Dancing Keith Haring

Keith Gallasch interviews Molissa Fenley

Molissa Fenley

Molissa Fenley

Molissa Fenley

From New York Molissa Fenley describes her Sydney Festival program to Keith Gallasch
Molissa Fenley, a leading US dancer and choreographer, has made a number of significant visits to Australia. She has worked with many prominent composers including Laurie Anderson, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Lucier and Phillip Glass and has performed in the US to works by Australian Robert Lloyd. She has collaborated with visual artists including Richard Serra, Richard Long and Tatsuo Miyajima. Her vision of dance as sculpture and dance as ritual has heightened the contemplative and spiritual dimension of her work over the last decade.

KG The significance of this visit is tied to the Keith Haring exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art. You were a close friend of his and a collaborator?

MF When we were very young we did a piece together in 1977 or 1978 called Video Clone and it was actually done as a video and as a dance performance. It premiered at the School of Visual Arts. It was only done once but the tape exists and I’m bringing it with me to show and talk about it.

KG So we’ll see the tape but not the dance performance?

MF I was all of 22 or 23 or something. It was a long time ago. I’ll speak about our relationship, how the piece came about and probably a little bit about Keith’s continued interest in dance and how I feel about…you know, when you first start working. I think I came to New York when I was 21 and started working right away. So it was just at the beginning of what it is to be a professional artist in New York and we were both forging our way. He at the time was affiliated with the School of Visual Arts and I was a floating choreographer. So it was interesting to be able to support each other. Our main interaction was back in those early days but when he died I was asked to perform at his memorial and I made a dance specifically for him, which I will be performing in Sydney.

KG You mentioned that Keith Haring had a continuing interest in dance. How did that manifest itself?

MF He was very interested in street dance, particularly, and capoeira and break dance. He had a place called The Paradise Garage which was basically a dance place where people would go and dance till the wee hours. He worked with Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane with set design. I think basically his interest was in street culture and whatever that meant.

KG You performed this piece, Bardo on the same program as your solo version of the The Rite of Spring at the Joyce Theatre in 1990.

MF I’d been asked to do something for the memorial service that took place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine here in New York. The Bardo is a Tibetan concept. It’s a forty-nine day period in which, upon a person’s death, they travel through their own personal Bardo, meeting their karma, and in that time decisions about their rebirth are made. So it’s supposedly a seven week period of walking through an intermediate state. So I thought it would be interesting to make something that had to do with that feeling that he had died but he was still very much a part of us. Still is. He’s very important for the continuance of art for a lot of people. He was very influential. In the dance there are lots of references to his funny little shapes. I mean they’re recognisable to me and probably to anyone who knows his work well.

KG So do you embody these concretely?

MF An occasional gesture. An implication, I would say.

KG For close to a decade, a number of writers have described your work as spiritual, ritualistic, contemplative.

MF Bardo is quite the epitome of all those things.

KG That’s an ongoing part of your work?

MF I’d say so. I think the range of my work is quite large. There are still pieces in my repertoire that are very spatial and dance oriented and then there are pieces that are more sculptural, which I think Bardo is. I like to keep shifting back and forth between them. So for the performances in Sydney I’ll be doing three different pieces: one that’s quite sculptural, and a piece that moves through space quite largely, and then Bardo.

KG So as well as the contemplative, sculptural work there is still some of that particular kind of energy I would have seen years ago when you performed Hemispheres at the Adelaide Festival?

MF Well that was 1983. So things change and shift around. But I would say that the energy of that early work is present in a changed way and I’m not sure exactly what that change is—I don’t think the work is as fast as it used to be.

KG With the Peter Garland and the Lou Harrison pieces in the MCA-Festival program, did you commission these or did you work from extant music?

MF Both of them are existing pieces. But when I work with composers I always ask them what they think I should use and establish a real relationship with them. I don’t just pick up the CD.

KG How would you describe these two pieces?

MF Savannah is a work to Peter Garland’s composition and it has the feeling of taking a walk through the savannah which is a geological area of grassland with an tree here or there. There’s a calmness to it but a lot of dance motifs within. It’s quite an abstract work. Pola’a is the piece to the Lou Harrison music. ‘Pola’a’ is an Hawaiian word for a quality pertaining to the ocean. It’s a quiet ocean, not a huge raging sea. It deals with ideas of ebb and flow, tides, surgings and swellings. It’s a very large piece moving through space, very much inspired by the idea of the ocean and different types of tides…and the idea of the music itself, which is very inspiring. I work very differently with each piece but I would say that with the Lou Harrison I work very much hand in hand with the music, and with Savannah I worked on the dance first and then the music seemed to be appropriate for the work…and the same with Bardo—I found Somei Satoh’s music after I’d started working on it.

Molissa Fenley has recently created her own web page: www.diacenter.org/fenley. She describes it as a dance piece for the web working on the dance and sculpture relationship thant intrigues her. It was created with the assistance of the Dia Center for the Arts in New York.

Molissa Fenley, American Express Foundation Hall, Museum of Contemporary Art, January 14 and 15, 9.00pm; Video Clones screening and talk, January 16, 6.00pm.

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 3

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1996