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Jack Anderson

Molissa Fenley: Strength and Sensibility

Photo by Paula Court.

Molissa Fenley: Strength and Sensibility
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
Dec. 11-16, 2007
Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., $25 Sunday, $38 all other performances
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Dec. 13, 2007


For the past thirty years, Molissa Fenley has attracted attention with dances demanding great strength and stamina. Her new dances still do, but other, perhaps unexpected, qualities are now discernible in them, as well. Wit, for one. And lyricism.

Four men and three woman had plenty of strength and stamina in "Calculus and Politics," a world premiere to a percussive score by the American maverick composer Harry Partch. As his music cheerfully clattered like some sort of garage-band gamelan, the dancers went their ways, following their own complex individual paths, covering space with sharp gestures and brisk little hops and jumps. Sometimes they paired off. They also removed small stuffed swans from pedestals and handed them back and forth, and they took turns jumping with a jump-rope.

These people's missions were inscrutable. But they all looked unflappably determined as they went about their business, and no one appeared to be intent on doing harm. They simply kept busy, so very, very busy that their constant comings and goings with deadpan expressions started seeming comic. Observers might well ask what Fenley thought her unstoppable people were up to.

Partch's score for "Calculus and Politics" was called "Castor and Pollux," and Fenley's title was obviously wordplay inspired by Partch, a verbal caprice that set me wondering just who Castor and Pollux were. A mythological handbook taught me some things that made me say, "Aha!" Castor and Pollux were twins (which may have prompted Fenley's duets), and their mother was Leda, who was ravished by Zeus in the guise of a swan. Aha, indeed! Those stuffed swans! Both boys were athletic (the jump-rope symbolizing physical fitness, perhaps?), and transplanted to the night sky they became Gemini, a constellation the ancients used as a marker to guide mariners. And, of course, the choreographically guided dancers traversed the stage without confusion.

Fenley and Stephen Greco, her dramaturg, were obviously having fun here. But what did their allusions contribute to an understanding of the profundities of either mythology or choreographic form? Nothing much, as far as I could tell. Their fancies simply seemed little jokes spoofing choreographic obfuscations, from the psychoanalytic mythological murk of the less-talented imitators of Martha Graham in the 40's and 50's to the pedantries of today's dourest deconstructionists.

Two other new dances had piano scores by Philip Glass played on opening night (December 11) by the composer himself. In contrast to the assertive actions of "Calculus and Politics," movements were gentle in "Dreaming Awake," a New York premiere for Fenley, Katie McGreevy, and Cassie Mey set to repetitively rippling music. If anything, the choreography was so gentle and restrained as to look half-hearted, and Glass's playing sometimes sounded smudged.

"Provenance Unknown," a 2006 revision of a piece from 1989, was equally quiet in tone. It, too, might have been called "Dreaming Awake," and it created a far better musical and choreographic impression than the dance actually titled that. Its unhurried opening solo for Fenley emphasized walks during which she occasionally paused, as if to ponder something or to savor her own steps, which she sometimes punctuated with gentle turns and skips and stretches heavenward.

Steps and gestures were firmer, and there were some fervent runs forward in a solo for Mey, yet nothing grew harsh. Both women danced unison or complementary steps in the conclusion, Fenley seeming lyrical in manner, while Mey was more forthright.

The way movements in "Provenance" often appeared to arise from the center of the body and the repeated use throughout the evening of such natural steps as walks and skips led to another "Aha!" moment for me: a realization that Fenley's present-day choreographic language could be called a dialect of Isadora Duncan's.

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