Molissa Fenley and Company


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Hemispheres - 1983
visual element by Francesco Clemente,
music by Anthony Davis,
costumes by Rei Kawakubo


Commissioned by Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival

Molissa Fenley and Company/ANTHONY DAVIS and EPISTEME

HEMISPHERES - An evening length dance work with live music

Hemispheres is danced by 6 dancers (including Molissa Fenley), the music is performed live by 10 musicians (including Anthony Davis) and conducted by Alan Johnson. Costume Design by Rei Kawakubo and Ralph Rucci, lighting design by David Moodey.

Molissa Fenley and Company joins forces with composer Anthony Davis and his ensemble, Episteme, to revive the critically acclaimed Hemispheres last seen in its entirety at its 1983 BAM premiere. Propelled by Davis's Bessie-winning score, the seductive churning of the dance packs a percussive punch. Original costumes by fashion icons Rei Kawakubo and Ralph Rucci adorn dancers Ashley Brunning, Tessa Chandler, Molissa Fenley, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Cassie Mey, and Paz Tanjuaquio.

The 1983 Hemispheres was reviewed by Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times, declaring Fenley and Davis' work as "potent", "exciting", "awesome", "tough" and "cerebral in its formal patterns and yet emotional. The score was a "revelation."

"I am formally working with the idea of the individual in space, the space changed by the individual's presence and the presence of the individual altered because of her placement in space. In Hemispheres the ensemble choreography is concerned with the space around the dancers, how they intersect and weave, after-image effects of one dancer's space seen again by another dancer in counterpoint or in resonance of a repetition - space seen from different points of view from one dancer to another. We are rhythmically working together in parallels of time frames, each dancer is sometimes on their own rhythmic trajectory, sometimes in union with another element that is asymmetrically askew (either movement quality or choice of phrase). The choreography tries to create a feeling of freedom. Hemispheres embraces the experiential; the intuitive movement vocabulary expressed within conceptual structures creates a strongly visceral dance". (Molissa Fenley)

Hemispheres is an early showcase from a maverick composer whose illustrious career led to a new musical fusion of jazz, operatic, African, pop and improvisational elements. Anthony Davis is best known for his opera X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X which led a new American genre when it premiered at the NYC Opera in 1986. Davis also composed the music for Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America. Hemispheres was his first collaboration with kindred spirit Fenley, and his first work set to dance. When the recording was later reviewed it was recognized as an unqualified achievement.

An Excerpt from DANCE FROM THE MUSIC - Performance in the Age of Communications by RoseLee Goldberg, (Brooklyn Academy of Music's 1983 Next Wave Festival catalogue):

A focus on the body itself has been the drive of Molissa Fenley's work, a young choreographer who with the force of her ideas, movement and charisma, is indeed the "next wave" to (Trisha) Brown and (Lucinda) Childs. Fenley, arriving in New York in the late seventies - at a time when performance art was at its most popular, straddling as it did the alternative spaces and the punk rock nightclubs - short-circuited the seventies dance route of Cunningham training and Judson influence. Rather, along with a few peers, she stepped outside of dance's then conceptual framework in a shift towards sensual and voluptuous movement and aggressive motion that demanded technical and physical strength. Intent on developing a choreography all her own, Fenley devised an unusual training system in her local gym where one of the goals was to achieve an infinite reserve of stamina way beyond what she calls the "maintenance level" of dance training.

"I'm so glad to be back in a studio with people again", exclaimed Fenley, who had been on the road as a soloist for almost a year with Eureka, "and I want to put all the things I learnt as a soloist into the new group". Considering this reunion, as the first phase in the collaborative process, Fenley was specific as to the direction she would provide her company. "As a soloist I was responsible for the entire spatial volume...resulting in a heightened understanding of how to fill it". Thus the complex architecture of her dance became a key element in the translation of her style for the dancers. Also acquired on tour was a greater sense of her performance persona. So Hemispheres, referring to the brain, is designed to reconcile the "architecture" with the "persona"- the analytic with the intuitive - in a work that is "spatial, architectural, moving - and a deeply physical performance".

With pacing as breathtaking as ever, and a counting system as convoluted as it is fast, Fenley commissioned composer Anthony Davis to create music that "would co-exist with the dance, not drive it". She was attracted to Davis' music because it suggested polymetric rhythms, her own direction after a period of 4/4 tempos. Davis was equally attracted to Fenley's dance for her extraordinary numerical systems. "She has a very strong sense of beat that you can't always see because of the movement that takes place over it", said Davis; while Fenley, in a separate interview, remarked "with Anthony's music the pulse is there, but often hidden by the elaborate instrumentation". Indeed for Davis, Fenley's beat was "like having another drummer, but a silent drummer."

These separate numerical systems were developed alternately. In some sections the music was completed before the dance, in others the dance before the music, resulting in intricate phrasing that almost magically interlocks at precise moments. "I think our meeting place was mathematical," said Davis, long fascinated by the history of number theories in their relation to music - whether Renaissance or nineteenth-century South Indian. "I saw that she used numbers in very creative, interesting ways that suggested I could develop another numerical system against that." While both concerned with form and with developing a theme that progresses from musician to musician, (and in Fenley's case is passed from dancer to dancer), Davis also conceded to special demands in making music for dance. "How do you make a piece 6 minutes and 34 seconds, every time you play, yet still allow for flexibility?" asked the composer, who deeply cherishes the value, both aesthetically and historically, of improvisation. With such attention to detail, Davis has created a work that has a clear compositional form and yet allows the individual musician, and the dancer, to transcend that composition.

Even while these two works meet at prearranged moments, Davis comments on the distinct traditions of music and dance, each with different approaches to what is new and what needs to be developed. In fact, Hemispheres is, for Fenley, an elaborate layering of various traditions, incorporating as it does her own classical and "third world" dance interests (she was raised in Nigeria); Davis' music that consciously elaborates an African-American sound while learning from studies of Eastern and Western music traditions; and the costumes of Japanese designer, Rei Kawakubo, albeit not commissioned but chosen from her existing summer line. "They are big objects - but when we move, and we're moving fast, they drape around the body in abstract sculptural forms".

Each of the artists in these new works consistently refers to distinct pieces, with an almost reverent respect for preserving their separate sensibilities. Compromise is not even an issue, for the work, as each artist sees it, actually relies on an amalgam of parts for its aesthetic whole.

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