Molissa Fenley: Instructions, Collaboration & Favorites
As part of New York Live Arts’ Replay Series, this week Molissa Fenley will present a new work titled Found Object, along with previous works The Floor Dances (1989), Witches’ Float (1993), and Energizer (1980). Found Object is the continuation of a process that began last year, when Fenley discovered an old choreographic journal with notes she hadn’t yet actualized. She used these notes to create Cross Bridge in 2012. In making her newest work she also used instructions to create movement and exchanges, but they originated not from a personal journal, but from spatial design suggestions made by writer Rudy Wurlitzer, a poem written Joy Harjo and a scenario conceived by John Guare. As per Fenley’s written request to the three artists, each contribution was to generate roughly five minutes of material, and the instructions could be “movement based, task based, text based, etc.” Beyond these requirements, the rest of the decision-making was up to her and actor Rosemary Quinn, with whom Fenley co-choreographed the dance.
I spoke with Fenley about the process of following others’ instructions to make dance, and I gathered the following: first, she has a confidence in her methods that seems appropriate for an established artist who has created 75 dances in 35 years. Second, while I have not yet seen the new work, it sounds like this confidence has allowed her some flexibility (or, artistic license) in how she deciphered and actualized the instructions given to her. I asked Fenley if the process of interpretation ever began to feel too literal. She dismissed this concern immediately, and to confirm the idea that possibilities for interpretation are limitless she motioned to the sign outside, “‘Third Rail Coffee’ could mean many things.” Given that we were in a coffee shop, and I was drinking tea not coffee, I suppose she’s right.
Still, I wonder about the parameters she set for herself, if any, when determining which line of Harjo’s poem became what movement, and which of Guare’s exchanges became inspiration for dialogue. One might say, of course, that these decisions can be intuitive, and that in the act of making the choreographer feels what goes where. But isn’t that what interpretation has always been? Fenley expressed to me her interest in discovering new possibilities within collaboration, explaining that while Diaghilev did it and Cunningham did it, the collaborative realm is “still new” and worth exploring. I agree, and I’m curious to see Found Object to get a better sense of how this dance in particular is or is not adjusting what we already know is possible in performance.
When commissioned to present her work through the Replay Series, Fenley chose to revisit pieces that she was personally interested in showing, and/or those that very few audiences have seen. I asked her if there was a temptation to alter or tweak the choreography in her past works, but it seems that’s not part of the game. For Fenley it was a liberation to let go of choreographic decision-making, and to instead focus on the chance to re-present what has, in another time and place, already been. Fenley sees the series as “very much about the choreographer, and about bringing light to what would otherwise remain on a cassette in a file,” and she seems genuinely excited to reintroduce these pieces as part of a new context. For instance, Fenley had previously performed in all the dances she choreographed throughout her career. This time around, Fenley will present Witches’ Float as “resurrected on another body,” that of Cunningham dancer Holley Farmer, and has found the translation of this choreography onto another dancer to be engaging.
This series gives established artists an opportunity to remind their audiences, both long term supporters and those with fresh eyes, how and when their role as established artists in the field began to take shape. While the restaging of dances is not the same as stashing them away on cassettes in a file – far from it – a performance of favorites feels more like a process of archiving than a process of innovation. When it comes time to see a performance on a Friday night (or a Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday night,) it’s like when a bibliophile walks into a library to find a new book to read, and feels torn between the books on the “Classics” table and those sitting in the section marked “Contemporary.” I imagine that a true bibliophile will keep coming back to encounter a bit of both.