BWW Reviews: Molissa Fenley and Company Presents World Premiere and Revivals
The Replay Series, presented by New York Live Arts, allows audience members the opportunity to engage with works that span the entire career of influential dance makers. As part of this series, Molissa Fenley and Company can be seen at New York Live Arts October 2-5, performing a world premiere alongside revivals of several pivotal works from the early years of Ms. Fenley's career. Program A, presented on October 2-3 at 7:30pm includes The Floor Dances, Found Object, and Energizer.
The Floor Dances provides a captivating and meditative introduction to the evening with Ms. Fenley performing her own solo choreography, which she created in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in March 1989. The performance space for this elegant solo is a wide circular field in the center of the stage, delineated by a border of evenly spaced granite forms by landscape artist Richard Long. The jagged grey stones create a wall only about two feet tall at its highest point, but, as Ms. Fenley quietly enters the space and lowers herself to the floor, the wall appears decidedly menacing in comparison. Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for soprano and orchestra fills the air, and Ms. Fenley's arms are transformed into majestic, desperate wings. The Floor Dances is filled with imagery of birds, but it never seems that the movement is a mere imitation. Ms. Fenley's limbs paint flowing phrases of flight and distorted fits of panic, not forced into positions but animated by a desire to reach beyond their current entanglement. Throughout the piece, Ms. Fenley is effortlessly attached to the floor, weighed down by some invisible force. Her feet and legs glide over the surface to which they are bound, absorbing the echo of her movement. The dignity and commitment of her performance is astonishing. It is not possible to catalogue what comes before a given moment, nor predict what will come next. Combined with Mr. Long's sculptural set, David Moodey's lighting design lends a haunting beauty to the work. Throughout the piece, shadowy blue light casts an oily sheen over the black marley. At the entrance of the soprano voice, the stage is flooded with a peculiar ghostly white-blue light, and later, bright golden beams spread across the stage. This glow intensifies near the close of the work, bringing to mind the intense, short-lived splendor of the setting sun. The final moments of Floor Dances linger as the harsh yellow light fades, a striking image of beauty that is too dignified to be diminished by tragedy.
Following this striking encounter with Ms. Fenley's solo work comes Found Object, a world premiere created in collaboration with three writers who each provided instructions to be interpreted by Ms. Fenley and her company. As a whole, the work is not especially effective, although each of the sections possess distinct and memorable characteristics.
The first section, called Dance for Jene, does not use written instructions, but rather serves as homage to the artistry of sculptor Jene Highstein (1942-2013). Dance for Jene makes use of hand props created by Mr. Highstein for Ms. Fenley's work The Prop Dances. The props consist of white rectangular panels similar in size to a sheet of letter paper, with an outline of a hand on one side, and are worn over the dancers' hands. For this duet, performed in silence, Ms. Fenley is joined by Christina Axelsen. The women glide gracefully through the space, while the hand props accentuate their arcing arm movements. Watching the dancers move with the props, it is easy to imagine that they are simply riding the waves of air stirred by their hands, and the whole section feels buoyant and effortless.
Ms. Fenley, along with Rebecca Chaleff and Peiling Kao, performs Circulus, with instructions by writer Rudy Wurlitzer. In fitted red, white, and blue dresses, the dancers circle around one another, creating swirling spatial patterns. While the dancers are effective at executing the movement, this section lacks the unifying atmosphere seen in Part 1.
The third section, Everybody Has a Heartache, was choreographed based on instructions by Joy Harjo. The beginning of this section is marked by the entrance of Erin Gee, who composed and performs original music for the work. Armed with two microphones and the ability to produce a wide variety of sounds with her voice, Ms. Gee creates a distinctive landscape of whistles, clicks, and flutters for the trio of dancers. The trio matches the irregular rhythm of the music, swooping, running, and jumping each on their own path, before moving in unison for a time.
Closing the work, Texts for Molissa Fenley Dance Piece is performed by Ms. Fenley, Ms. Axelsen, and actress RoseMary Quinn. The text, by playwright John Guare, is a combination of directions for drying fresh flowers and advice for POWs about the rules of the Geneva Convention.
The text is recited by Ms. Fenley and Ms. Quinn, and is accompanied by gestural phrases, which do not adequately highlight the distinct difference in tone between the two sources of written material. Also featured in Part 4 is artwork by Roy Fowler, a pair of paintings that appear to be representing vases, which are mentioned in Mr. Guare's instructions. To finish the work, Ms. Axelsen follows the directions provided for displaying a bouquet of dried flowers, wrapping her fellow dancers in string, and tying them together with a large satin ribbon. This childlike gesture feels out of place compared to the rest of the work, and the piece ends without an acknowledgement of the stark contrast between the two sets of directions that Mr. Guare chose to provide.
Closing the program is Energizer, a work choreographed by Ms. Fenley in 1980. Set to an incessantly rhythmic score composed by Mark Freedman, the piece is a masterful display of endless variation on repetitive themes. The work is in three sections, the first and last performed by a quartet made up of the three company members seen in Found Object, as well as Cassandra Neville. These group sections are mesmerizing, with the dancers running, jumping, and turning past each other in constant motion. It is inexplicably refreshing to watch the dancers progress through their steps, not working at maximum speed or effort, but maintaining a steady rhythm for the entirety of the work. Especially enjoyable are moments when dancers make simple connections to each other, working in unison with arms linked together, making eye contact without forcing a relationship. These unadorned duets suggest an easy understanding and camaraderie that does not need to be explained.
Between the two quartet sections, Ms. Fenley and Ms. Axelsen take the stage for a duet that uses the vocabulary and structural approaches from the group sections on a smaller scale. Although Ms. Fenley's performance in Energizer is not as effortless as her performance of The Floor Dances, her joy in dancing the fast, quirky choreography is apparent and contagious.
A celebration of pure movement and an exploration of symmetry, opposition, and rhythm, Energizer is an uplifting and satisfying end to New York Live Arts' presentation of Ms. Fenley's significant contributions to the art of dance.
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas