energy

Interview with Joanne Greenbaum

By ASHLEY GARRETT, MAY 2014

 
Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy    Exhibition A

Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy Exhibition A

 

Joanne Greenbaum is a painter and sculptor living and working in New York City and Berlin, Germany.  Born in NYC in 1953, she earned her Bachelors of Arts degree from Bard College in 1975.  Her work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions in the United States and abroad.  She has been reviewed in The New York TimesArt in America, Artforum, and Hyperallergic. Her awards include the Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pollock Krasner Grant, and the NYFA Fellowship in Painting.  She is represented by Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York, greengrassi in London, Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago, IL, Nicolas Krupp Contemporary Art in Switzerland, Galerie Crone in Berlin, Germany, and Van Horn in Dusseldorf, Germany. She has an upcoming show of new paintings at Galerie Crone in Berlin this November, 2014.

Can you talk a little about your background and where you grew up?

I’m from right outside of New York in Westchester County. I was actually born in New York City and then my parents moved north to the suburbs. I’m from here, I went to school upstate at Bard College, and I’ve always lived in New York. The last five years or so I’ve been living some part of every year in Berlin, which I really like, and I think it just took me a while to figure out that you’re allowed to leave New York. I just never thought I was allowed to leave, and also for many years I had job. But even after that was over in 2001, I’m just kind of a homebody, I kind of stay where I’m put, but I think now I’d just like to go to more different places. So now I spend part of every year away, and it really makes a huge difference in how I feel when I’m back here, and it’s better.

What do you like about Berlin?

It’s quiet, I would say mostly the quietness and the silence, and the slower pace, but yet it’s a city. It’s also green, meaning lots of parks and since I have a dog it’s nice to be able to take him out without a leash everyday and have him run around. I think mostly it’s just the quiet—I mean for me Berlin is a city with a country feel, so it’s almost like the country in the city. There’s plenty to do, I know some people there, yet it has more of a laid-back feel. Plus there’s a lot of great art there.

Is there anything in your experience growing up that comes into your work or affected your development into the artist you are today?

I think I was probably born an artist, because I’ve always felt like one, even though I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. But in terms of psychology, I think it was a place for me to retreat to escape from my surroundings. I mean you don’t know what came first—either your surroundings making you want to escape, or the fact that I was just kind of a quiet girl who wanted to just draw. I don’t really know, but I think that it had something to do with always feeling sort of intruded upon as a kid, and that I have this incredible desire to just retreat into something else, so I think that’s how I developed this habit of drawing a lot. It was a place I could go.

What was your first encounter with painting?

I always did stuff from age five on. My parents sent me to oil painting lessons from a local artist lady in Larchmont who was an oil painter and she did oil painting lessons in groups in her basement. I remember going to that and encountering real oil paint for the first time. I must have been around 10 years old. I went to her for some years and I really liked it, and she was nice, and as somebody who was coming from a family that was very judgmental, and the teacher wasn’t, that allowed me to just do what I wanted to do.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I did that too when I was kid, going to lessons—

With the local lady! She was a real artist, and I remember she had this beautiful big old house—

There’s something really nurturing about that, and being in a group where everyone is just learning—

I don’t even remember the other people, I think I was probably the youngest one. But that was probably my first encounter with oil paint.

And you were saying you were always drawing a lot—and it looks like you draw a lot.

Yeah, I always just draw. Even if I’m just watching TV or talking to somebody I’m always drawing.

And it’s interesting how that translates into the painting.

Well, it never used to. That’s relatively new in the last seven or eight years that I incorporated drawing into my work. I always had it separate – there was the painting and there was the drawing. The painting was always more minimal and spare and then there were the drawings, and then I think somehow they merged in the work.

What drove this shift for you?

There was this feeling that I wanted to take the intimacy of drawing, especially the way that I draw. I do a lot of ballpoint pen drawings which are kind of just about my handwriting energy and scribbling, I’m not going to use the word doodle because I really don’t like that word.

They don’t look like doodles to me.

They’re not doodles. Some people say they are, but they’re really not. Taking that intimate type of thing and use it on a big painting it monumentalizes it. You could say these small drawings are not so important because it’s just a notebook drawing let’s say, but then giving that a lot of importance by putting it in a really big painting and trying to translate it in the same way. So in these drawings it’s the hand that’s doing the movement, but in the painting I use my body in the same way to create the same type of energy on the larger scale. It’s not like I take this and blow it up, but I’ll take that same type of energy and use it on a canvas with different materials. But I have been using some drawing materials directly on the canvases as well.

It looks like you’re really getting that, the line is intensely felt on both scales.

Right. I think it just took a while to transfer it, because I used to remember looking at people’s artwork where people drew on the canvas and it always looked funny to me, I can’t really describe it, it just looked fake, or too self conscious. I’m trying to have it be very natural in the process of making the painting, that this is part of that, the drawing is not explain anything, the drawing is not an outline for anything, the drawing is the content, in a way, of the painting.

I know what you mean, I don’t see a lot of painting on this larger scale that has that kind of purposeful drawing in it, searching and full of discovery, free and open. There’s something about that—that the drawing would somehow interfere with the rest of the painting. And I think you’re getting the elements together and truly integrated.

Well, I think the artists I look to the most, or maybe the ones who I relate to the most who achieve that are Basquiat and Twombly. I think those are two examples of artists who used drawing as painting, or painting as drawing. And so when I look at those people, I really understand.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

And with Twombly it’s so spare, but so confident and purposeful, the way it’s done is that you don’t second-guess that the line and the drawing is itself the painting.

