Interview with Molissa Fenley

Kathleen McClintock
Mills College


Molissa Fenley literally burst upon the dance scene in the late `70's. Her unusual way of moving combined with fast, driving rhythms was the harbinger of new wave in the modern dance world that emphasized athleticism. Anna Kisselgoff wrote of "her tremendously exciting work that blasts her audience into a new, and brave, world of dance." [1] Fenley's approach has modified over the course of her 25 years of making dances, but she is still considered a unique voice of the avant-garde. The following converstation between Kathleen McClintock and "Mo" took place while she was Artist-in-Residence in the Dance Department for the Spring semester of 1999 at her alma mater of Mills College:

K: I want to talk a little bit about the evolution of your aesthetic because I have read some of your critical reviews from the press and such and it has been interesting to read that. I am also interested in your movement vocabulary, your personal movement expression. I suppose that the evolution of your aesthetic has obviously had something to do with the way your dances have changed in the course of your almost 25 years as an artist. And it would be good to talk a little bit about your early company which preceded your solo work, and the fact that you are doing some group works again and where you think that is going. Does that sound ok?

M: Yeah.

K: So the best introductory question would be to ask you speak about the evolution of your aesthetic with regards to your dances.

M: Well, ok, that's a very big question. I first started choreographing straight out of the Mills Dance Department, getting on a bus and going straight to New York, and sort of spending a couple of months checking out different studios and people to work with, etc. etc. and just sort of went full tilt into making my own work and showing it at places as
I could. At that time I felt like I had come with an enormous amount of structure in the work and an understanding of how to make the work from a structured musical point of view. It was really in my junior and senior year at Mills that I started to realize a kind of movement vocabulary, that it is was clear that it was going to be a so- called original voice and that it was what I was going to continue my work in. So the first pieces in New York were really about developing this emerging movement vocabulary. It was built on, very fundamentally, a lot of Egyptian, sort of archaic, two-dimensional forms. At first, I would just walk through space with my arms in this particular akimbo way and then as I became more and more interested in it, or more and more deeply involved in it, it became more dance oriented. And I will never forget, there was a class once that Eleanor Lauer said to me, "You know, you do all this great stuff with your legs, but you don't really do much with your arms." And it was from that point on that I started walking around like this Egyptian girl. And it was really amazing because then I started dealing with the whole torque of the torso and all these curves and these planes moving and being much more three dimensional with it. The things that were quite Egyptian and flat became spiraled.

And then I became very very interested in 4/4 time which I hadn't been. I wanted to deal with a very ritualistic 4. It was at that point that I started transporting this torso around by a rhythmic bottom. I started thinking about the rhythm as being sort of a baseline for the work and from the waist up being the melody, so to speak--these two things going on simultaneously. So that was the movement vocabulary at that time and I made a lot of dances that were based on floor patterns of moving in and out.

I became very interested in the idea of speed, of moving very fast so that what you would see on
stage was more like the current after the dancer was there rather than the actual dancer. I mean, you would see the dancer, of course, and you would see the form they were in and whatever technical work they were doing at that time, but it was more about this activating of the space. At that time a lot of the criticism was that it was too fast and that it was sort of punk rock and stuff like that. That was sort of how the guard thought of it. If you look at Balanchine's work there is an enormous amount of speed in it, or Tharp, or Cunningham, or whatever. For what ever reason my work was sort of taken as being punky. Also when you're young, you are sort of arrogant. If you don't believe in yourself, no one else is going to. It was very energetic, it was very fast.

K: I picked out from some of the press descriptions of what sounded like this rhythmic thing you're talking about, for example, "perpetual mobile." I think that's a really beautiful description and "demanding pace." The word "relentless" has been applied but more, "pounding tempo, racing intensity." Those were my impressions of your first work too, its rhythm and drive. The critics seemed to focus on the time aspect, or the rhythm aspect, more than the sculptural aspect.

