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Distinct Style, but Easy to Mold
Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times
January 30, 1997

Each section of ''Trace,'' a strange and riveting three-part solo that Molissa Fenley has choreographed for herself and her new season at the Joyce Theater, is seen in a strikingly different context.

Ms. Fenley opens on a bare stage and dances in dialogue with an expressive African-influenced score that is sung, chanted and played by its pianist and composer, John Hart Makwaia. Not music, but a visual dimension colors the second part: Ms. Fenley moves around an upright painting by Roy Fowler that suggests, in its brilliant hues of blue, an abstract seascape.

The spoken word accompanies the third segment. Dressed in the same shiny black leotard and tights by Elizabeth Widulski, Ms. Fenley seems initially aflame in David Moodey's red lighting, and dances as Jane Smith, seated on a chair, reads a text by the experimental playwright John Jesurun about memory and loss.

With Mr. Makwaia's composition titled ''African Memory Song'' and the solo subtitles reading as ''Trace,'' ''Reflection'' and ''After Image,'' Ms. Fenley is once again concerned with life's course.

Nothing is stated, everything is oblique. But a sense of passage from ancestral ritual to lyrical meditation and finally, a coming to terms with existence is certainly present. Mr. Jesurun's nonlinear text has a post-Beckett ending as Ms. Smith declares, ''Yes, it is.''

Unlike Beckett, Ms. Fenley has no room for ''maybe'' in her cyclical view of existence. The three works she is presenting this week with guest artists at the Joyce (175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street, Chelsea) might suggest that her choreography is similar from piece to piece.

Choreographically, the signature is in asymmetrical shapes, a contrast between a curved back and the angles or straight lines of a dancer's arms and a surprising number of shifts of weight and dynamics.

Yet repeatedly, Ms. Fenley's choice of collaborators changes our view of her work. ''Trace'' is an ingenious example in which costumes, decor and sound enhance the dancing in an original way and yet do not dominate it.

Mr. Makwaia becomes wonderfully worked up in his vocalizing as Ms. Fenley, initially walking around, slices her arms in space and responds with a fervent intensity.

Mr. Moodey's superb lighting changes the blues of Mr. Fowler's painting in Part 2. The choreography is best here, full of swiveling torso movements and sharp kicks that subside as the dancer comes to rest. The word threatened to take over in Ms. Smith's articulate reading of the Jesurun text. Ms. Fenley, unsurprisingly, both recapitulating old material and inventing new choreography, held her own.

That Ms. Fenley's highly personal style can be transferred to other dancers was obvious at the opening night on Tuesday when Paz Tanjuaquio, a dancer of extraordinary concentration, brought her quiet radiance to ''Sita,'' a 1995 solo also being danced by Ms. Fenley. That Sandi Fellman's photographs behind her suggested X-rays of Ms. Fenley's body added to the mystery.

Peter Boal, a principal with the New York City Ballet, will also appear as guest artist, in ''Pola'a,'' a new solo that Ms. Fenley was to have danced on opening night. A problem with her knee caused her to substitute ''Chair,'' which she choreographed, in fact, after a major knee injury. Anything but a gimmick, the solo shows the choreographer-dancer seated on an office chair and exploring an unpredictable range of motion and emotion through a body constantly being remolded in space. The score was Maggie Payne's ''Solar Wind.''

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