Right, it’s just coming from him and you don’t question it. Same with Basquiat as well, who was just an incredible drawer. His thoughts just went right on the canvas, there was no filter going on to make it into “art,” it just came out and that was that. And I think that’s why he’s so good, for him that filter just wasn’t there. I think Twombly is more elegant in a way and more refined. I remember a show years ago he had at the Brooklyn Museum and I remember going to that and it was so weird because it doesn’t happen to me very often—I just burst into tears when I got there. I think right at that time I was starting to do drawing in my work. And then I could see, it was like, Oh my God, this guy did it.

There was no strategy in his work. And I don’t work with any strategy whatsoever. As I’m going I figure it out, there’s no plan going on. And that’s why everything’s different from everything else. I’m not making the same thing in five different colors. I just don’t work like that.

In your Art in America interview you said that you see the forms in the paintings less like maps and more like still life spaces.

Yeah, it’s not necessarily traditional still life space where there’s a vase and things on a table, but because I make sculpture now which is kind of vaguely vase-sized, objects that do go on tables, or bases/pedestals, or the floor. Someone was over today and she asked how I would display sculpture and I told her that at this point I would want one in a vitrine. Like an object in a cabinet of curiosities. So basically I think what I mean by still life space is that since I’ve been making sculpture I think of the forms as three-dimensional things even though maybe to other people they don’t look like that, but to me, this painting that we’re looking at—with the white that was knifed on, to me that’s creating a sculpture. And the red is some sort of shelf or platform for those forms, so I think that I work a lot with a structure that functions as some kind of holder or platform for these other things that I’m putting in the painting, so I think that’s what I mean when I say I’m putting still life space in the paintings.

I don’t see maps. I know people do, they say they see maps in my work, and I never do.

I find that so funny how people get fixated on these really easy readings of people’s work.

A while ago, I think it was when Julie Mehretu got on the scene because her paintings are kind of map-like—I think the word “mapping” became a big buzzword about ten years ago. And so anything abstract was like “oh, you’re mapping the universe, or you’re mapping this, or mapping that.” If I’m mapping anything it’s just my mind, but I still don’t like the word mapping, it’s not something that I think about. People always say that and that they look like subway maps, but no, they don’t. That’s not what these are, and I think they’re getting more and more away from that. I don’t even really know what direction I’m going in because sometimes I want to make more minimal work, but it just doesn’t seem to be going there. Like in this painting that’s unfinished, this morning I thought I was just going to be covering the whole thing in black except for maybe that area in the middle there and just see what happens. So each painting has it’s own life. Mapping is not where I’m at.

Sometimes my small ballpoint drawings are called obsessive too, but it’s just that I like to make them. That doesn’t translate into that I’m obsessed with them, I just like to do it. It has nothing at all to do with obsession.

There’s no subtlety in that, when people get these categories affixed to their work, and it simplifies it and prevents other readings. And so many artists have these collections of buzzwords that people have said or written about them that seems to follow them around. And you’re always having to reopen the conversation.

Well, I think that the art world as it is wants to categorize you into these boxes and I’ve pretty much fought my whole career to not be categorized and not be in a box and not be in a group, and not identify with a school of thought. I just don’t want to do that.

You were saying in your Art in America interview that you’re really attracted to Modernism. Can you talk a little more about that?

First of all I’m not trying to make Modernism. I think there’s been a lot of talk lately about this fake modernism or people quoting modernism in their work, or sort of retro-modernism. I’m not trying to do that. I just think there was so much that happened in classic Modernism that I still find really interesting. I still find Cubism fascinating. Basically it’s the breaking up of space and that’s super interesting to me. That’s not something that ever really went out of style. I’m interested in the breaking up of space, and then I’m also interested in color. I mean I’ve always looked at Matisse’s color, in terms of Modernism; those are sort of my heroes.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I’m seeing your books and you have a lot of the Modern masters here.

Yeah, I like a lot of good books but I also have a lot of books on contemporary artists. In Berlin I saw the Hilma af Klint show which was amazing. It traveled to a few other European cities, I don’t think it came here. I think the last venue was in Denmark. It was an amazing show and she made those paintings in 1905—before Cubism. She did that before Picasso. It’s kind of mind blowing, even just from a feminist point of view, that she made this incredible monumental revolutionary kind of work and nobody saw it.

There are a lot of these brilliant women artists that are sort of tucked under the legacy of these huge names like Picasso, like Paula Modersohn-Becker is another one. Picasso was looking at her work, actually being influenced by it, and now we’re getting to know the real history a little bit.

Right, and it’s so interesting and also how the canon as defined by the Museum of Modern Art is not necessarily true, even though we were told it was true, and I think it’s really interesting how history is now starting to be rewritten to include people that were very influential or forgotten or ignored. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and she was saying how MoMA has a Joe Bradley in the lobby now and a Sue Williams in the lobby too, and that’s pretty cool. If they just had the Joe Bradley that would be wrong because they’re trying to contextualize him into the male canon, but they didn’t –they had a Pat Steir, they had a Sue Williams up, and I think the imbalance is changing but it’s going to be a really slow change. The art world is incredibly sexist at the top levels.

The recent Isa Genzken show is a good example of some of that evening out. I mean how many women have had these huge retrospective shows there?

That was an amazing show. And there’s also the Lygia Clarke show, that’s wonderful. Yeah, I think things are changing, but slowly.

And then there’s this whole trend with these really highly priced very young men, with inflated prices at auctions.

But if you look at the work there’s no content in it, the work is a technique or a process. Someone said the work looks exactly the same in reproduction as it does in real life. And there’s something weird about that. So the work is made to be reproduced. The whole topic honestly gets me, I never know what to say about it, because I don’t want to just dismiss all young men as talentless, because I’m sure there are some that are really good, there always have been and there always will be, but there’s a lot of young women who are really good too.

But it’s not that young women should aspire to that necessarily, because I don’t think it’s good for artists to try to become that.

Right, I think it doesn’t matter the sex. When I graduated college, I had a full fifteen years if not more of nothing. Of just doing my work, developing, making tons of mistakes, making shitty work, making some good work, but nobody saw it, and I just think you need those years. You need to fuck up. You need to imitate your heroes and then you need to reject those heroes. And you need to try lots of different things and I think this brings us back to what’s being called Provisional Painting. I think a lot of that, especially from the much younger artists, it’s all trying stuff out. It’s just trying out things. And eventually if you work hard enough you’ll find your own way. But if you get a lot of attention for this kind of stuff that you’re just trying out you may never find your way because you’re blindsided by the other crap.

 
Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

 

So do you think there was less pressure for artists to make their work public before it was ready at that time versus now?

I don’t think there was less pressure, I think there were always artists that started showing when they were really young, I just think that economically there wasn’t as much opportunity, so there weren’t as many galleries as there are now and fewer artists in New York even though it was super cheap to live here. I think that when I was in school my teachers always said—and in a way we hated them for it—they all said don’t even think about showing—I mean you have 20 years! No one ever talked about the market with us. I know now there are classes on the marketplace. When I graduated from college and moved to New York I was starting my life and I knew it was going to be a long, hard slog. You got jobs and you cleaned houses and you waitressed and you did other things. I mean I ended up working for fifteen years in an office and had a responsible position and I liked it for a while just because it was allowing me to do my other stuff. Eventually things got confusing because I started to show my work and I couldn’t do both, I mean I really had to make a decision. I mean I guess nothing was handed to me—when I was a young artist I didn’t know about anything, I didn’t know what Skowhegan was. I didn’t apply to anything, I just went to a job everyday and I couldn’t take a month off and go to an artist residency, that wasn’t career path stuff in those days. Maybe it was for some people, but I didn’t even know about it. I was just a real head-in-the-sand kind of kid. I lived on the Lower East Side during the ‘80’s, and honestly I didn’t even know what was going on in terms of the East Village scene, I was so periphery to that. It just wasn’t my time. Sometimes you just instinctively know that this just isn’t your time, and even though I’m the age of a lot of people who were showing then, it wasn’t my time. And I just waited it all out and worked, and I worked on painting when people weren’t even looking at painting. And I just kept doing it because I really believed in what I was making, and then eventually I did start showing it. And honestly it’s still not easy, it’s tough out there.

Going back to when you were describing the forms in the paintings–are these images?

No, they’re not images, I mean the whole thing is an image, but no they don’t represent anything in particular. Everything functions for the painting, so whatever’s in it functions as it exists in the painting, it doesn’t really exist outside the painting. Obviously I’m interested in some sort of structure, and I think that the real subject matter of the painting is sort of my participation in making that painting. Kind of the slowness, even some of those things that look they were made fast, the paintings actually come together very slowly. I take my time. I might scribble something on it that’s fast, but getting to that scribble, I might have I lived with it first for a couple weeks or a few days. The accumulation of all of this stuff over a period of time is the subject matter of the painting in a way. There are formal decisions that go into it but in a way that’s what I mean when I said I have something in common with Josh Smith, I mean I think he’s really good at saying he’s just going to do whatever comes into his head and he’s not editing for good taste—there’s no editing whatsoever. When I start a work I make a point of starting from a totally empty slate where I don’t have any preconceived idea of what’s going to happen. Even if something is just a big disaster—that gets me all excited. Because then it’s just like, “oh okay, this is just a big disaster, I love it, good!” I don’t want to make something that makes sense. I’m not trying to make things that don’t make sense but I feel like I’m at a point now where I’m using that part of my brain that allows just something else to kind of be there and make the work. I’m certainly going for something, it’s just that I don’t necessarily know what it is until it happens. I want to keep the paintings open and I want to keep them fresh and I don’t want to make paintings that are resolved, so I’ll probably stop a painting before I even know what it is. Like this one, at some point I stopped it thinking I’ll get back to it when it dries, and then it dried and there wasn’t anything else I really want to do to it, so I guess it’s done. And sometimes the opposite happens—sometimes I’ll just hate it. Or sometimes I’ll turn it upside down and do one thing to it and then that’s it, that’s all it needed. So I try to keep myself kind of open to whatever’s going to happen. And I say that not referencing anything Abstract Expressionist, or gestural, or any of that. I don’t think about that stuff at all.

There are gestural qualities in the work.

Yeah, but I’m not interested in gestural abstraction as a thing. I’m using my hand and arm in making the painting. But I’m not interested in the historical aspect of what that gesture means—I think it’s been long enough to be able to use a gesture without it having to mean the ‘50’s or have it mean the New York School, that’s over. People in Germany were making gestural marks, Sigmar Polke made gesture. I think it’s time to give that up, just the way I think it’s time to give up that provisional mark making, it just doesn’t mean anything anymore.

So do you think there’s a lot of possibility left in abstract painting?

Sure, yeah. Because it’s just painting. I mean, I don’t see a difference right now, even though there’s no recognizable imagery in my paintings, I don’t really preference abstraction over figure. There’s no difference, it’s just all painting. I don’t privilege one over the other. People will still write novels, people will still make paintings. And I think it’s up to each individual to make it happen. Everyone’s different and everyone has something different to say. You just have to work really hard at it to get it to the point where you can say what you want to say. It doesn’t just happen on it’s own.

Besides being away from the studio and in a sculpture studio with a kiln, is there a difference in approach when you are beginning a painting from when you are beginning a ceramic work?

I go once a week at a specific time, because I take a class. And usually I make one or two sculptures for that session. I don’t carry the sculpture over to the next week, even though I’m told I should do that, but I don’t want to. I like making them in one session. I make it from a five or six hour time period that I’m there, and I’ll make one or two pieces during that time, and then that’s it, they’re done. There’s no going back, even though there could be, but I choose not to keep the clay wet for the following time, it’s just a decision I’ve made. I like the immediacy of the clay even though you could keep clay wet for a hundred years—you can keep clay wet a whole lot longer than you can keep oil paint wet. You can work on something forever and ever, but I choose not to. I just take clay and just start working and making stuff. I try to think of it as drawing almost, three-dimensional drawing, and as in the painting I don’t really know what it’s going to be, I don’t plan it out. It’s almost like I don’t care what I make, I just want it fired so I can paint it, either with glaze or paint. What I’ve been doing lately is—and you can see the one that I have here, this white porcelain—making them and then firing them and not glazing them at all, and then taking them back here to the studio and hand coloring them with markers or oil paint or ink. In a way it’s almost like they become kind of vessels for me to hand color or hand work or draw on.

 
Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and  Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

It’s amazing how different these look, the glazes and the hand worked ones.

Sometimes I feel like glazing and sometimes I don’t. Lately in the studio I have a whole bunch going and some are glazed and some are going to have nothing on them and I’ll take them home and work on them. Like that purple one, that’s oil paint on porcelain. Porcelain is so beautiful, it’s high-fired, and there’s nothing on it, so the oil paint soaks into it and creates this beautiful kind of matte surface because the oil just disappears into the porcelain. So there’s a lot of potential—it’s just another way of making that I like. I know that a lot of people are doing stuff in clay now, which I think is great. What I’m not interested in is having one define the other. Yes, of course the painting and sculpture are related, but nothing is explaining each other. Somebody asked me recently why I didn’t show the sculpture alongside my paintings in my show, and I said I didn’t need to, I just wanted to show the paintings.

I think it was John Yau who was saying something about you no longer being a secret ceramicist.

Well, I’m not secret now but I was. I’ve started showing them now but before when I started I was secretive about it. I didn’t know what I was doing—I had never touched a piece of clay before so I needed to learn from the bottom up. I’m not presumptuous enough to think I was any good at it for kind of a long time. I was secretive about it just because I was learning and it was primitive, and also I think there was this thing where I was thinking “who am I to be making this sculpture now, like what is that about?”It just took me a while to process the fact that I was interested in something else. And also, it’s sounds so silly, but I was embarrassed in front of my sculptor friends. I wasn’t secret exactly, I just kept it quiet because I didn’t feel entitled to show it. And then in 2008 and 2009 I had a museum survey in Europe in two museums, and when the curators were here, I had the sculptures here too, and when they came to choose the work they saw the sculpture and they wanted to take them too. So I ended up having a couple rooms where there were paintings and a little installation of some of the sculpture, and it was great. But that was actually the first time that I showed it. And also the gallery that I used to show in that closed wasn’t interested in them.

 
Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

 

I think it’s really interesting to have a practice that’s just for yourself.

Yeah, I think I started making it because I had a need to make them. It was something I was making for myself, and I still make some of these for myself. I also make stuff with this paper clay that self-hardens, and I paint them, I just have them on my painting table and whenever I have extra paint I just go over and paint on them. And that’s something that’s kind of a private thing.

Everything’s become so public now that it’s quite difficult to carve out a private space or practice that’s just for oneself that feeds or sustains you.

Right, but you can! You don’t have to show everybody or anybody everything you do. People do, but you don’t have to, you can hold things back. I think it’s okay to hold things back or keep things quiet, we’re sort of taught not to, everyone’s so self-promotional. I just think I don’t want to be like that.

Do you think that making the sculpture has changed your painting practice?

I think it did. I think the clay lends itself to a kind of fluidity and I think after a while those forms just ended up in the paintings. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened, and with the clay there was something loosening up, and maybe I was struggling with that in my painting. I was somehow struggling with what I was painting and it needed something else and I think somehow instinctually I felt like I had to make sculpture, and then eventually it found it’s way back into the painting. And so I think that my paintings were much more geometric and hard-edged before, and now they’re kind of not.

You’re a developed, mature artist who has figured something about being a painter. What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

I just think if you’re a real artist you will know it and you’ll keep working. I think if it means moving out of New York there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that unfortunately it’s just super expensive here now and why kill yourself to be just one of hundreds of thousands? You could go somewhere else where you could make your work without having to sacrifice your soul. I can’t generalize, because people want to be where everything is, but there are a lot of other places that are really cool besides New York. I mean if I was a young artist starting out, I don’t know if I would come here. I know lots of young artists who went to Europe, who went to Berlin, and other places. I just think the most important thing is to just figure out a way to make your work. My feeling is if you can just figure out a way to make your work, then you’ll be fine no matter where you are. If I had to do this over again now, I wouldn’t be able to do it here, because I don’t like living with other people, because I don’t want to have five roommates and share a studio. I didn’t have to do that–I had a little apartment on the Lower East Side and the living room was my studio and I slept in the little alcove room and it was great. But I don’t know how many people who can find their own apartments now for not so much money. I think because it’s a different world, meaning that because of the internet and globalization you don’t need to be here. You can go to New Orleans, or Detroit, or Berlin, or Dusseldorf, or Madrid, or Miami–there isn’t just one way to do things, or one path. You don’t have to do the whole grad school to cool gallery to being rich and famous. It doesn’t work that way because those people who have done that, when they’re 40, no one is going to care. You need to be in it for the rest of your life. Just be in it for the long term and don’t think of the short-term rewards and don’t go to graduate school and don’t have debt, that’s my feeling.

