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Tension, Quiet and What's in Between
Molissa Fenley and Company at Judson Memorial Church
Gia Kourlas, The New York Times
September 18, 2014

Photo © Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Molissa Fenley's dances flourish in wide-open spaces, where the air around bodies becomes just as tangible as the sculptural shapes she creates for her dancers. It's hard to say if that quality relates to her early years growing up in Nigeria, but an uncluttered space like Judson Memorial Church, where her company returned Tuesday evening, provides a luminous setting for the breadth of her movement in her refined and systematic modern dances. Somehow, it's like gazing into the horizon of a foreign land.

In its one-off program, Molissa Fenley and Company presented three works, including Redwood Park, Parts 1 and 2. The first was commissioned by the Oakland Ballet, in California; the second is a premiere. Though different in tone, the dances, inspired by Ms. Fenley's extensive walks in the Oakland Hills, share a similar spirit: sensitive, delicate yet strong.

In the first section, set to percussive music by Joan Jeanrenaud, the dancers Evan Flood, Christiana Axelsen, Rebecca Chaleff and Matthew Roberts start out in first position. Soon, the stage is alive with swirling legs and curving arms, creating both tension and tranquillity, a hallmark of Ms. Fenley's choreography. The dancers are a marvel of containment and precision: As often as they rise on demi-point - and it happens a lot, from still balances to turns - they convey a grounded poignancy. They're never, mercifully, too light.

Part 2, inspired by images of the futurist dancer Giannina Censi, is performed in silence and unfolds as a series of angular poses and promenade turns. Ms. Chaleff starts out shifting from a balance with one knee bent high to a stance in which she reclines back with her arms stretched straight behind her. As others join her, the positions are repeated and embellished with partnering: A promenade turn for Ms. Axelsen is suddenly transformed when Mr. Roberts grasps her waist, and she leans forward in an arabesque pench.

As the second part of Redwood Park places the structure of part one under a microscope, the inspiration for both dances "the natural world" comes closer into view. Both halves of Redwood Park have an ancient feel: slow, patient but exacting.

More gimmicky is Dance an Impossible Space, from 2013, in which Ms. Fenley is joined by Ms. Axelsen and Ms. Chaleff, while the composer and vocalist Erin Gee performs a whispery array of softly punctuated sounds on two microphones. Here, the choreography unfolds in a contained area, and despite the elegance of the performers, the premise ”a dance shown in a deliberate space" grows tiresome.

The evening ended with Ms. Fenley's 1985 Esperanto, set to original music by the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. In it, the four dancers - all but Ms. Fenley - whirl in turns, skim the floor in light attitude hops and use the momentum of leg swings to propel their bodies into an array of serpentine waves. There are times when the power of Ms. Fenley's persistent movement wavers, yet Esperanto is mostly a treat: With its incessant, unremitting arrangement of steps, this is Ms. Fenley, as discriminating and formal as ever, but a little younger, a little more untamed.

A version of this review appears in print on September 18, 2014, on page C7 of the New York edition with the headline: Tension, Quiet and What's in Between

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Entrance from Molissa Fenley on Vimeo.

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