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Molissa Fenley: Archeology in Reverse
Sculpting Dance in Space
Lisa Traiger, Camilla Acquista, Ed., Dance ICONS
© Dance ICONS, Inc., All Rights Reserved © August/September 2018
August/September 2018

Photo © Shinichi Iova-Koga

Molissa Fenley: Archaeology in Reverse - Sculpting Dance in Space

She has been called a force of nature – this petite, now 63-year-old choreographer, with the pixie haircut and a build to match. But on stage, Molissa Fenley was a lion – engulfing space, swallowing time, attacking movement with unbridled ferocity.  In the 1980s, when edginess ruled the New York fashion and art scenes, Fenley was lauded as pure energy in motion for her highly visceral, limit-pushing physicality. Today, she’s still experimenting and pushing limits.

Dance ICONS:  While you were born in Las Vegas, you spent much of your youth in Africa. Please talk about how your childhood has influenced your artistic voice.  

Molissa Fenley: We moved to Nigeria when I was six, and I spent all of my elementary schooling and part of my high school years in Ibadan and later Lagos, at international schools. There were kids from all sorts of cultures, as well as Nigerian kids -- Yoruba kids, Hausa kids, Igbo kids, the three main tribes present within Nigeria -- but also Lebanese kids, Russian kids, Yugoslavian kids, American kids and British kids. The idea of cross-cultural thinking was part of my upbringing. I learned that there are many different ways to go about living and the sense that we live in a very wide place, a wide world where many ideas are completely valid.

Growing up in Nigeria has been a huge influence on my ideas of freedom in space. My choreography is very focused on the idea of moving through space, having space become the actual subject of the work. I think of space like I think of rhythm – it’s a major component in my work.

When I think of space, I feel a sense of continuity to the dances I saw as a child in Nigeria. They would go on for nights on end. And I love the idea of a dance having many different parts to it, having a feeling from the person who’s dancing going through different metabolic states.

I also love the idea of durational dances; it’s been a central [part] of some of my work. Those two aspects, freedom of space and the elongation of one’s performance – were really set for me there.


ICONS:  When you left Nigeria in high school to study in Spain, you discovered new dance forms.

MF:  I spent one year in Seville and one in Zaragoza, on American air force bases so I could get accredited to attend an American college. I took a couple of ballet classes from somebody on the air force base … [but] I didn’t study dance until I went to Mills College when I was 16. I saw a tremendous amount of Flamenco dance while I was in Spain and I really loved the way the upper body moved in Flamenco and that’s been a big influence. 

ICONS:  You’ve spoken about developing a choreographic or movement language and Flamenco was part of that.

MF:  My vocabulary, I wouldn’t say it’s derived from Flamenco. It is somewhat in homage to it, and yet it’s now pretty far away from that. Initially, I liked the idea of having a vocabulary where the lower body was transporting the upper body around in iconic shapes. I liked the idea of the arms being signals, semaphores; the upper body becomes a language in and of itself.

Of course, as I matured as a choreographer and dancer, my choreography for the lower body got more interesting too. In my early works, there are little runs and skips -- things of that nature -- whereas the upper body is going through a whole array of different looks. That has balanced out as the years have gone by. 

ICONS: You had a period of about 10 years when you focused exclusively on solo choreography. Was there something specific that you wanted to explore in the solo form? 

MF:  Yes. In a choreographer’s life, there are so many times when a dancer who has been with you for five years or so, for example, then wants to do something else -- study or get another job or dance in someone else’s work. And there are times when you feel like you’re going backward by filling up that gap: Whatever that dancer did has to be learned by someone else just to keep the rep alive. I wanted to start fresh and I figured I would always be able to dance my [solo] pieces.

I was also really interested in making collaborations with visual artists. Every dance I made during that period incorporated a visual artist who either designed a set or made a sculpture. I’ve also always used contemporary music, so I would commission a composer … and find someone interested in the idea of collaborating. So this period of dance with sculpture or painting, and contemporary music was really interesting. I made a lot of explorations that are still interesting to me. Then one day I said, “I need dancers in the studio again.”

ICONS:  How did you connect with artists on these cross-collaborative projects?