Published in Figure/Ground Sept. 5th, 2014

Interview with choreographer Molissa Fenley

By ASHLEY GARRETT, OCTOBER 2013

Choreographer and performer Molissa Fenley has created more than 75 dance works in her ongoing career.  Her work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1954, she earned her BA in 1975 at Mills College in Oakland, California, and in 1977 she formed the Molissa Fenley Company in New York City.

Molissa Fenley performing 9 4 Feathers , 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Molissa Fenley performing 94 Feathers, 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Fenley has collaborated with many visual artists throughout her career, including Kiki Smith, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Merrill Wagner, Keith Haring, and Roy Fowler; and she has also incorporated the musical compositions of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and John Cage. Her work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the Joyce Theater, DIA Art Foundation, Jacob’s Pillow, Lincoln Center, the New National Theater of Tokyo, the National Institute of Performing Arts in Seoul, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop and many others.

She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a Master Artist of the Atlantic Center of the Arts. Recent awards include the NEA American Masterpieces Initiative for the reconstruction of Regions. Fenley received a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Choreography for Cenotaph (1985) and State of Darkness (1988).  She is Professor of Dance at Mills College, in residence each spring semester, and often teaches choreography at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University and repertory workshops at other universities, most recently at Bennington College.

Recent works include The Vessel Stories, with music by Philip Glass, Credo in US, with music by John Cage and Cross Bridge: a collaboration with Holley Farmer, John Jesurun, David Moodey and Rosemary Quinn. I sat down with Molissa at her loft in Tribeca, New York on October 8th.

I’d like to start by responding to your recent performance for New York Live Arts. Program B began with a re-staging of Witches’ Float, the collaboration you did with sculptures by Kiki Smith, which originally debuted in 1993.  There was a reddish-brown body paint on the torso, arms, neck and face of the dancer. The contrast between the texture of the skin of the dancer and the sculptures was really interesting—the sculptures had a desaturated quality or lack of color.  As the dancer sweated the body paint texture changed and it melted off, it seemed to be an expression of bleeding. I’m really interested to hear about your thinking and decision making that went into that piece.

Body paint is really its own sort of business.  It’s really hard to know what it’s going to do on a body. When I danced Witches’ Float years ago, the body paint that we used was either another type or my skin is of a very different texture than Holley’s and also I’m not a big sweater, so it pretty much stayed intact through the duration of the dance, which is about an 18 minute-long piece. Holley sweats a lot more, and I think this is also a very different type of body paint - we actually sprayed it with a fixative.  For the performance on Friday night we did the fixative first which was not how you’re supposed to do it—haha!  We learned over the night. The fixative first on her skin made it actually hard to apply the body paint, so we figured out that it’s the other way around. And of course the instructions are tiny and we didn’t have a magnifying glass and we just said, well, it must go on first!  So it turns out for this particular brand you spray it on after you have the body paint intact and then it acts as a seal. The night you were there, it was running, and one point in time it probably looked like blood—so she actually looked bloody…

 
Holley Farmer in Fenley’s  Witches’ Float , 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Holley Farmer in Fenley’s Witches’ Float, 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

 

Yeah, that’s what we were thinking!

The idea of that piece was really interesting. Kiki and I were talking about how everyone’s outer skin is of a particular color, whatever their race or heritage, but if you were to flay that, the inside of everybody is bright red.  It was a means of getting to an idea of the “every body.” This shamanic figure could really be anybody—male, female, and the idea of the costume suggests that too.  The dancer is bare-breasted but covered in body paint, which is kind of like a costume in and of itself. And on the bottom she was wearing pants that look both masculine and feminine, the top is feminine and the bottom is masculine—the pants are a kind of dhoti, designed by Gabriel Berry. It’s like a human form of both female and male being presented. And it’s of any race, because it’s flayed, a very raw idea.

Where does the ‘witch’ element come into that?

Kiki and I had been discussing the women (witches) tried during the Salem Witch Trials. Women were tied to chairs and thrown into the river—if they floated they were a witch, and if they sank they were not a witch, but they were dead.  Well of course everyone dies! If you notice in the title, ‘witches’ is possessive, so it’s like the float of the witch—well now, what would that be? We started thinking about a kind of shamanic transformation that might take place during a possession, being immersed in something in a very deep way. The practitioner starts underneath the floating witch, whom is a sort of overseer; this is where it all begins.  And then once some kind of transference has taken place, the practitioner travels into the middle of the space to where two halves of a sculpture lay side by side—one upside up, the other upside down. It’s as if two halves of the same person, but it also a kind of mold.  And in essence, it is: it’s the mold that the floater came out of.  The dancer then continues to stand in front of the sculpture as a standing witness, which is actually a plaster cast of me.  Kiki and I made the original work in ’93.

It has a slight angle forward, right?

Yes, she’s really staring in and watching.

It has an aggressive feeling to it.

