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Flash Review 3, 1-17: Pleasing Astringency
At Rest in Movement with Molissa Fenley

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2002 Alicia Mosier

NEW YORK -- There is in Molissa Fenley's dances something that makes us rethink what we come to a dance concert to see. Instead of high emotion or driving athleticism, there is a pleasing astringency that calms and focuses the mind. Last night at the Joyce Theater, in the first of four performances in the Altogether Different festival, Fenley presented four dances in which one could simply rest in movement. Coming in from the hubbub of the day, as her time with us began, I stopped, and breathed, and found myself trusting her.

I don't know how Fenley first found Peter Boal, but in him she discovered a kindred spirit. Since she created "Pola'a" in 1996, it has been performed by both her and Boal as a solo. Last night they danced it together, and the only trouble with the duet version is deciding which one of them to watch. You can't look away from either one. A lot is going on, but it seems like not that much: gently unfolding music for strings by Lou Harrison, gently shifting colors on the backdrop, two dancers in pale blue crossing back and forth with the lightest of steps. There are few moments for rest -- it demands incredible stamina -- yet the dance looks restful. Boal gathers air in his arms three times in a row; he leaps into a quick penchee, one arm thrown down. Fenley is there with him, her powerful, fleet body speaking in its own language, and their movements are both a mirror of and a conversation with each other. As a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Boal's defining quality is the purity of his technique: nothing extraneous, only the best. In "Pola'a" we see the ultimate purification of Peter Boal, the essence of the dancer he is. This piece gives him what few of his roles at NYCB are able to -- time -- and working inside that gift, his dancing grows bolder, easier, more intense and more peaceful all at once.

"Delta" (2000) has a voodoo atmosphere: the slightly jazzy feel of John Cage's prepared piano mingles with the weird little arm-squiggles and sideways jumps that Fenley, Paz Tanjuaquio, and Ori Flomin do. In their spare black costumes, the dancers look like artifacts. At each moment one of them wears a white mask, which gives him or her the freedom of semi-anonymity; they seem to move differently when they put it on. Throughout this piece, with its constant motion, I was struck by the extraordinary physics of Fenley's dancing: she can stop on a dime coming out of a turn, and out of a leap she's as solid as a tree, but she never looks earthbound.

The three dancers in "331 Steps," which premiered last night, are like three beautiful exotic birds having their way in the courtyards of the city late at night. The music is a found-sound score by Merrill Wagner, full of subway noises, marbles, thunder, feedback, and singing. Fenley, Lesley Braithwaite, and Tanjuaquio -- in Evan Ayotte's costumes of yellow, rust, and teal, with long bands of fabric attaching them to the exposed brick of the theater's back wall -- twine around each other, their lush extensions interspersed with spurts of switch-legged hopping. At one moment, Braithwaite lays down on her stomach and bounces her head an inch above the floor. At another, Tanjuaquio contracts on one leg, fists pumping in around her body. All the while their long tails are braiding over and under. You forget about meaning; the pace of the thing is so beautiful.

The two parts of "short stories" come from two sides of Fenley's career; as her program note says, they bridge a gap of 19 years. Part one is a reconstruction of the finale of "Hemispheres" (1983); part two, "Sky Garden," is new. Together, they are like something from Mount Olympus. The first half (for Tanjuaquio , Braithwaite, and Nora Chipaumire) is full of fun and bustle, picking up the shifting time signatures of Anthony Davis's music for horns and piano. The second (which brings in Flomin and Linda Sastradipradja) is almost frieze-like, almost courtly, with the energy of the preceding episode distilled into joy. The forward-blasting jumps in the "Hemispheres" finale evolve, in "Sky Gardens" (which is performed in silence), into a circle of dancers with arms swept upward in a V. The story of "short stories," one might say, is of Fenley growing older, more centered, more herself. These days, she gives us more than energy -- she gives us peace.

Molissa Fenley and company can be seen at the Joyce through Sunday. Please visit the Joyce website for more information.

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