M: Yeah. That's absolutely true. And I think as a negative, because a lot of people went "oh its just a marathon of dance," or something like that and there was this dance till you drop sort of thing that people would talk about. And like anything, when something is young and being worked on, it's not in its most mature form, obviously, so here is an artist trying work in this new vein, you know.

K: On the other hand, you were also someone that some of the younger dancers looked up to. I remember talking to a dancer who came up a little bit later than you who mentioned that very persona which you represented, of wanting to be buff like Molissa Fenley and working out and making sure that the cardio-vascular thing was really there. They really wanted to model themselves just like that. So maybe the critics were older than this young dancer who was coming up. They couldn't take this relentless pace.

M: It's funny because even those early pieces were built almost symphonically. There would almost always be a fast opening, a fast ending, and a slower, more adagio middle. Every piece I ever made was like that. I mean, they were all evening length works,-- Hemispheres, and Energizer, and Cenotaphs, and Esperanto. They all had this middle . . . some place where it was really quite quiet and where the movement was very large spatially in the body and big legs. Not so much about moving in the space but about sculpting space around the body. But for whatever reason that we just went over, no one would get it. And again I think it is the problem with one viewing. But anyway, the group works employed that very extreme pounding energy, the first piece called Mix, the second piece called Energizer, very very rhythmic. In Mix we actually played maracas and sand blocks and all this other stuff.

K: I'd love to see that.

M: Its actually in the archive.

K: Oh good. The photos look very interesting.

M: I did a work called Hemispheres, commissioned by the Next Wave Festival, and that was the first real occasion to bring in new music. The music for that was by Anthony Davis. And three dancers. We took our shoes off. I had been dancing with shoes up till then. We took our shoes off and it suddenly became much more dancey. I don't know how that happened or why. I remember I had this weird toe thing and I went to some podiatrist and he said you have tennis toe, which meant that the toe was being jammed. He said," take your shoes off." So I did, and the toe just extended and suddenly my whole movement vocabulary just extended. It became much more lyrical, much more full bodied, still rhythmic, but bigger. And so these next couple of pieces were, I don't know how to describe them really, but much more dance.

K: So would you say that you added more range of motion?

M: Yeah. Yeah.

K: Would it feel more voluptuous to you some how? I don't know if that is quite the word to use.

M: It felt more full-bodied. Much more three dimensional. The aesthetic is really getting worked out at this time.

K: Hemispheres was 1983.

M: It was all about the idea of the left brain versus the right brain, the intuitive mind versus the intellectual mind. And it was about a merging of east and west world hemispheres, between the north and south of the country. And it was a really multi-cultural piece way back then.


I became very very interested in Asia in, I guess, the early 80's, very interested in the idea of time being extended. I was influenced by Japanese Noh, where one step can represent 1000 years passing, or 1000 miles being traversed, or whatever. This idea of dance, of the step, where you go in space, is extremely profound. So I started working with that . I did a work in 1987 called Separate Voices which was done in silence. And that was my last company work for my group. I don't know if you want to go through all those older pieces.

K: Well...I mean, sure.

M: Right now we are just sort of talking about those basic, generalized things, from the very very rhythmic vocabulary to something that was much larger in its physical usage of the body in space, to this interest in the psychology of it all. Where it was taking a person watching it and the possibilities of this intuitive aspect of it versus the intellectual aspects of it is where it was for me at that time. I still give an armature of structure that then is filled in and given texture by what the intuitive body says to do in it. It's a real give and take between the intuitionally led structure and the functional structure.

K: Talk about working with a company and as a solo artist.

M: My last year of having a dance company, I felt that there was something, missing in the daily doings, some kind of very intense relationship with the art making. The stress of [maintaining a company] and the feeling of being dissatisfied as an artist was becoming too much. I began to want to work on my own because I felt everything I did was just moving backwards. . So I said ok, I am out of here, and dropped the company and it was with big trepidation, because everyone was like, oh my god, you know, the solo was always thought of as being the diminutive form, and so I just decided that was what I needed to do.

