Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley

molissa fenley

The following is an excerpt from Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley edited by Ann Murphy and Molissa Fenley and published by Seagull Press 2015. Rhythm Field may be purchased here. Pages 63-67 excerpted below.

The Sovereign Soloist – States of Exceptional Labor and State of Darkness

by Richard Move


“The connotation of courage, which we now feel to be an indispensable quality of the hero, is in fact already present in a willingness to act and speak at all, to insert one’s self into the world and begin a story of one’s own.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Arendt 1998: 186)


In 1988, choreographer and dancer Molissa Fenley began a story of her own. She disbanded her internationally known ensemble, Molissa Fenley and Dancers, wore a simple costume of black tights, disrobed from the waist up and danced, as a soloist, the entirety of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 Le Sacre du Printemps. This thirty three minute work, State of Darkness, was presented after performing a full first act of excerpted solos from previously choreographed ballets, Esperanto from 1985 and Second Sight, part two of her three part Eureka, from 1982. Before touring worldwide, State of Darkness premiered at the American Dance Festival on June 20, 1988 at Duke University’s Reynolds Auditorium. Anna Kisselgoff, then chief dance critic for The New York Times, appropriately titled her review of Fenley’s tour de force solo a “Rite of Passage” and declared, “As a dancer who has been unmatched on the experimental scene for her explosive, even primal energy, Miss Fenley has found her true center here, and challenges the pounding rhythms of Stravinsky’s music with contemporary originality and fervor” (Kisselgoff: 1988).

This essay explores Fenley’s State of Darkness as an exemplary site of the political potential of dance. I examine how Fenley’s solo statement resists societal constructs of labor, conventional expressions of gender and is an exceptional, uniquely contemporary reading of the score, differentiating it from other interpretations. I also propose Fenley’s State of Darkness is a dance with an unusually individual temporality, concurrently traversing time, of its own moment, while directly linked to the historicity of the original 1913 Ballet Russe production and its choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky. As dance scholar Mark Franko stated, “Although choreographers are not the ultimate authorities on the meaning of their work, their words should be weighted in the analysis” (Franko 2002: 11). I wholeheartedly concur and quote from Fenley’s own writings that she shared with me through email correspondence.

The Labor of State of Darkness

Central themes of philosopher Hanna Arendt’s, The Human Condition (1998) and the key terms she employs such as  “courage,” “action(175) and the “highest and greatest achievements of man…” (207), all resonate with State of Darkness, as the audience bears witness to an heroic artistic feat made boldly evident by the athleticism and strength of Fenley’s unequalled solo adventure. Her bare torso accentuated and progressively revealed increasing perspiration and made both visible and audible its demand for more oxygen. In the last two climactic minutes there is no repose, no respite and no slowing down for Fenley, just as the score dictates. She accelerated with lightning speed foot work, a dizzying multitude of spins, leaps and turns in attitude and arabesque, all intensified by her signature, expressively eloquent torso. Despite the high volume and power of the score, one heard the landing of each jump, the sounds of her bare feet turning on the black stage floor and her respiration. The spectator was forced to quickly follow her as she conquered the entirety of the stage space with continuous changes of direction, executed with rigorous precision and extreme velocity.

As Arendt describes, “this precisely is the case of laboring, an activity in which man is neither together with the world nor with other people, but alone with his body, facing the naked necessity to keep himself alive” (Arendt 1998: 44). I believe that Fenley’s creative compulsion to re-imagine the notoriously intricate score as a soloist was borne of artistic necessity and is the motivating force that “keeps herself alive.”

Fenley exhibits the surplus labor of dance with virtuosic, extraordinary stamina, evoking a palpable “naked necessity.” This made each performance a participatory event for the audience, congruent to cultural theorist and dancer Randy Martin’s description of such occurrences, “As event, audience-as-participation cannot see or observe itself from without but its labor that, through its association and expenditure, enables the event to occur” (Martin 1998: 38). And, as Martin asserts, “Participation springs from the disruptive potential, an indeterminacy of representation internal to the performance” (Martin 1998: 39).  Fenley’s peerless transmission of energy elicited this participatory, event-like response from those witness to the performance, apparent in the repeated references to the standing ovations Fenley received in each of the numerous reviews I’ve read of the work, including those cited in this essay, The New York Times and High Performance.

State of Darkness also illustrates dance historian and theorist John Martin’s concept of the metakinetic,1 with its combination of the powerful sonics of the score and the equally powerful soloist, producing a forceful neuromuscular affect and kinetic empathy circulating between, around and through both Fenley and the spectators.  By pushing the limits of what a body can do, State of Darkness transformed both Fenley and her audience by the conclusion of each performance-event and, to borrow Franko’s turn of phrase, all became “e/motional” (Franko 2002: 9).

