PRINT January 1984


FOR MANY ARTISTS OF THE ’70s, when the great Return to Painting occurred around 1977 it was as though sacred vows had been broken. Artists who had assumed a common ideology, or at least a simultaneity of languages, turned their backs on one another and on a period of open discourse about media and mediums, withdrawing behind pre-1968 lines. It was as though the art world had been given a new interior, where everyone was once again assigned a specific office, with each frosted glass door marked by profession—“Painter,” “Photographer,” “Sculptor,” “Dancer,” “Musician.” The euphony of voices that had resulted from the earlier open plan became a mere echo in the corridors leading to each closed door, while images from the past seeped into new canvases and reliefs.

The relationship that had developed between choreography and fine arts of the ’70s underwent a monumental shift with the new generation of the ’80s. Throughout the ’70s there had been a special empathy between such artists as Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Robert Morris, and Dennis Oppenheim and many choreographers, including Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Lucinda Childs. It manifested itself in conceptual strategies, as well as in an avant-garde ethic that encompassed both work and a way of living. Indeed, so close were the sensibilities that choreography was virtually the “practice” to conceptual art’s theoretical impulses. Walking down the side of a building (as choreography) or following a casual passerby in the street (as art) were two sides of the same coin.1 Both stopped the viewer in his or her tracks to ask, “Hey—is this art?” or “Is this dance?”. The radical esthetic implied by these questions remains a central model of avant-garde art, and the artists involved continue to risk the ramifications of such polemical concerns.

The next generation of artists and choreographers has been highly conscious of this inheritance, referring to it while also incorporating motifs and techniques from popular culture—television, movies, and rock ’n’ roll—explicitly seeking routes back and forth across boundaries of High and Low. This seems to have resulted in work that visibly focuses on the specific traditions of each medium. It is as though the earlier questioning of categories has been replaced by affirmative statements of intent—“this is art,” and “this is dance.”

From this rich and contradictory mix has emerged a new choreographer for the ’80s, Molissa Fenley. Currently being considered in the worlds of both avant-garde performance and mainstream modern dance, Fenley has a vision of dance that—with its footnotes to past styles—is of its own period and suggests further uncharted territory as well. She is seeking new figurative forms. Her work is a rich archaeology of dance, intense with unbridled physicality. Fast-paced and powerful, its starting point is her own body—its sinewy form and the very mechanisms that move it. The weight of the musculature, and the length and breadth of the back, the detail of how wrist meets palm at an oblique angle—such is the stuff of which movements are made, their precise dimensions articulating both plan and elevation of the stage space.

Fenley believes that the shape of the dancer’s body is the key to an entirely original choreography. With this in mind she has been remodeling her body for years not in dance classes but in a unique training program which she carries out in the mornings at her local gym. Her day begins with an hour of calisthenics of her own devising, a half hour of stationary-bicycle riding, and a half hour of training on a Nautilus weight machine. She systematically fine-tunes each body part, creating a powerful weapon that can yield extraordinary dance forms and building a surplus of stamina beyond what she calls “the maintenance level” of traditional dance training.2 When she performs she seems to recharge herself from this reserve to reach impossible levels of momentum and endurance. Thus each new work is as much a breakthrough in choreographic design as it is in physical construction. Her tightly crafted body is in direct contrast to the mostly untrained bodies of conceptually oriented dancers, and her sheer physical might is the very antithesis to their subtler ways.

“Dance is motion,” states Fenley, who, with Energizer, 1980, created an explosive reaction to the cool geometry of the cerebral ’70s. She finds two-dimensional floor plans far too regimented to contain the huge chunks of space consumed by her movement. While she begins with a plan, she allows it to disintegrate gradually as she follows the pulls and weights of a body in motion. This instinctive process results in what Fenley calls an “erratic architecture” of “felt volumes.” Unlike Childs’ dancers, hers do not keep an even, measured distance between them, but instead “shave off one another” as they move rapidly through space. Sometimes they create a soft-edged geometry of quadrants, circles, or figure eights as they go, as in Gentle Desire, 1981, a work for three dancers; or she may describe corridors and great planes of space, as in Eureka, 1982, a solo in which Fenley alone was responsible for the entire spatial volume.

