New York

Molissa Fenley

Joyce Theater

Molissa Fenley has found a highly personal and effective means of making silent dances speak of social and moral distress. No narrative, no costume, no painted backdrop could better have demonstrated the possibility of spiritual healing through physical control than Fenley’s distinctive body language, poignantly accented by David Moodie’s lighting design.

The challenge Fenley set herself was to trigger emotional responses and suggest narrative directions, using an essentially abstract form, and in her recent homage to the wildlife lost by the Alaskan oil spill of March 1989, she did just that. The Floor Dances (Requiem for the Living), 1989, set in a circular stone sculpture by Richard Long, was a meditation on the beginning and end of the world. Fenley’s movement, accompanied by Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki’s beautiful Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, transformed Long’s sculpture into a prehistoric magic circle bathed in icy northern light, within which Fenley’s body, weighted to the floor as though by a membrane of crude oil, struggled to snatch life back from death. Sometimes using the stones as pillows, at other times to suggest the edges of a pool in which to cleanse a crippled body, Fenley shifted weight from hip to knee, propelling herself into a praying position, only to topple over on her side like a seal out of water. Her arms articulated curved shapes above her head and across her chest or wrapped around her waist; at times they suggested wings attempting flight, at others a tragic signal for help. Her below-eye-level choreography—kneeling, sitting, or reclining—within the strict confines of the circle, became a complex essay on the relationship between ground and gravity that every dancer must address.

Fenley’s State of Darkness, 1988, a central work in her oeuvre, was performed between two newer works. Demonstrating Fenley’s mastery over the solo form by showing a single figure generating both chaos and order within a simple stage frame, this complex, multilayered work kept the audience riveted through its entire 40-minute length. In a final dramatic crescendo, Fenley stepped into the circle of a single spotlight, and dropped her head as though in homage to the god of dance.

This performance to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The rite of spring, 1913) was a dissertation on dance as both motion and ideas. She led the viewer’s eye through the space by the most precise figurations and showed how the body can be either propelled by an accumulated movement so that it seems to travel at unattainable speed, or slowed down frame by frame to a series of tableaux. For the first time in her own history, Fenley uses the body to realize emotions potent enough to make an audience weep. Indeed, Fenley’s version of Le Sacre du Printemps signals her rite of passage into maturity; in it, Fenley seemed to understand anew her choreographic lineage—from Nijinsky to Martha Graham, to Balinese and African dance ritual—and discovered that once permitted to take center stage the emotions become a vast resource from which to shape new dances.

The shape of the final work in the program, Bardo, 1990, is a rectangle sliced diagonally by Fenley’s almost imperceptible movement from upstage to down. Torso weighted over a flexed foot or crooked arm, the smallest gesture in this very still dance is lit in such a way that it registers in silhouette, focusing the viewer’s attention so intensely on its parts that its effect is hypnotic. A chanting score, entitled “Mantra” by Japanese composer Somei Satoh grew louder as the lighting got brighter, filling the auditorium with its deep all-encompassing tones. Fenley covered the diagonal of the stage in conjunction with the music, so that both dance and music concluded simultaneously. A tribute to, and an act of mourning for, artist Keith Haring, Bardo—a Tibetan word suggesting the dreamlike passage between birth and death—was a modern temple dance.

Fenley’s solo performances reveal an extremely private order, and even the act of making them must require near-religious discipline and self-reflexive solitude. Yet this purist research into movement has vastly broadened her vocabulary and ultimately provided her with a profoundly social voice.

RoseLee Goldberg