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Dance Insider Interview, 9-14: Molissa Fenley
"You can say, 'That's a Fenley movement.'"
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2005 Philip W. Sandstrom
Photography by Julie Lemberger
I interviewed Molissa
Fenley September 6 at the Paradise Cafe in New York City, after
observing a rehearsal of "Patterns and Expectations," "Desert Sea,"
and "Lava Fields," the three dances being presented by Molissa Fenley
and Dancers Thursday through Sunday at Joyce SoHo. We weren't strangers
to each other; I'd designed the lighting for two Fenley shows at
Dance Theater Workshop, "Energizer" in 1980 and "Eureka" in 1982.
Philip W. Sandstrom:
"Patterns and Expectations" is the first piece in your new show,
with music by Fred Frith. I notice that you were using a recording
of a live session; is he playing live for the performances? How
is the dance structured?
No. It's a work-in-progress that will premiere at Mills College
in the spring; there he will be performing the score live. Basically,
the structure is patterns get set up and then they change, yet something
is always off, it's never quite right; that's part of setting up
the patterns and altering the viewer's expectations. It's still
PWS: In this
piece more than any of the others, the dancers, when facing each
other, exchange a smile or a look; it's a very warm human quality
that is enjoyable to observe. Is that planned?
MF: I always
like that in my work. I think it's always been there.
PWS: Tell me
about "Desert Sea," the second dance on your program; what is a
MF: "Desert Sea"
was made for the Repertory Dance Theatre group in Utah. It was made
for eight dancers and I've reconfigured it for my present company
of five. A lot of the imagery in the dance is derived from the Navaho
weaving in the area where RDT operates. This area, called Four Corners,
where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico converge is primarily
Navaho tribal land. The Navahos see their blankets as a protective
shield on the land and on the body. As for the title, looking back
in geological time this area was the base of an inland sea; now
of course it's a desert, so that's what spawned the idea of the
"Desert Sea" title. The piece is geometrically oriented using the
Navaho idea of the spirit mind; no blanket can be completely symmetrical
because perfection is not a human trait, so there must be errors
in the weave. The fact that the dance has five dancers already skews
the work toward asymmetry; even when the dancers are working together,
say as a pair, there will be moves that are slightly off from each
other to reinforce the feeling of asymmetry. The music is by Lou
Harrison, from "1942 Canticle #3," an intensive percussion piece.
PWS: It has a
Southwestern Balinese sound or feel to it.
MF: Kind of but
not so much Balinese as it is more American Indian; it's not quite
so Pan-Pacific as it is Americana in a way. The movement study for
this piece is drawn from the one-time piece I did for Meredith Monk's
show at Danspace Project using Meredith Monk music. "Desert Sea"
is in no way the same piece as the Meredith piece but it does contain
the origins of the movement vocabulary for the dance that became
"Desert Sea"; in a way it was my research.
PWS: The four
to one and three to two format of dancers working together or apart
that you utilize in this dance, how does that vary from what you've
done in the past?
MF: I like the
idea of having phrasings that radiate across the stage, with one
dancer doing something and another dancer picking up on that but
it's slightly different, slightly askew. I like placing four dancers
against one dancer, and three against two, as you just mentioned
-- I like groupings that are constantly shifting. "Desert Sea" has
that: Each dancer is very individualist and has equal weight, each
dancer is seen in light of the other four in different ways as a
result of the constant shifting. I also like that as a rhythmic
reality. Things are together and then they shift and change. It's
constantly moving -- as soon as something is set up it becomes something
else. In terms of how it differs from my very early work, I think
that the dynamic-ism of that work, the ongoing-ness, and the sense
of continuousness that was a hallmark of my earlier period is still
there, but it's modulated in different ways with dynamics that are
Mey (rear), Molissa Fenley (center) and Wanjiru Kamuyu (in front)
of Molissa Fenley and Dancers rehearsing in New York City. Julie
Lemberger photo copyright 2005 Julie Lemberger.
In the very early days you worked with charts and exact counting.
How does that fit in with what you are doing now?
MF: This work
is not counted at all.