This expansive use of space reflects the mix of geographical environments that constitutes Fenley’s “spatial memory.” Born in Nevada, raised in Nigeria, schooled in Spain and California, Fenley’s sense of physical space is from the outset not a conventional Western one. Hers is a physicality that suggests the kind of pure movement contained in a Yoruba dance ceremony, or in the hi-life dancing of Nigerian city life. She has a sense of her own body that speaks of growing up African, and a combination of consciousness and sensuality that comes from playing both sides, orthodox techniques and impulsive African rhythms.

Fenley’s costumes further remove her dance from that of the previous generation, with its typical pared-down work clothes. Her costumes do not decorate the body so much as provide a “window” onto her sculpted body forms. They also transform the dancer into what Fenley calls a “medium for motion”—a participant in a ritual where dancers take on the aura of the ceremonial deities who guard the dance spirit. As to historicist iconography, quite absent from ’70s choreography, Fenley’s compendium of movements coincides with the tendency of her fine-art contemporaries toward the appropriation of images. But her sources are a kind of genetic heritage—movement memories that lie buried in our bodies. Thus even with the momentum of bodies hurtling through space, Fenley’s rich choreography alludes to fleeting fragments of movements excavated from the past—an Egyptian hieroglyph, a Greek warrior’s shield, an Abyssinian frieze. Fenley dances with arms in the air, palms upward as in Indian dance or inward and with elbow crooked as in a Balinese curtsy, with hips that have a Calypso sway while her head nods to a distant samba. It is a dance whose parts are reassuring in their familiarity, though the whole is a provocative mix never seen before. It is this “universality” of recognizable dance motifs, as well as the sheer physicality of the work, that accounts for the equally enthusiastic reception Fenley receives in Tokyo and London, from both avant-garde circles and general dance audiences.

With Hemispheres, 1983, which premiered in November as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave” festival, Fenley’s own past has become the source for a breathtaking work of extraordinary beauty. Signatures from earlier works are reconstituted in combinations so powerful and confident that it seems as though Fenley has suddenly comprehended fully the intentions of her oeuvre so far. If the earliest pieces were, in Fenley’s words, “positional—finding a place for arms, heads, and hands,” they manifest themselves in Hemispheres as a dissertation on the upper body—a history of head and hand movements, dealing with their symbolic and story-telling capacities as well as their function as pendulums or weights and balances. If her second phase of choreography emphasized rhythmic concerns, with works such as Mix, 1979, being executed in silence to allow the pulse of the dancers’ breathing and the sound of sets of feet on wood to give the dance its momentum—like heartbeats—then Hemispheres is a labyrinth of rhythms and counts, overlapping number systems and unexpected phrasings that conjure up images of huge choruses of drummers crossing back and forth between forest and hills. If her next concern was speed, with (as she describes it) an interest “in the way the eye perceives space when things are speeded up,” then Hemispheres, interspersed as it is with slow-motion passages, gives the eye time to absorb the actual spatial connections that are there on stage. This slowing-down also gives the brain time to recall pictures from an image bank of dance, inserting their romance into Fenley’s own body language. Moreover, when the pacing reverts to Fenley’s normal time—breakneck speed—it seems as though the dancers must be cruising in their own slipstream.

Referring to the brain, Hemispheres is the reconciliation of opposites—present and past (Fenley’s own as well as dance history), analytical and intuitive, classical tradition and third-world custom, stereotypes of male and female movement. Such a reconciliation was imperative for Fenley. Her passion for choreography was stirred by both the ecstatic expressionism of Martha Graham and the ritualistic sensuality of non-Western dance in general, while she was given license to practice at all by the work of such pioneers of post-Modern dance as Lucinda Childs, whose rigorous conceptual base allowed Fenley to proceed with her own obsessions of endurance and speed. Hers was a deep “cyclic need,” she explained, to reconcile the two sides of the brain, and to “make the bloodstream dance. Cyclic, because I have a metaphoric image of movement coursing through the veins, linking brain and muscle.”

