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After Injury, the Show Goes On
Christopher Reardon, danceonline
November 1, 1995

MOLISSA FENLEY FALLS within a school of choreographers who set limits and then try to dance around them. "The Floor Dances," a solo she created in 1989 around a seemingly arbitrary decision not to stand up, is a fine example of problem solving in dance. The premise led Fenley, who performed December 2 and 3 at Manhattan's Playhouse 91, to find new ways of moving where none seemed possible.

It was also eerily prescient. Fenley had just turned forty when misfortune struck last January. During an opening- night performance at the Joyce Theatre, she snapped a ligament in her left knee and collapsed on the stage floor. The show did not go on. In fact, Fenley has not performed since.

For the first month I just stared at the walls, like a wounded animal hiding under a bush," she told a visitor to her dance studio, fifty-eight steps above street level at SoHo's Dia Center for the Arts. "I had terrible fears that I would never dance again."

Fenley, a postmodern dervish with hazel eyes and cropped hair, believes that dancing is fundamentally a conversation between mind and body. She led a small troupe for nine years, but eventually opted to work alone. "As a soloist, there's a pure transmission of art," she told Anna Kisselgoff, chief dance critic for The New York Times, a few years ago. "It goes from idea to body. It is not being translated by anyone else."

Yet last winter's injury has taught Fenley that this inner dialogue is neither as pure nor as direct as she once thought. Between idea and action lie millions of synapses --gaps across which neurons transmit each impulse like so many runners passing a baton. Fenley said she finds herself amazed that, under the healthiest conditions, more communication is not lost to these minute fissures.

Even now, just to do a little plie is like an epiphany," she said. Such gratitude was a long time coming; at first she commiserated with her mother, who has muscular sclerosis and cannot walk. "I lost trust in my leg," Fenley recalled. "It felt like it wasn't mine anymore, like it was an alien thing. I couldn't control it. I told it to walk and it wouldn't. I began to hate my leg."

Reconstructive surgery, physical therapy, and time alone in the studio have helped Fenley try to return to form. Six weeks after the injury, Donald J. Rose, an orthopedic surgeon who directs the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, removed a tendon from her hamstring and stapled it to her femur and tibia. As she traced an index finger over two small scars just above and below her kneecap, Fenley said the long recovery has tested her patience. She still cannot make a simple 90-degree turn.

I've always healed myself through motion," she said, "but, when you're dealing with tissue that's been grafted, you have to wait for cells to change, for a tendon to learn to be a ligament. All this cellular tissue stuff takes place that you have no control over. You can eat tons of protein and vitamins. And it helps, I guess. But really it just takes time."

Looking back, the injury and its aftermath begin to resemble another of Fenley's experiments in limited mobility. Among the work she has made during her convalescence is a sequel to "The Floor Dances" called "Regions." The 30-minute dance consists of three sections -- "Chair," "Ocean Walk" and "Mesa" -- that suggest stages of recovery.

"Each one came out of what I could manage at the time," she said. "The puzzle was: 'What can you do with this injured person?' These are some possible solutions. Ultimately it's a work of extreme joy, because every day my progress was becoming clearer."

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