a Rome Prize fellow and had one of the most beautiful studios that I've ever seen to work in! John is married to the Director of the AAR, Adele Chatfield-Taylor, and came to visit towards the end of the session, I think it must have been in April or so, and he and my husband painter Roy Fowler and I just hit it off. John often came into the studio to watch me work, he was very happy to have another performing artist there! He and Roy and I went to many art exhibitions and musical performances together. We had many conversations with John, over dinners, over walks, looking at art, we had a great time being with him.

And yes, I was very aware of his work before - House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation both being an important part of our cultural legacy. And since meeting him in 2008, have become an avid fan. Roy and I go to every play that he puts on and just enjoyed watching him on stage performing in his Three Kinds of Exiles quite recently.

http://www.classicaltv.com/the-informer/meeting-of-minds

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