There’s a confrontational feeling to it, yeah. There’s sort of like a “you’re being watched” feeling, and then at one point the practitioner comes very close and puts her arm around the witness, leans in and listens to what the witness is “saying”, a very intense moment, I love that moment!

I loved the way it was lit, the viewer’s frame of reference was so molded around it, shaping the way we see the sculptures and the dancer.

My lighting designer David Moodey has been working with me since 1986. He has a really uncannily completely clear idea of how to light my work. And I explained that this dance is really in three parts—around the floater zone, then it’s around the cocoon zone, and then it’s around the witness. The witness is ultimately sort of ‘all-seeing,’ perhaps, and then at the end of the dance the floater sculpture lowers to just hovering above the stage floor. I’m not sure what the significance of that is for me but certainly the practitioner takes on the authority of the space. There’s nothing over her anymore.

I’m really interested in the way you’re describing the dancer as a practitioner. Can you explain your choice of language?

For that piece in particular, when you think of shamanic rites, you think of a subject that goes through the practice. And so the practitioner is the person who is undergoing this journey, this rite of passage, or this rite of entrance into another world. So practitioner makes sense to me in terms of that piece. I wouldn’t use that term for the other dances.

Witches’ Float, 1993, Molissa Fenley. Music by Alvin Lucier, “Music on a Long Thin Wire.” Sculpture by Kiki Smith. Commissioned by the Krannert Art Center, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

I can see what you’re saying about the transformation in the movements in Witches’ Float, the movements start out really slow and intense and they build up to these rapid, jagged movements—

It’s interesting, I made that piece right after I’d been in India for two weeks and in India everyone’s going around like this—and I’m shaking my head in the way that the practitioner does in Witches’ Float.  Everyone’s doing it all the time! And if you ask someone a question, it’s just like—well, are you saying yes or no, or—what are you saying! I can’t understand what it is exactly, but it’s an Indian trait that I noticed when I was there and so I wanted to use that because I found it to be so reverberate.  And the music is very beautiful, by Alvin Lucier, “Music On a Long Thin Wire,” and it’s built on the idea of vibration. And so this idea of a vibration inside the body really manifesting in the neck and head, I thought was just fascinating.  And that whole thing of the stirring hands, again very kind of spell-like. Not necessarily casting a spell because I don’t think of the dancer as a ‘witch’ as such, but she is inside of some other kind of worldly presence or other worldly state of being. And then her movements—you called them jagged, that’s right. There are a lot of very staccato actions, meaning very abrupt and percussive. There are two very different actions that are going on, two different types of movements. The legato versus a very tight gesture.

It seems to come out of nowhere, it breaks the space in this really gestural way even though it doesn’t feel gestural. It’s sort of severe, and very intense.

A lot of that is taken from my idea of a kind of Hindu dance. I’ve also really been interested in Asian art for a very long time, and in Indian art the dancers are always like “this,” they call it tribanga, it’s three bends—there’s a bend at the hip, a bend at the torso and a bend at the neck, so I really like that idea that the body is seen almost like a river—as a serpentine form. In Hindu dance the positions of the hands are called ‘mudras.’ If you think of Hawaiian dance, the hands are saying some kind of communicative message or telling a story and I wanted to really abstract that but to have an other-worldly thing going on in the hands and the upper body that is eluding to something coming from a whole other ethnography.

In Found Object which debuted at New York Live Arts, you were responding to other artists’ instructions while also responding to dance notes of your own as a kind of instruction?

It started with a piece I did in 2012 called Cross Bridge which started from looking back at one of my choreographic journals in my archive at Mills College. I found a series of phrases that had been written out in language but had never been made into a dance. I’ll show you some of the language—not necessarily of those pieces but just in general:

Arabesque out to the right and tilt back.

Place, reach left arm, end in plie, extend legs and torso,

Arm twist, lunge forward on the right and elbow forearm twisting.

This is the language I use to write down my phrases. That’s how I memorize them—I sit on the subway and read, almost like memorizing lines. And once the piece is performed a video is made, and that’s how the piece is documented, between the notes and the video. For those particular phrases that formed the source of Cross Bridge there was no video made to actually show exactly what the language meant. The phrases were written around the year 2000, and I was looking at them in 2012, so it’s twelve years later and I have no idea exactly what it means.  I found that very interesting because it was like finding some instructions that I knew had been made by me at some point but their meaning was not clear anymore. I made a new translation interpreting what the language described to me.  I thought that was really interesting following instructions, and so enjoying that, I decided that for this new piece I would ask for instructions from others and I wanted to work with writers for this found object. I wrote to each writer, Joy Harjo, John Guare and Rudy Wurlitzer and asked if they would send instructions that my working on or solving would come up to about five minutes of stage time. Also in asking for instructions, I made the stipulation to myself that whatever they give me I accept, so that it really becomes in essence a found object. If you find these instructions buried somewhere and just use them, then you don’t really have a judgment about them. I really like that.

I like the idea of the piece’s title. That it’s a found object, but it’s not an object at all. It’s abstract instructions that can be interpreted and even though they’re specific, it’s still completely up to you how you do it—that’s sort of the opposite of a real object.

Right. And in John Guare’s found object instruction, there were the two instructions—one about drying flowers, and one about your rights as a POW under the Geneva Convention. In part of the language of drying flowers, when he says what you need—you need scissors, you need string, you need a ruler, you need newspaper, and you need two small vases. I was memorizing my lines one day and I just thought it would be hilarious if all of a sudden two GIGANTIC vases arrive on stage! So I asked painter Roy Fowler to paint a backdrop of some vases and he almost immediately got into that idea of the Rubin vases which is the trompe l’oeil thing–if you look at it one way, it’s a profile, if you look at it another way, it’s a vase. So there are two of them, one is Rosemary’s profile, the actress I was working with, and one is mine. And then at the end, the last statement is “place arrangements in small vases, display or give as a gift,” and we place ourselves in front of the canvases. I love that!