I have been lucky (and a lot of artists have this). They have a few people through the years, tried and true patrons and supporters that realize that the life span of an artist is sometimes very high and sometimes very low and sometimes the work is repetitive and sometimes its totally new, sometimes its terrible, but they realize that this is a life span and that a good artist will just keep going. So they [the American Dance Festival] commissioned State of Darkness and it premiered in the summer of `88 at the Festival. It was a big splash. So suddenly I had the brand of approval again and toured all over the world. I just decided ok, I'm going to go with this for awhile and see how this goes. I have mostly done solo work since.

However, I have also done group work for other dance companies and really, really enjoyed that. I keep trying to merge the exploration that I have been able to do as a soloist, the in-depth, personalized, very much more intuitive way of working, obviously not translated at all, never seen on the body of another dancer, always seen on my body. I have been trying for all these years to take that to a company mode. And I haven't figured it out yet.

K: When you work in a company mode. . . .?

M: I work structurally, like Wind Trails [commissioned by the Mills Repertory Dance Company].

K: When you work structurally, do you work more with the form?

M: Yeah. Because I am still interested in that, in the idea of people weaving with one another, over and under. One of my all time interests, deep interests, is spatial orientation, to keep shifting the planes dimensionally. I just love that. I love the counter rhythms with really intense canons, and fugues. I love that.

K: Well, you can do that with a group. It is a little bit harder to do that aspect of your interest as a solo.

M: Yeah, you don't have anything to go against. I suppose you could make a film of yourself or something.

K: Yeah, its definitely a different situation, so are you satisfying another aspect of your aesthetic?

M: Yeah, I think that is very true. In `94 I made a piece with the Berlin Ballet where I used an enormous amount of dancers. I just had the best time making it and at that time discovered that I really love ballet dancers doing my work.

K: Are you now, currently still in the mode of working in a deeply intuitive place, in an intuitive mode with space? Has space overtaken rhythm, or is rhythm important any more?

M: Rhythm is still really important. The dynamic of the movement is really important. The space thing is still very important to me. I like to think of work as being a merging of mythic and geometric space. I like the armature of the square of the stage, and though I've made a lot of pieces using visual artists as stage designers, I also do pieces without stage designers where the stage area becomes like a terrain. You think of the north of it and the south of it and what happens in those areas are magical differences between parts of stage and parts of space. As a soloist, what it is, is the individual standing in space versus the other dancers being there and amongst one another. It is a different experience to see one person in space in relation to space versus in relation to other persons. That is still, to me, a very profound poignant thing, very pregnant.

K: So is the proscenium space still an ultimate space for you? Do you need the restrictions of that geometric space for the performance of your ideas or would you be able to do it there on the meadow as well?

M: Well I prefer the stage because then there is that whole thing set up of the people sitting in the dark as witnesses, and you're in the light on the stage. Everybody has their own terrain, their own place. There is the void, and the light. And I really like that difference. I like that the stage area is this magical place. It has a history to it. I have never been intothe aesthetic of nature, except to enjoy nature. I really prefer to be in a square so that the dimensions of line are seen against that square. I just think that you can see things more easily. The contrast of the round
human inside the square space makes sense to me. It's just the whole idea of the demarcation of line. The perimeters are clear, and yet you are not boxed in.

K: I want to talk a little bit about your vocabulary of movement in your dancing, what critic Nancy Goldner termed the "special qualities of your dancing." You have been noted for your uniqueness. A quote I have here describes your dancing : "The vocabulary is not unknown. It is what she does with it. Like a music synthesizer, she treats the movement and transforms it into something new." [2] I do think that many times people who have seen dance and people who have experienced expressive movement have never experienced it in the same way or seen it in the way you present it. Could you talk a little bit about how you arrived at your personal style?

