Molissa Fenley and Dancers

Molissa Fenley and Dancers
Joyce Theater, NYC
December 11–16, 2007
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Program B of Molissa Fenley’s season presented dances stringently complex in design and physically exacting. The choreography benefitted from performers as distinctive as Cassie Mey, Paul Singh, Dušan Tynek, Paz Tanjuaquio and—guesting from Pacific Northwest Ballet—Jonathan Porretta. But giving us something curious to look at is not the same as giving us a reason to hold that gaze with pleasure in the deeper look and the interplay of feelings and possible meanings. Lava Field and State of Darkness spooled out over time without providing clues to why movements were chosen, linked and developed—in short, why we should care about each dance as a whole.
    This tendency was most frustrating in the celebrated State of Darkness—first danced by Fenley in 1988 and reconstructed for Peter Boal in 1999—now performed by soloists from PNB. Here Porretta must take on a huge, bare stage and Le Sacre du Printemps all by himself in a long, nonstop, self-punishing slog. Lit as if by Caravaggio, his look and movements suggest a faunish Lucifer—or a Luciferian faun, take your pick—as ominously volatile as the Stravinsky music, embodying the entire riot of spring. It’s not so much that the music whips the man; the choreography offers repetitive filler, a slave to the length and demands of the score. As it ends, the viewer feels released from something all the more unpleasant for its apparent, if not actual, pointlessness.
    In the program’s premiere, Calculus and Politics, set to Harry Partch’s Castor and Pollux, swooping, twirling, rebounding dancers seem to chime in resonance with the music. They are a gamelan of dynamic, abstract forms. Like the color-drenched backdrop lighting, the dancing is as childlike as bold crayon strokes; the balletic influence relaxed and offhand. Any connection to the mythic figures of Partch’s title appears to remain only in a cameo appearance made by several stuffed-toy swans, and Fenley’s final title doesn’t seem to matter much. It has been said that Partch hated modern dance, but surely he could have spared some love for a piece as lucidly structured as this. Calculus and Politics does not completely convince this viewer that it has life and urgency beneath its surface, but it is at least diverting to behold.

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