Molissa Fenley: Latitudes

Molissa Fenley spent ten of her formative childhood years in Nigeria, where she was indelibly exposed to dance forms from several African cultures. During the two following years she then spent as a teenager in high school in Spain, she witnessed a ballet performance for the first time and encountered flamenco, further stimulating her intense interest in movement. The cumulative effect of these diverse experiences was manifest in her decision to enter Mills College near San Francisco in order to study modern dance. From the beginning, Fenley concentrated on choreography and technique simultaneously, thus learning the styles and methods of the pioneers of modern dance at the very moment she began devising her own language of movement.

Upon graduation, Fenley moved to New York City where she continued her studies and began to dance professionally. By 1979 she had formed her own company for which she choreographed ensemble works. Great stamina fused with grace was a hallmark of her work during these years. By the end of the 80s, her desire to work in a more personal vein had led to the dissolution of her company and to a change in the tenor of her choreography. While building on the broad expressive range of her previous work, she now introduced a more medititive vein by focusing on movements and gestures associated with ritualized action, which evoked contemplative experience. Her fascination with the motion of an individual body in space was stimulated and enriched by her long-standing interest in ancient artifacts, Asian sculpture, and resurgent childhood memories from Africa.

Invited to devise a project for the world wide web, Fenley decided to exploit certain properties of this medium: the greater intimacy between dancer and viewer than is conventionally possible with a stage performance; the opportunity to reverse, repeat, and hence scrutinize every element of a movement. She therefore choreographed a short dance, "Latitudes," which can be experienced in a variety of ways, as well as assembled or deconstructed piece by piece, depending on the viewer's wishes, it can never, however, been seen whole. In a live performance, the spectator is detached; by contrast, as befits the proximity that characterizes the interface of the viewer to the screen and keyboard, in "Latitudes," the audience's relationship is intimate and partial, operating in a fictive space which more closely approximates one of memory than lived experience.

Seventeen phrases have been extracted from this three-minute dance. Each is presented in the form of a strip comprised of seven frames. Clicking on these individual frames discloses the underlying formative structure -- the choregrapher's notes, images of art objects which have influenced Fenley's thinking about movement and her understanding of the body's occupancy of space, together with highlighted details of Fenley's figure. The final frame reveals a brief animated segment of the phrase.

Moving through this project phrase by phrase, the viewer's comprehension of the piece grows as did the dancer's in rehearsal: staging and restaging each section, breaking down a gesture into its component parts, and drawing sustenance from observations of highly refined artistic expression in other media.

Celebrated for the spare, though never reductive, vocabulary which characterizes much of her work and the grace and polish of its execution, Fenley's performances have also been acclaimed for the caliber and eloquence of her collaborations wih other artists -- musicians, lighting designers, and contemporary visual artists who have contributed sets and costumes. In this work, she forsakes the accoutrements that normally embellish staged performance in order to pare the dance to basics: a simple earth-colored leotard, neutral black backdrop, and a terse score, "Jetsun Mila," by Eliane Radigue, which she likes for the way its close-toned electronic sounds seem to move in a continual flow around the listener. Two cameras were used to film "Latitudes": one emphasizes details of the dancer's form; the other explores the three-dimensional body, silhouetted in a strong direct light, as it cleaves and molds the surrounding space.

Lynne Cooke

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