M: [In my earlier work] if I were going to make this new type of dance, it made sense to train in a very different way. There was the another thing. I felt like, at this point in my life, I knew how to maintain myself technically, and that to take a dance class, well, it was also economic. There are just so many dollars that you have. Are you going to rent a studio and make work or are you going to take a dance class? So I chose to rent a studio, and I started jogging in the street. Patrice Griffin (a Mills professor) got me started on that which was so funny because in her kinesiology class she would make us run around the Haas Pavilion and every one would be holding on to their breasts as they were running because they forgot to wear bras or something, and I'll just never forget that because there were people who were just infuriated by the idea that they would have to run. Her whole thing was get your cardiovascular thing going and I learned so much from that. Really from that day on I pretty much went that route,; that was the way to train. I still did my plies and my tendus. That was still very much there. But with my dances, seen once, there was this fleeting thing, and the thing that was most pronounced was the speed and the rhythm. That is what people saw. And the sculptural thing, as you say, seemed quite secondary.


M: I think [my personal style] has to do with mental space. It has to do with the mind experiencing itself. The body watching itself as it is dancing. There are quite a few dancers who have this. It is a very compelling sort of thing, the idea that you might be doing just steps and that that's really a sort of profound place to be doing something. It is not emoting, certainly, it is not about emoting or having any sort of personal attraction or possession. It is something about entering into a state where the movement is tantamount. I always feel like when it is working really well, I have an objective mind. That it is not me dancing, although it is. It is something about being a vessel for this force to enter and to experience from. When ever I dance State of Darkness or something else, I like to think of myself as the figure. I often say the figure rather than me; the figure goes through these different personas in dance that are very open ended. Something [about performance] seems very much involved with animal magnetism or . . . like it is from a ghost or other world, sometimes it seems like it is from everyday life. It is the constant moving around where the dancer isn't mysterious, the dancer is in real time experiencing something that is mysterious. It doesn't have to do with technical prowess at all. It has to do with entrance into this place of objectivity and commitment and discipline. It's all those things . . . and mindful.

K: You said it is difficult when working with groups to get to that point where you work personally, that intuitive place, that mindful place. When you have worked with, say, one other dancer, have you been able to achieve that sort of intimacy of process where you have felt that you have been able to communicate that [quality] to the person that you are working with?


M: Yeah, although it is translated very differently of course. I think that it has to do a lot with the maturation of an artist. Because if you have performed a real lot, when you walk onto the stage you're not only involved in your personal history of having performed the work many times, and having performed in general many times, but you enter into the fact that all these other performances have taken place on that stage. It is like the ghost of other performances are there, a kind of very embracing situation on the stage. And it is very different than for the amateur artist because there is this having done the motion throughout your adult life, the depth of doing the fifty plies everyday or whatever it is. The metabolic knowledge of the activity is very deep, and I think that translation takes place very well in someone who is a mature dancer. Which is not to say a younger dancer can't get that. Now I am not in the virtuostic state [of the younger dancer], the high jumps, the high leaps, the big movement through space. That's not as present. But what is present is a deepening of this metabolic understanding that then implicates the kind of largeness that originally had begun physically. Now it is almost like it is metaphysical. I think that that is something that happens as the body ages, the understanding of how to do something ages as well. And then the kind of love for the body moving is really there in a mature dancer. It's like the understanding of the preciousness of it and the understanding the finiteness of it. It is all really, such a bizarre thing to realize. The exploration of the dance experience is really, really satisfying. And the sharing of it is really satisfying.

K: You mentioned the pleasurable experience of working with the ballet dancers of the Berlin Ballet. Why was that so? Was it just the German dancers?

M: No, no. Its ballet dancers in general. Its the cleanliness of line and what I do with my arms that they understand intuitively because of all the epaulement in ballet. They understand the opening of the shoulder. And its not too far to get them to go into spiral forms. Where for modern dancers it's much more difficult. And then also they have a big base of background in their legs, they can just do things that are very clean and precise, and I like that. I think it is the precision that I enjoy so much. And also the fact that the ballet dancers that I worked with love working [with me] because there is a freedom to the movement and yet they can understand how technical it is and how hard it is . They admire that I think.

