Dance Interview: Weathering heights
Molissa Fenley ascends to new levels of brilliance with an evening of premieres
Gia Kourlas, TimeOut New York
February 3-10, 2000, Issue 228
As far back as 1988, Molissa Fenley's New York dance concerts have focused entirely on solo works. That wasn't always the case. In 1977, she founded Molissa Fenley and Company and, for the next ten years, created dozens of rich group works that etched the beginning of her intimate choreographic style and riveting blend of crisp technique, in which the arms are as crucial as the legs, and the ability to translate images of nature into dance with sheer elegance. Beginning this Wednesday at the Kitchen, Fenley hopes to change the common perception of herself as a solo choreographer by adding nine guest dancers--all accomplished choreographers or performers in their own right--to the program, including Foofwa d'Imobilite, Paz Tanjuaquio, Reginald Ellis Crump and Meg Wolfe.
"I wanted to open my work up." She explains after a recent rehearsal in her palatial downtown loft. "I've created a lot of group work outside of New York, but very few people have seen it. Many don't even know that I'm a choreographer--they think of me as a solo dancer who choreographs for myself. Having a pickup group of dancers instead of a real company offers me freedom. It's a gift from me to them and from them to me."
Although she's choreographed three new solos, each remarkably different in music and style (Island, Weathering and Voices), Fenley's group dances, Escalay and On the Other Ocean, are expanded solos years ago at an artists' residency in northern California.
"I thought of it as a time to scrutinize older work, to see how I felt about it," she recalls. "I took tapes from 1980 on--pieces like Energizer and Escalay--and watched asking myself, "What is the vocabulary? What is the history? I started taking out phrases and reconstructing them for myself. It was completely foreign, as if I became a dancer for this choreographer on the videotape."
It wasn't completely evident at first, but Fenley eventually discovered that her choreographic style was formed early on. "I really wasn't aware of that," she says. "To watch an old piece is one thing but to actually redo and look at it in slow motion and make yourself get it back physically is another. The movement felt foreign at first. Then it clicked. It was like reading an old book."
Escalay, originally from 1993, features five dancers and is inspired by the circular movements of a waterwheel. On the Other Ocean, taken from a 1997 solo, is nearly twice as long (25 minutes) and a perfect example of Fenley's ability to bring an inanimate object--the ocean-- to life. Named for David Behrman's lush score, On the Other Ocean is a spiritual dance, filled with quick jumps, precise attitude turns and an almost geometric use of the arms. Reconstructing both pieces took Fenley only a month in total.
"We started on my 45th birthday," she says, laughing. "It was a landmark day I thought I had to have something really momentous happen, so I started working with the dancers. I began by teaching both pieces as a solo. Once everyone learned the original, I went back from the beginning and started working very hands on, creating on the dancers."
Throughout her 23 year dance career, Fenley has choreographed only one dance to a traditional classical piece of music: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. She prefers to work with contemporary composers of whom her favorites are Somei Satoh, David Behrman and Phillip Glass. "I can't imagine making a piece to Mozart, but that's me right now," she explains. "Who knows if I wouldn't want to in a couple of years? But it seems like an odd choice for me. Contemporary music doesn't just come from the Western part of the world. I have a feeling for the contemporary mind, because I'm living now. I get it, I want to involve myself in the present."