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Enlightenment

June 16, 1989. Wearing only black leggings and a pixie haircut, Molissa Fenley performed her solo, “State of Darkness,” inspired by Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” at the Colorado Dance Festival in Boulder. I had never seen anyone dance the way she did that night—she was both electric spark and unprotected newborn foal—expressing an unfathomable state as the Chosen One to Stravinsky’s dramatic score. Thirty-five years later, I still remember the stag leaps she made with fingers spread next to her face like antlers.

Performance

Molissa Fenley and Company: “From the Light, Between the Lamps”

Place

Roulette, Brooklyn, NY, February 3, 2024

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Molissa Fenley and Company perform Molissa Fenley's “Etruscan Matisse/Blake.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

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When the lights first came up on Fenley in her show last week at Roulette in Brooklyn, she struck me as Artemis the Huntress, whose bow I could imagine stretched between the ropy tendons of her elegant arm span. I half expected the audience to applaud the way they do when a celebrity first enters the scene of a Broadway production. But this was an insider dance crowd for whom Fenley is a respected colleague. I geeked out in silence. At 69, her body reads as a map of 50 years in dance, every sinew and bone marking her highly physical and idiosyncratic movement journey. 

For “From the Light, Between the Lamps,” Fenley presented ensemble work for herself alongside Christiana Axelsen, Justin Lynch, and Timothy Ward. Despite the star power added by three guest artists—Lloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Company; Michael Trusnovec, known for 21 years with Paul Taylor Dance, and Cassandra Trenary of American Ballet Theatre, who was ultimately unable to perform due to an injury—the evening had the feel of a portfolio showing: six works that fit together like a matched set. 

These new works—all made in 2022 and 2023 (one, “Lava Field,” is revised from 2004) had in common a contained energy—I suspect it takes a lot of control to effect Fenley’s straight legged lateral leaps and other such precision. Visually, her style has a bit of the minuet to it: wavelike rhythm, mincing steps, lunges, and an aristocratic carriage marked by a strong port de bras that aligns the torso over the legs the way a lintel beam supports a doorway. It was not surprising to see a mention of Merce Cunningham in the company dancers’ bios, which explains how they could handle Fenley’s straight spine and quick legwork with ease.

Molissa Fenley in “Current Piece #1.” Photograph by Art Davison

“Cosmati Variations” was danced by the terrific Axelsen and Ward, to John Cage’s composition “Third Construction,” a sound scape of percussion that ranged from drums to rain stick to what sounded like the clattering of pans. The dancers orbited each other with a sense of play, their only physical contact was a light hand placed on a shoulder and holding hands during some unison work. Performed in bright light, the dance was all about the path the footwork makes on the floor—specifically the serpentine mosaic floors found in Roman churches and cathedrals. 

“Current Pieces 1, 2 & 3” featured sequential solos by Fenley, Axelsen, and Ward, each to its own musical composition, performed live on grand piano by Enriqueta Somarriba. The dancers were dressed in slightly different versions of the same body hugging shorts and stained glass-like top designed by Khadda Madani. Each solo seemed to build on qualities introduced in the previous one. For instance, Axelsen added fluidity to Fenley’s prominent port de bras, and Ward brought attention to the legs. He used his arms to power his leaps more than to speak for themselves, although there was a moment near the end where his arm unfolded in more segments than technically possible. 

Lynch and Trusnovec joined these three for the premiere of “Etruscan Matisse/Blake,” inspired by, you guessed it, Etruscan frescoes, Henri Matisse, and William Blake, danced to a spacey recorded musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The dancers were spread, five points of a star, as they rotated and struck poses. A trio with Trusnovec and Lynch, emphasized Fenley’s diminutive size—at one point, I got the feeling of a mother being cared for by her children. Trusnovec didn’t perform every night, so I wondered if this part was sometimes a duet, which may have changed how I perceived it. 

Timothy Ward and Justin Lynch in “De la Lumière, Entre les Lampes” by Molissa Fenley. Photograph by Steven Pisano

After intermission, we saw the new version of Fenley’s “Lava Field,” designed to capture the qualities of two different kinds of solidified lava. An atonal music score by John Bischoff added sounds such as bells, pops, dripping, a spinning noise. For the first time in the evening, the dancers dropped to floor level, taking plank position and other low bubbling activities. Midway, Lynch burst onto the stage as if he was late with his costume change. Was he meant to embody the type of lava with a rough sharp surface? There were other ways Fenley investigated her duality theme: Axelsen’s smooth moves contrasted with Fenley’s jerkiness, for instance. Also, the dancers were often paired up, but the pairs perpetually shifted, keeping my eye busy. A repeated daisy chain motif added to the flowiness.

The title piece, “De La Lumiere, Entre Les Lampes,” was also a premiere, set to a new composition by Philip Glass played live by Michael Ferrara. It opened with a duet between Axelsen and Lynch. Like Glass’s musical style, their movement had a pulsing effect, traveling in, then out. Sometimes the dancers moved together, sometimes like a pendulum. They conveyed a sense of ease—smiling, making eye contact with a teasing quality, as if engaging in a little one-upsmanship. Halfway through, Knight slipped in and Axelsen slipped out. The duet, now between Knight and Lynch, took on a slightly different tone—a bit of hesitation from Knight, as if a new friend had joined the game and was just learning the rules. Was this part of the intended choreography, or the effect of a guest artist stepping in for one show? Doesn’t matter, it was a joy to watch the two figure things out.

Justin Lynch, Timothy Ward, Christiana Axelsen, and Molissa Fenley in “Lava Field” by Fenley. Photograph by Art Davison

Finley joined Lynch, Ward, and Trusnovec for the premiere of “In the Garden,” to end the evening on a quiet note—and the sound of  simple birdsong. Roulette has a small proscenium stage with an elevated section in the back. Most of the show took place on the more spacious floor area. Here, the dancers, all in shades of red topping black pants, used all three levels for a tiered garden effect, with Fenley and Trusnovec pocketed together on the mid-level for a duet. The way they wrapped around each other reminded me of a longtime couple. If it seemed an understated way to end the show, I suspect it’s only because the evening’s work required more of its performers than I could grasp simply by watching. It’s like Fenley, who at the end of her rousing solo in 1989 appeared to stand still, yet underneath, her heart had to have been beating madly. The Roulette audience stood in appreciation.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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