MF:  I always sought out the artist. I’ve always gone to gallery shows and kept up with the contemporary art scene in New York. Sometimes I see someone’s work that I love and I write to them and ask. One of the very first collaborations I did was with Keith Haring in 1978. We were friends and he said, “Let’s do something.” 

I have an intuitive sense for [an artist’s] work when I feel like it will push me. As a soloist, I was very interested in always trying something different. It can be really hard to come up with something different for yourself. People have habits, you know. But, if there’s a big sculpture in the middle of the room, you’ve got to do something different. I love that [these collaborations] constantly pushed me into finding new ways to renegotiate the space. 

ICONS:  Tell us about your latest piece, Archaeology in Reverse. This is a site-specific, architectural piece.

MF:  It will be in the Mills Art Museum and I will be [dancing] in the attic. There’s a glass ceiling, actually plexiglass, I think. The dance is going to exist on video; it's doubtful that there will be a live component. I’m on a lifeline [tethered to the rafters] and it’s completely petrifying. I’ve finally gotten over my fears … and I can walk out on these beams the size of a gymnast’s balance beam. 

It is intense and I’m trying to figure out how to merge my body in that space. I’m interested in the idea of points of discovery and I love that you will then see a body above through a glass ceiling. I’m trying to come up with shapes of the body while always having at least one arm holding on. I’m working with three components: space itself, the artwork in the gallery, and the dance work.

ICONS: Is there anything that you would have done differently or is there something that you wish you had known early in your career? 

MF:  If I had known what I know now, I think I would have been deterred because you really have to deal with the world in a very different way. As a small dance company, sometimes we’re funded and sometimes we’re not. Sometimes there are performances and sometimes I have to manufacture them. Just to be able to keep going for 40 years is really about a daily love of the work.

I remember reading that Merce said, “If you don’t love the daily work, don’t do it.” That stuck with me. I really love the daily work. I get up in the morning and start doing my warm up to teach the 11:00 a.m. technique class at Mills. (I start warming up an hour and a half before.) It’s just a total pleasure. And I love the pleasure of it. I like making up little warm-up exercises for the class to do. And I love performing. I never knew that I would love it for so long. 

More About Molissa: Molissa Fenley took the dance world by storm soon after founding her eponymous Molissa Fenley and Company in 1977. She arrived in New York just two years earlier, following her graduation from Mills College in California. Her bare-chested, power-packed solo State of Darkness (1988), danced to Stravinsky’s primal Rite of Spring, was unforgettable and a defining dance moment of the decade.

Her Cenotaph, too, liberated her dancers – all women – to relish their physical power and unpredictability, as they dashed across the floor or followed one another in near-canonic form. In 1996, ahead of the curve, she choreographed Latitudes specifically for the web.

These days Fenley is bicoastal, spending part of her year in New York and the spring semester as a professor of dance at Mills College in Oakland, California. Throughout her prolific career, she has crafted more than 85 dance works -- solos, duets, and group pieces with her company and in collaboration with numerous visual artists. Among the ballet and contemporary dance companies that featured her works in their repertories are Oakland Ballet (Redwood Park), Pacific Northwest Ballet (State of Darkness), Repertory Dance Theatre (Energizer), Robert Moses’ Kin (The Vessel Stories) and Seattle Dance Project (Planes in Air). 

As a performer, she has danced throughout the United States, Canada, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Her work has been recognized with two Bessie New York Dance and Performance Awards. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow of the American Academy in Rome. Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley was published by Seagull Press/University of Chicago in 2015.

Her latest video dance project, Archeology in Reverse, premieres this fall at the Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, CA, September 8 through December 9, 2018. Fenley created the piece in collaboration with Catherine Wagner, while Michael Mersereau created videography and sound. Find more at:

Video demo:

Photography courtesy of Betti Franceschi, Shinichi Iova-Koga, Ian Douglas, Steven Speliotis, Julie Lemberger, Arturo Bejar,  Michael Mersereau ©

Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the arts for numerous publications. 

Editor: Camilla Acquista

Dance ICONS, Inc., All Rights Reserved © August/September 2018

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Artifact from Molissa Fenley on Vimeo.

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