K: Its challenging to them, absolutely, because of the new way of using their bodies, but they have the underpinnings to make that leap (no pun intended).

M: Yeah. Which is not to say that it can't happen with a modern dancer, but my style needs a very high level of technical prowess, I think to get it so that it's kind of effortfully effortless. I don't know, that has just been my experience.

K: Because now I am mainly teaching, and I have been in the place that you have been as a performer. . . a performer/creator, I am interested in that interface between the teacher and the student. That is, what do you transmit to the student and to which students ? Do you try to transmit it to everybody or do you wait until you see the person who is capable of doing it.

M: See, I don't know. Doing this teaching that I am doing now, [I think] what you can do is just try and be a pointer. Because I think all this stuff is about experience and years of doing something and that you find it on your own-either you do or you don't. I don't think that it can be taught. I think that what you can teach is some kind of discipline for a person to find themselves within it I think that you can give them a structure that suggests the kind of work and commitment it entails. I think that a lot of people don't know that at a very young age. Something like a NYC dance academy or something like that is going to have that discipline built in just as an aspect of the daily doings, but you don't usually have that in modern.

K: I think the image of being a pointer is actually very interesting, but I think there is an interesting crux there between a student knowing what their potential is or not knowing, not realizing their true potential. Oftentimes, you can be a pointer and nobody takes you up on it. And I don't know if it is because they don't know that they have that potential, or just that they are lazy. The pointer thing is interesting to me because it seems to me that Eleanor [the chair of the Dance Department at Mills for 30 years] was good at pointing and in a very subtle way. She would just sort of say something and then she would go off and you would deal with that for quite a while. Her teaching launched a lot of people. It's very obvious because of the many different kinds of individuals out there [in the field] who actually did train with her.

M: There is much more leeway with the whole idea of creative movement. So it is really different. But I remember, somehow this was instilled in me very, very young. I had this thing where I needed to do my daily dozen every single day. And, so I would just take it upon myself to stay after technique and do it. It was a really great thing because it just became a part of my daily life and if I didn't do it I felt bad, like I hadn't brushed my teeth. So there was something that would be missing if I didn't do it. People are very easy on themselves. But, also, years later you look back on something and it is very different than when you are in it, of course. I remember once I had a broken foot. I came in and took class every day, holding onto the bar, throwing this cast around. I mean I remember one day we had a visiting artist, I think it was Bill Young, no, not Bill Young, Bill Evans, no not Bill Evans...Ted Rotante, the guy who used to work with Nora. I freaked him out. I mean he said you're waving that. The cast was like pure plaster, right, and I'm doing leg swings and holding on to the bar. And then to do the other side of it I would like stand on the cast. He came over and he said, you are freakin' me out. And I was like, oh I'm not going to hurt anybody.

K: You have been called the maverick. I don't think it is a derogatory term because there is an audience of people who are into wanting to see the art form expand and become something else. Let me read one of the things that I picked out of one of your press releases. I bet you have forgotten this statement Robert Coe made: "She is one of those rare choreographers in whom you sense a potential shift in cultural sensibility. A dance of the future?" [3] I think that you have always been on the cutting edge and that is a lonely place sometimes.

M: Well, you know it's funny because perspective is easier when you are objectively not there. Having lived through all this, looking back on it, it is a very different experience to remember the things that were said.


1. Anna Kisselgoff, rev. of Energizer, New York Times 11 Nov. 1980. N. pag.

2. Anna Kisselgoff, rev. of Eureka, New York Times 1 Oct. 1982. N. pag.

3. Robert Coe, rev. of Energizer, Cover , N. Y., N.Y.(Winter 80-81): 32.