Fenley was well known by the time of this premiere for her iconoclastic, ornate vocabulary emphasizing an extremely idiosyncratic use of her upper body. Her arms, often in a hyper – extended expanse, become wing-like appendages. Her hands, alternating between flattened, splayed, circular or triangular shapes frequently shield or cover her face in a wholly stylized manner. This sumptuous use of the upper body, propelled by high speed patterns of repeated traveling steps, runs, sudden leaps and surprising turns are most often initiated by the head with a whiplash like centrifugal force. Art critic and historian, Roselee Goldberg in Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, described Fenley’s vocabulary:

A whirlwind discourse on the placement of the arms, heads and hands […] she appropriated from an image bank of dance movements that suggested an Egyptian hieroglyph, or a frieze of Greek Warriors; palms were turned up as in Indian Classical Dance, or an elbow was crooked as in a Balinese curtsey, while a hip movement might recall a popular samba […] The sheer physicality of the work made it both demanding for the dance specialist and delightful for a larger audience” (Goldberg 1998: 203).

Fenley’s transcontinental childhood and adolescence contributed greatly to these bountiful allusions of global dance forms. Fenley was raised in Las Vegas and was six years old when her family moved to Ibadan, Nigeria. She then attended high school in Spain before returning to the United States. Fenley recounts:

As a young girl I saw an enormous amount of dance in Nigeria, dances taking place at all times of the day and night, dances taking place in celebration of the passages of human life – whether for puberty, for marriage, for birth, for death – I experienced these dances with young eyes, immeasurably excited and engaged, watching everything, taking everything in, storing for the future.2

Fenley’s witnessing of dance as ritual and her storing of this embodied knowledge inherently informed the development of her personal and highly codified vocabulary. Along with her remarkable swiftness and astonishing stamina, Fenley’s body of work reaches an apotheosis with State of Darkness.

1 Dance scholar John Martin first used the term “metakinesis” in the 1930’s. He proposed the dance spectator first responds via the senses of sight and sound, which then become internalized in the neuromuscular system and result in kinetic empathy.

2 Fenley, Molissa, e-mail message to Richard Move, July 22, 2010.

Works Cited:

Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago

Press. (Original work published 1958).

Daly, Ann. 2002. Critical Gestures: Writings on Dance and Culture. Middletown:

Wesleyan University Press,

Franko, Mark. 2002. The Work of Dance – Labor, Movement, and Identity in the

     1930’s. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Franko, Mark. 2007. “Dance and the Political: States of Exception.” Dance   

     Discourses- Keywords in Dance Research. Ed. Susanne Franco and Marina

Nordera. London and New York: Routledge. 11-28.

Goldberg, Roselee. 1998. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New

York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Gordon, Avery. 2008. Ghostly Matters- Haunting and the Sociological

     Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jowitt, Deborah. 1988. Time and the Dancing Image. New York: William Morrow

and Company, Inc.

Joy, Jenn. 2009. “Anatomies of Spasm.” Planes of Composition – Dance,

     Theory, and the Global. Ed. Andre Lepecki and Jenn Joy. Calcutta: Seagull


Kisselgoff, Anna. “In ‘State of Darkness,’ a Dancer’s Rite of Passage.” The New

     York Times, October 08, 1988.

Lepecki, Andre. 2006.  Exhausting Dance – Performance and the Politics of

     Movement. New York: Routledge.

Marquie, Helene. 2007.  “Dispositif Trouble: When What is Said is Not Shown.”

Dance Discourses- Keywords in Dance Research. Ed. Susanne Franco and

Marina Nordera. London and New York: Routledge, 236-250.

Martin, Randy. 1998.  Critical MovesDance Studies in Theory and Politics.

     Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Ranciere, Jacques. 2010. Dissensus – On Politics and Aesthetics. London and

New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Trucco, Terry. “Once, She Considered Herself Invincible.” The New

     York Times, November 26, 1995.

Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley

Enactments, edited by Richard Schechner

Edited by Ann Murphy and Molissa Fenley

Foreword by Philip Glass; essays by Rande Brown, Molissa Fenley, Bill T. Jones, David Moodey, Richard Move, Ann Murphy, Elizabeth Streb, Paz Tanjuaquio; interview with Peter Boal; conversation with Tere O’Connor; poetry by Bob Holman; epilogue by Stephen Greco.

Published by Seagull Press 2015.

Molissa Fenley, one of the most influential artists of postmodern dance, has had a lasting impact on performance. In dance, she has explored extreme effort and duration in highly crafted patterns and performed with an explosive, joyous energy that infused her work with endurance, balance, and life force. She challenged modern dance orthodoxy and redefined the character of a woman’s moving body in the late twentieth century, bringing postmodernized ritual to the stage.

Rhythm Field is a vivid and probing portrait of Fenley’s four-decade career, written by her fellow artists. The collection functions as a multifaceted look into one woman’s complex performing arts legacy. The result is itself an aesthetic undertaking that investigates the ways in which Fenley straddles dance traditions, art genres, and gender norms and has been a model to the field. The collection offers several scholarly analyses of the choreographer’s work, and is, above all, a vibrant record from the field. Rhythm Field sits at a necessary midpoint between criticism and scholarship.

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