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Expect props, leaps when dancer/choreographer Molissa Fenley goes solo
Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times
December 9, 2010

Photo © Steven Schreiber

Seattle dance fans may know dancer/choreographer Molissa Fenley best by proxy.

Her striking Stravinsky-set 34-minute solo from 1988, "State of Darkness," was remounted by Pacific Northwest Ballet in 2007, with three different dancers — Jonathan Porretta, Rachel Foster and James Moore — tackling it on different nights.

Before that, only one dancer other than Fenley had performed it: PNB's artistic director Peter Boal, in 1999, at New York's Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival.

Boal told The Seattle Times of the problems he'd had learning it back then, just as he and Fenley were prepping Porretta, Foster and Moore to do it.

"The memory game is such a challenge," he said. "Molissa made it on herself, in a studio, so she'd remember what she'd done yesterday and build on that. It was all made on one person's mind — it wasn't designed for other people's minds."

Folks who want to see Fenley herself in extended solo action will have their chance on Dec. 17 when she presents two solo works: "Regions" (from 1995) and the more recent "Mass Balance" at Fremont Abbey Arts Center. She'll also be setting a new dance, "Planes in Air," on two dancers from Seattle Dance Project (SDP), who are co-presenting the program with Fremont Abbey. Boal will be a guest speaker at the program.

Fenley, now 56, was in town last week to rehearse and gamely chatted about her career as both a dancer and choreographer. Her work, she says, is evenly divided between group and solo pieces. But for a whole 10-year period, all she made was solo work.

"It's sort of pragmatic," she says with a big laugh. "I know I can show up!"

More seriously, she notes that in the solo works that she sets on herself she's exploring "a very personal point of view."

In bringing "Regions" back to the stage, she's taking her cue from archival videos of her original performance. "I do whatever that lady on the video says to do," she jokes.

And she's still able to do it at an age when many dancers have retired.

"My leaps aren't anywhere where they were when I was at my peak, in my 30s and 40s," she admits. "But — it's still a leap. ... It's still that thing of getting into the air."

For the kind of work she does, she adds, "it's less about the bravura of something, and more about what follows what, contextually."

The latest wrinkle in Fenley's work: props. "Mass Balance" finds her wielding a 10-foot pole, and "Planes in Air" presents two SDP dancers with large balsa-wood-and-rice-paper fans to handle.

"This was a whole interesting investigation," Fenley says. "There's five prop dances. Four of them are group dances, and one is a solo."

What prompted them?

"I decided it would be a very interesting puzzle to have to solve if I were to ask five visual artists whose work I know to send me a prop. It could be absolutely anything."

Whatever it was, she told them, she wouldn't turn it down.

Some very interesting packages started turning up at her studio.

"One person sent me these stainless-steel trays — very thin trays with eagle feathers embedded in them — and a huge deer fence."

The fans came from artist Roy Fowler, and the pole — "which, I have to tell you, is really heavy" — came from Todd Richmann.

How heavy is it?

Fenley hasn't weighed it. And when she holds it at its fulcrum, it's not so bad: "Physics really does work." But when she has it by its end, that's a different story.

SDP artistic directors Tim Lynch and Julie Tobiason hope that Fenley's appearance here will be the first event in an ongoing series.

"One thing that Julie and I wanted to start was a 'distinguished choreographers' series," Lynch says. "Fremont Abbey's a great place to have this. ... It's a beautiful venue, especially at night."

Michael Upchurch:

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