Molissa Fenley is what’s hot in contemporary dance these days. Just how hot is this New York-based artist?
“Very. We made up a wish list at the beginning of the year, and Molissa Fenley was right at the top,” said Sushi’s Lynn Schuette, sponsor of Fenley’s weekend concerts at the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego.
“Molissa really is very well-known in the international dance community, and we found out--much to our delight--that she had been working on this beautiful
solo performance,” Schuette said. “So we booked this as a very special treat for ourselves on our 10th anniversary season. It’s a risk going into the Spreckels, but we think it will pay off.”
Fenley, a sinewy renegade with cropped hair, looks like a cross between a pixy and a punk rocker. She invites comparison with iconoclasts the likes of Twyla Tharp and has a laundry list of awards. She is riding the crest of success, but this 12-year veteran of the dance wars has her feet planted firmly on the ground.
“The lifetime of an artist is very cyclical. (My career) sounds good on paper,” she acknowledged by phone from New York. “But there are periods of absolutely nothing .” Fame “has very much to do with the work you’re doing at the moment,” she said.
The catalyst that propelled Fenley into the limelight recently is “State of Darkness,” an intense tour de force set to Igor Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” The critically acclaimed solo earned its creator a prestigious Bessie Award in September.
“ ‘State of Darkness’ has really excited a lot of people,” Fenley said. “It’s a new way of looking at the music--a different textual basis--and it’s also the first time (Stravinsky’s music) was choreographed for just one dancer. ‘Darkness’ has a kind of narration, but it’s not like ‘the Chosen One,’ ” the controversial prototype by Vaslav Nijinsky.
Though Fenley’s work is on the cutting edge of contemporary dance, she reveres “Stravinsky as the father of modern composing and Nijinsky as the father of modern dance. That period (circa 1913) was so fertile, so revolutionary, it changed the face of art,” she marveled.
Reviews of Fenley’s staging of the Stravinsky piece are almost as glowing.
The New York Times’ leading dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, was so moved by “State of Darkness” that she described Fenley as “a dancer who has been unmatched on the experimental scene for her explosive, even primal energy.” Alan Kriegsman of the Washington Post called it “a kind of exalted, tormented odyssey of the soul.”
Because of Fenley’s steely strength and seemingly limitless endurance, many observers focus on her athleticism. She prefers training on Nautilus equipment to the traditional stretching regimen used by both ballet and modern dancers.
But describing her as athletic is a no-no to Fenley.
“That’s misleading,” she insists. “It places the work in a non-artistic arena. You get labeled, and it doesn’t mean anything. People talk about me as an experimentalist. It sounds like I’m in a laboratory. I don’t like labels, but I guess ‘new dance’ is the best one to come out.”
Fenley had dancers of her own to create for in the past. Now she prefers to go it alone--a limiting factor to many choreographers but a liberating one to this expressive dancer.
“My experience has broadened drastically,” she said. “And in a solo work, (the audience) can really get inside someone’s mind. It’s a very deep experience.”
Besides “State of Darkness,” Fenley will unveil two other West Coast premieres this weekend--"Provenance Unknown,” inspired by Philip Glass’ “Metamorphosis,” and “Floor Dances: Requiem for the Living,” her newest work.
“ ‘Floor Dances’ is about the devastation of wildlife caused by the Alaska oil spill,” she explained. “I have a very deep affinity with (nature), not just in Alaska, but in the Brazilian rain forests.”
Does that mean the audience is in for a serious program?
“Yes,” she acknowledged. “But it’s the artist’s role to be a barometer of the moment. Now is not the time to make light pieces.”
Fenley’s local debut (the first Sushi presentation to be held at a legitimate theater) is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Spreckels.