“The trouble with critics,” fires Molissa Fenley, “is that they think I think I know what I’m doing.”
The 32-year-old choreographer--who returns to Los Angeles with her troupe, after a two year absence, for performances Friday and Saturday at Wadsworth Theater under UCLA auspices--is neither flippant nor feisty. She is trying to put into context the varied and often passionate response to her work.
“Romantically,” she asserts, “art has been a pursuit, a quest. It’s not about knowing. Dance is really a metaphor for the mind. It alludes to something other than what it is.”
Fenley wonders if her concern for process and abstraction may put off some viewers. “People want to ‘Get it,’ ” she acknowledges, “but I’m not waiting for the ‘Aha!’ syndrome.”
Back in New York, where the choreographer and her five member company, Molissa Fenley and Dancers, are based, her creation has been hailed by one critic as “The Dance of the Future” and Fenley herself derided by another as “just another name on the ever growing list of dance egotists and phonies.”
Indeed, the controversy runs beyond print: After seven years of support, the National Endowment for the Arts recently dropped Fenley from its grant list, while the New York State Council on the Arts has not yet awarded her any aid. Yet Fenley and her company have managed an impressive touring record across the United States, Europe, Asia and in Australia. It has received important commissions from Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of its prestigious, avant-garde Next Wave Festival.
Fenley’s new “Geologic Moments,” set to music by Philip Glass and Julius Eastman and scheduled Saturday at UCLA, received its world premiere at BAM just two weeks ago. “Esperanto,” to be presented on Friday, was created last year with Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and performed in Tokyo.
Moreover, this fall Fenley was awarded a New York Dance and Performance Award (a.k.a. “Bessie”) for her “uncompromising choreography, at once fierce and lyrical.”
Fenley has beat her own path. “I didn’t come out of any dance circle. I didn’t go through any apprenticeship,” she says.
Born in Las Vegas, but raised in Nigeria and Spain, Fenley recalls her naivete when she returned to this country and first enrolled in dance class at Mills College in Oakland.
“I did not even know what a leotard was,” she has recounted. “The catalogue said ‘loose clothing,’ so I came dressed in a painter’s smock.”
Eventually forsaking both the ballet and modern dance disciplines, Fenley evolved a solitary training regimen of weightlifting and running--developing the speed, strength, and stamina that characterize her choreography today. She rejects, however, the “Miss Aerobics” label with which some critics have casually tagged her. “It’s so disrespectful,” she declares. “They really must understand the sobriety of the work. I’m a runner, but I don’t ‘run’ on stage.”
Fenley’s sustained stage force and idiosyncratic movement vocabulary--sweeping, scooping arms, corkscrew turns of the torso and wild leaps with limbs thrown back--has been complemented by her choice of free-spirited musical collaborators.
Glass is, of course, one of this generation’s most famous and most commercial minimalists, Eastman a progressive jazz artist, Sakamoto a rock star and actor in Japan. Previous work has united Fenley with Anthony Davis, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Peter Gordon--each of whom draws from both the contemporary art music scene and urban or ethnic influences.
In “Geologic Moments,” Fenley exploits the contrast of Glass’ pulsing, synthesized music with Eastman’s non-metered, piano musings. Of the two complementary parts, she says, “This is a full-length work with two different voices but danced by the same mind. In the first half we work more mathematically, in and around the music, while for the second part, the music is like open space and the choreography more textural, more dramatic.”
Sakamoto’s “Esperanto” score is aggressively diverse, combining Asian and Western musical references, sound effects and spoken text in several languages.
“My vocabulary is also eclectic that way,” Fenley notes. The two developed the work in a scrapbook-by-mail exchange of essays, drawings and videotapes.”
“Geologic Moments” is danced by the full company of three women and two men, “Esperanto” by Fenley and her two female colleagues. Lighting design for both works is by Los Angeles-born-and-bred Gary Mintz, who received a “Bessie” award last year for the “Esperanto” collaboration.
Fenley’s eclecticism comes naturally to the artist, given her background. “Because I grew up as I did, in so many different cultures, it’s going to be intrinsic,” she says. A multicultural perspective has helped her “always to know that there’s another point of view. It’s about openness--knowing that I’m not ‘right,’ that there may be no ‘right.’ ”
Still, Fenley’s commitment to the process of art as exploration is merely missionary.
“We live in an age in which a lot of artists act only as a reflection of the culture. I’m interested in a more optimistic view of the world,” she affirms. “Geologic Moments,” she reveals, grapples with “the idea of unattainable truth” and “the need to understand personal history.”
“ ‘Esperanto,’ ” she adds, “is really about hope.
“I’m in the light, not in the dark,” the choreographer says. “Dance can be an art form that wants to look to the spirit and my work is purely about momentum and spirituality.”