PWS: Oh? But
all three of these pieces fit very well with the music.
MF: I know; that's
because I made them that way. I made the dances that way intuitively
rather than counted. Sometimes when working with a new group of
dancers I'll put a count to the work but later when we're well into
the piece I don't keep that count.
In this particular program
there aren't very many sections that are counted. We have sections
that were counted in rehearsal, but as we do it more and more we
stop counting. I'm very interested in having dancers figure out
how to keep together. There's one organization or grouping of counts
that goes 7,6,5,4,3,7, those being phrases, and that counting is
in the dance. Another section has five measures of three and that's
in the dance, but these phrases, as we do them, eventually become
more of the body counting rather than something that's metrically
perfect every time.
PWS: So how do
the dancers keep together? Do they guide on the person who is furthest
MF: It shifts.
For example, in the 7,6,5,4,3,7 section, if you're doing a seven,
there're four different phrases of that configuration, with dancer
#1 doing phrase A, dancer #2 doing phrase B.... They know each other's
movement well enough that if I'm doing a seven and someone else
is doing a seven, we're staying together in the seven-ness of the
count. So as you look across the stage you can see who's too fast
or too slow. It's a loose rhythmic structure that allows individuality
to come into play but it involves some split-second decision-making
as to what is the real tempo. Also, the dancing tempo is often not
one with the music tempo. It's really like we're a whole other orchestra.
PWS: That certainly
explains why, although in all three pieces in the rehearsal I saw
the dance and the music blended, I could not figure out how you
were counting them.
MF: Like I said,
some sections are counted but in the doing of it the dancers might
be counting to themselves like a mantra, to keep coordinated, but
the counting is not rhythmically correct. It's not in the same rhythm
as the music. It will be in the tempo frame but not on necessarily
on the tempo.
PWS: In making
"Lava Field," actually in the making of any of these pieces, where
do you start?
MF: "Lava Field"
started with hiking on lava fields in Hawaii and experiencing their
very bare and desolate nature. There are two different kinds of
lava flow: 1) pahoehoe, a twisted and rope-like texture, very convoluted;
and 2) a'a, a fat and crinkly flow that travels quite quickly, up
to 25 miles per hour. Both of these types of flow provided me with
textural suggestions for movement and placement of the dancers on
the stage. The dancers are often interweaving, holding hands, and
making different group configurations.
PWS: It has a
folk dance quality to it.
MF: It's interesting
that you say that, because people in Hawaii believe there are mythological
creatures called the Night Marchers who are the ancestors who parade
on the lava fields at night as protectors of the fields. It's said
that if you're not part of the ancestry of Hawaiian culture, and
you're on the lava fields at night, these creatures may harm you.
I was reading a number of these stories and used these ideas in
a part of the dance that I call the marauding section. These ideas
suggest a certain type of movement, and I try to make each piece
very specific in its vocabulary.
PWS: Do you work
alone in the studio first before you work with the dancers?
MF: Yes, I get
everything choreographed, all the phrases are made, and then I figure
out how to put them on the dancers. The spacing comes with that;
we make decisions about spacing when we get into the studio. The
vocabulary is intact -- I never ask them to improvise or provide
some of the phrase. The one thing that is very interesting about
a choreographer who uses a very particular movement vocabulary is
that it becomes an intrinsic signature; you can say, "That's a Fenley
movement." I'm not interested in having that diluted; I'm interested
in having the work "translated" by each dancer but not added to
Fenley, left, rehearses with Wanjiru Kamuyu. Julie Lemberger
photo copyright 2005 Julie Lemberger.
I must say it did bring a smile to my face every time I recognized
a signature movement.
MF: It's a language
I've been working on for 28 years. I'm trying to make it grow and
yet there are always elements present that are recognizable as my
PWS: For this
show you have five dancers, but only use the fifth in one of the
three dances; have you thought about replacing yourself with her
in one of the four-dancer pieces?
MF: No, I love
it, I love dancing!
Molissa Fenley and Dancers performs Thursday through Sunday at
Joyce SoHo. For more information, please visit the company's website.
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