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

In the fourth part—those two things, flowers and POWs are objects, they’re things to be acted upon, they don’t have their own wills, really. So that’s sort of another interesting interpretation of it.

Yeah. And in the very beginning of the dance were the hand props made by Jene Highstein who made them for me for a piece in 2010, called Pieces of Land, which was one of five of the Prop Dances, and the idea was that when you look down from an airplane, and see the topography of the land – there’s a square there of farmland, there’s a diamond over here of forest, you see things in geometric forms. That was the idea—that these were pieces of land that we’re carrying on our bodies. And they’ve just been sitting in my closet, so they were another found object for me. I just found them in my closet and Jene had just recently died of an illness and so it was a nice remembrance of him to wear them.

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

I loved Energizer. I loved the repetition in the piece, the music was fabulous, and I read that it was recovered from your archive and the sound recording had to be baked in the oven in order to recover the quality.  Can you talk a little about that?

Yes, the tape is one of those big reel-to-reels, and when Maggi Payne, who is a professor out at Mills—she’s a wonderful conservator of music as well as a music professor and composer—she put it on to listen to it and there was nothing there. The music was composed in 1980 and this is 2013, over the years what had happened was that the music cells embedded themselves inside the tape, into the inner workings of the tape, the cells get “lost.” It’s hard to explain but they are not apparent anymore, they’re not at the surface so you can’t record them anymore.  She baked them at 110 degrees for twelve hours.  The heat coaxes the cells of the music up to the surface of the tape so that you can re-record it. She did such an incredible job and the music sounds like it was made yesterday. That was the really fun thing about bringing a piece back like Energizer, choreographed in 1980, not danced since 1982, so 33 years old. And not having been even thought about for 31 years. That’s just like one of my pieces that’s just been sitting in the video can all these many years and so to bring it out I wanted to do a pure reconstruction of it—the costumes, the movement, the music, all but the lighting was new—the lighting was by David Moodey. The original lighting had been by Phil Standstrom. It was just amazing to do.

I was wondering that—what is it like for you to see your work from when you were first beginning and now restaged?

Well it’s just fascinating! And I wanted to do it so that it was a true translation, I didn’t monkey with it, make it so-called “better” or come at it with a more mature choreographic eye or anything.  I thought that the mathematical construction of it was really interesting and there are these different variations of things—I mean, it’s a very dense piece. Very complex—there’s a lot of vocabulary in there that’s minutely different each time it’s danced and then phrases were cut up so that sometimes you get part of phrase A and ended it with phrase B and then sometimes you’d get one measure of phrase C on top of that.  I mean, it was really complex!

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing  Energizer , reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing Energizer, reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Really ambitious, just so packed.

Yeah, and I was just 25.

The layeringthe movement and the energy, it kept unfolding and coming and coming, I really enjoyed it.

The thing that was funny was that when it was made Anna Kisselgoff really loved it and gave it a big boom, but everybody else just derided it. Saying it was like marathon dance, and a flash in the pan, and all this stuff, it was just so confrontational.

The new lighting was really interesting, the projection in the back had a landscape quality, almost twig-like but at the same time abstract, and it had a strange visual interference to it. It wasn’t a straight projection, it had sort of a weird pixelated feel to it.

Yeah, that was on a scrim. And then the pattern on the floor was really interesting. We all worked on that dance really hard all summer. Peiling and Becky and I started working on it last March when I was at Mills. Peiling got her MFA at Mills in 2010 and she lives in Oakland, and Becky is at Stanford working on her doctorate in performance studies. And so we would get together once or twice a week and just pour over the video and put it on slo-mo and try to figure out what the steps were. Then I got back here in the summer and I started with Cassy and then Chris came in about halfway through the summer, and it’s just painstaking to reconstruct it. It was so much fun, it was so rewarding when we finally found a phrase and then we’d do it and then we’d look at the video one more time and correct ourselves and then figuring out who went where, it was just really great.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of  Energizer  in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of Energizer in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

That’s what I was wondering, as a visual artist myself, wondering about the differences between that and what you do. How do you make work? What’s your working process? How do you self-edit?

Well it’s really different for each piece. It’s hard to know exactly what the working process for that piece was because it was so many years ago.  But I doubt it would be too much different from now. The way I work now and have for as long as I’ve been aware of how I’m working is that I start making phrases of movement, and they get written down. And they get memorized and uncannily enough I almost always work chronologically, it starts at the beginning and just goes. I rarely start with music, music comes often quite a bit later. I start with my own forms of rhythmic structuring. In Energizer, it’s just a real solid base of 4/4 all the way through. Dances made after that would be rhythmically all over the place, you know, a measure of 5, a measure of 7, like the piece I did in 1983 called Hemispheres with Anthony Davis was really polymetric, so that formatting changed. I’m pretty sure at that time, in 1980, I would have dancers come in probably maybe an hour or two after I’d been working by myself and then I’d teach them what I’d made, and then I would set it spatially. For Energizer I was really interested in a circle, and then within that there’s the square of the axis, so there’s this sort of pie thing going on—there’s the top axis, the horizontal axis, the vertical axis and then the diagonal axes, and there’s a sense that a rotational idea is going on, and then there’s also a big square around the whole thing, so there’s an outer perimeter square and then an inner circle. It gets cut up and re-seen over and over—a dancer will do something and then another dancer comes immediately and does the same pathway but then maybe has a different ending and goes off and does something else, and then that might be echoed by another dancer. So it’s very intricate, moment by moment. And then as I said, I work very intuitively. I’m sure that in Energizer, once I would get something done—and we didn’t have video back then! —you just did stuff, and you either remembered it or you didn’t. Of course the piece was video taped, because that’s how I was able to reconstruct it. The piece that was playing out in the lobby (at New York Live Arts on October 2nd-5th) was the original, that’s the tape that we reconstructed from, so you could see it was really fuzzy, but we managed. As far as daily doings or daily remembering of what we’ve made, it’s all just memorization. It’s writing it down and memorizing, and then the dancers will do the same thing, come in day after day, and you just drill over and over and over and over until it gets completely intact and completely known.

