New York

Molissa Fenley

The Joyce

Viewers of dance are usually part of a collective experience. Together they watch as social relationships evolve on stage, and they relate predominantly to individual dancers, as points in the fine spatial filigree that is the choreographer’s design. In Molissa Fenley’s three powerful solos—Inner Enchantments, 1991, Threshold, 1992, and Place, 1992—however, viewers must concentrate on each separate movement; the experience is as much a test of short-term memory and the mind’s ability to retain a series of afterimages as it is about responding, one-on-one, to the visceral and emotional presence of the solo dancer.

The public performances of these private soliloquies on dance point to the loneliness of this self-styled long-distance runner—and to Fenley’s unique investigations of the solo form. The way in which she constructs her dances in the studio becomes as significant as how they are performed on stage. Like a painter, Fenley works in solitude, in a well-lit, high-ceilinged studio that is quite spiritual in its austerity. The social life of a company and the conversations that usually transform ideas into physical shape have no place in her choreography. Rather, Fenley’s creative mode depends upon an undiluted route from thought to action. When transferred to a theater, this aura of privacy envelops each viewer; each studies her form as one might a painting.

Such focus has its rewards. With Inner Enchantments, Fenley’s movements tease variety out of Philip Glass’ classically minimalist Music in 12 Parts, Part 1, 1974. With gliding footwork that resembles a skater’s sashay across the ice, Fenley outlines concentric circles on the stage that seem differently animated each time she makes the rounds. In a simple working leotard, she reveals the rationale behind Glass’ reductivist composition while at the same time working against his grain with some decorative flourishes of her own.

Threshold delves the depths of movement memory but works with specific spatial limitations; unlike the generous circles of Enchantment, this work takes place along a relentless diagonal. Fenley’s upper body sways in one piece, suggesting stone Cycladic sculpture, while the lower body propels her like a swimmer underwater; the smallest motion creates a visual ripple effect, and her splayed fingers and rotating hands seem to resist the countercurrents. From upstage to down, she sets out on a slow journey, always at an oblique angle to the proscenium, and then retraces her steps, as if decomposing them, to end where she began. An unusual pendular walk that crisscrosses the diagonal adds a fluid sexuality to this extremely serene and contemplative work.

Fenley’s final piece of the evening, entitled Place, performed to music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (a taped score entitled “Sarah was ninety years old”), points to Fenley’s uncanny sensitivity to musical composition and to her diligence in discovering sounds that are as potently concentrated as her own physical forms. The eerie drumming that opens this piece and the large arcs she makes with her arms above her head, have all the qualities of ancient ritual; flat-footed, knees bent, arms always in upturned gestures of appeal or worship, this work moves through distinct mood changes that closely follow the music. Chants and crying voices add unexpected sound effects to accompany Fenley’s spiraling and torqued body, while the “place” referred to in the title is made concrete by the separate sections into which the stage is divided, suggesting geographical regions—circles, crossroads, diagonals. Remarkably, though, it is Fenley’s abstract body shapes—the purity of her line and clarity of her execution—that provide the emotional heart of this work; and it is her understanding of these connections that constitutes the essence of her dancing.

RoseLee Goldberg