A four-part work that includes trios, a solo, and a duet, all of seemingly infinite variety in style, tempo, and mood, Hemispheres links music and dance in a unique way. Long considered dependent on music, traditional dance followed where the music led; later, in the case of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, the two forms went their autonomous ways. In Hemispheres, music and dance have had a catalytic effect on each other, resulting in an inseparable hybrid of unexpected rhythms and mood overlays. Anthony Davis, asked by Fenley to create the music for Hemispheres, produced a work that consciously elaborates an Afro-American sound while incorporating further references to both Eastern and Western music. Over the course of a year Davis and Fenley “explored and tested each other’s concepts of theatrical dance and concert music,” as Fenley noted in the liner notes for the Gramavision recording of Davis’ music. This interchange with Davis has altered the very sensibility of Fenley’s movement, softening the edges between one picture and the next and creating transitional phrasing for the dance, whereas earlier music such as the mixture of acoustic and synthesized orchestration composed by Peter Gordon for Eureka often kept the steady tempo of a clicking metronome. “There was something about his acoustic music that allowed me to be more ‘acoustical’ in my physical experience,” explained Fenley of her collaboration with Davis. “It allowed me to be more ‘natural’ and more ‘primitive.’” Davis’ “rhythmic density” transformed her dance into a “silent drummer,” as he described it, adding to Fenley’s already complicated rhythmic patterns.3 For Davis, who was commissioned to compose a work that would, in Fenley’s words, “co-exist with the dance, not drive it,” it was an opportunity to realize the spatial relationships suggested in his own work through dance, while at the same time creating what he describes as a “rhythmic structure as relentless as the dance.”

Both composer and choreographer rely on intricate counting systems to articulate their forms, but neither actually provided the other with a precise plan from which to work. In some sections the music was completed before the dance, in others the dance before the music, resulting in intricate phrasing that interlocks almost magically at certain moments. Engineered like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, musical and dance components are matched with the same interest in oppositions found throughout Hemispheres, sometimes complementing, sometimes opposing each other’s forms, rhythms, and moods. For instance, Fenley’s overture for the second section, a complicated work entitled “Telepathy,” is performed in silence, with the dancers then being joined by the powerful beat of Davis’ music in full orchestra, matching the complexity of the choreographer’s counts with its own intricate rhythm. In the third section, “Eidetic Body,” Fenley’s dance solo and Davis’ piano solo constitute an intimate conversation between composer and choreographer in which visual and aural images are juxtaposed, providing a lyrical calm amidst a work of rhythmic intensity. This exchange between two artists deeply fascinated by the complexity of each other’s working process has had an alchemical effect on both dance and music. For while each fully comprehends and respects the traditions of the others’ discipline, realizing at the same time the, separate courses open for exploration, both Fenley and Davis acknowledge making great technical and conceptual leaps on the basis of the exchange.

Commissioning Davis to compose for her dance is one way in which Fenley has forced herself not to rely too heavily on past work. Indeed, breaking rules and going beyond her own limits characterizes her working method. Another aspect of that method, her persistent layering of various traditions, is expressed not only in her choreography itself, but also in her use of other traditional elements of dance performance—the costumes and the sets. The costumes for Hemispheres were not actually commissioned for the occasion but were selected by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo from her existing summer line. Kawakubo’s clothes bring a perfect monumental and stately character to the work. Above all, they are a frame for the physicality of the movement. “They are big objects,” says Fenley, “but when we move—and we’re moving fast—they drape around the body in abstract, sculptural forms.” Francesco Clemente, commissioned by Fenley to add to the work, didn’t produce a standard set or backdrop but instead provided the most unobtrusive of pieces. Respecting Fenley’s need for a plain background—“the movement is so complicated, and I don’t want to put any imagistic or narrative content onto it,” she says—Clemente withdrew to his studio after watching several rehearsals to create a suite of 40 drawings. Printed as a multiple and gathered into four elegant portfolios (designed by Anthony McCall) of ten prints each, they were distributed to the audience at the Brooklyn Academy as mementos of the event.

Hemispheres is an elaborate and controlled choreography of dance forms and fictions which Fenley has constructed with this incisive gathering of collaborators and contributors. At the crux of Hemispheres is the development of the two dancers who perform the work with her, Silvia Martins and Scottie Mirviss. In the past six months they have undergone Fenley’s rigorous training program, instigating their own gym routines to provide the store of strength needed for her nonstop motion, lending their bodies to her core of movement. Martins and Mirviss have learned the rigorous architecture of Fenley’s dance, but at the same time her process has provoked the emergence of their own dance personas. Sensual and exhilarating, the three together revel in the ritualistic quality and sheer pleasure of dance. These bodies, taut and powerful and as animalistic as athletes on a track, are what will propel Fenley to her next choreographic leap.

RoseLee Goldberg, former curator of The Kitchen, is the author of Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (Harry N. Abrams Inc).



1. See my article, “Space as Praxis,” in Studio International, September/October 1975, in which conceptual art and performance are discussed as the “theory and practice” of ’70s sensibilities.

2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Fenley are taken from interviews with the author conducted at various times over the past two years.

3. Interview with the author, July 1983.