What is it like to work with other dancers? Do you see their bodies and their energies as yours? How do you form other people to make the spatial expressions that you want?

Well I work with people who are really well trained; they have a lot of physical ability. I don’t want them to look exactly like me necessarily, I don’t teach my dancers class every day or something like that. People come to me already warmed up, and either they’re from a ballet background or a Cunningham background—whatever their dance background is, what I take into consideration is the means of how they will translate. And everybody tries very hard to do exactly what I’m doing—I’ll put my hands like that and they do it. But it looks different on everybody because it’s a different body. I really love that. I’m not interested in having everyone look the same, I’m interested in there being a vocabulary that’s translated from person to person in their own idiosyncratic way. In terms of a commonality, we’re all working towards this very particular vocabulary and how to present it in its most clear form from person to person.

What was your first memory of wanting to move through space to express yourself?

Well when I was a little girl I used to make dances for my dog and me. I had a dog named Shadow and I used to dance around the living room with Shadow all the time. I grew up in Nigeria and was always outside, and I saw a lot of Nigerian dance. I just felt really at home in moving my body.

The Energizer piece seemed to really express some of that rawness, that sort of grounded excitement about learning how to work as a dancer. Is that right?

Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s a total exhilaration there. And also you have to understand, I graduated from Mills College in 1975. I was 20, I got on a bus and came  here to New York, and my first major piece was in ’77, and then in ’79 The Kitchen commissioned a work. So it was very quick, I just jumped in and started being a choreographer right away. I came from a training that was modern dance—we studied Graham technique, Cunningham technique, and Limon technique. I had one semester of ballet, from a woman named Paulette Sears, who was one of the MFA graduate students. I’m not from a ballet background whatsoever. The movement is coming from my interest in the upper body being a very translational mechanism of communication. I guess you could say it started off referencing Egyptian hieroglyphics that I then I twisted into three dimensions. I started forging this vocabulary on my own.

Can you talk more about growing up in Nigeria and attending high school in Spain? What was that like and what made you decide to come back to the states to go to college?

Well I went to high school in Spain because I wanted to go to an American college and the high schools in Nigeria were not accredited. All the American embassy kids—my Dad worked with USAID— kids from North and West Africa went to high schools in Spain at American air force bases. The first year I was there I was in Sevilla, which is in the south and the second year which was my senior year I was in Zaragosa in the north. On an air force base, which is so-called “American soil” in Spain, we would take weekend trips into the city. I saw a lot of flamenco dance, which I was very influenced by, and although I didn’t study it, I really loved the whole extension of the back and the hands behind the head. There’s a lot of that in my work, particularly in my early work. I really loved the extreme verticality with really flamboyant arms. You know when you’re a kid, you just grow up where you grow up, and you don’t really have an opinion about it. When I got older I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Nigeria. We were in Ibadan, which is about 90 miles inland of Lagos when we first got there, and then later we moved to Lagos on the coast. Our house in Ibadan was right up next to the bush; my brother and I were always on the bush paths. It was a really magical life, and I think about that now, I just think I was so lucky to have had that kind of nature around me, that deep, dark rainforest. Deep and complex and thick rainforest, beautiful—it was absolutely beautiful.

The earlier work that was restaged for the performance felt like that—it felt really grounded in real stuff, the landscape.

The landscape, there’s also a lot of social dance, dancers coming together a lot in these circles.

You’ve done a lot with props and projections and live feeds, and that’s all in addition to working with other creative people. What was the first inanimate object you put into one of your pieces and why did you decide to go in that direction?

I guess the first one—well you saw in the lobby the video of the piece I made with Keith Haring, that was my first piece. That was 1979, I think. The first object though was by the artist Steve Keister for a piece called Boca Raton at The Kitchen for an event called Dance Day. The piece was a small sculpture attached to the ceiling, that was probably the first object. I didn’t relate to it, except that we were underneath it.

He was a substitute for one of my sculpture classes at SVA, he’s really nice and an interesting artist.

Yeah, I actually know him now; he’s a very good friend of Roy’s. But as far as an object that I dealt with—in 1983 there was a project called Hemispheres and it had a series of drawings by Francesco Clemente. The drawings came in packages of ten and when the audience came in they were handed a package of ten —there were four different sets, so the idea was that you got package A and your friend got B, then the next person got C, and D and so on. So the person sitting next to you if you came in as a pair would get another set. Francesco liked this idea of possible commerce; it was the idea of the set design being actually in your hand rather than on the stage. That was very interesting.

Molissa performing a re-staging of  Hemispheres  in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

Molissa performing a re-staging of Hemispheres in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

And an audience participation which doesn’t overshadow the performance.

Yeah. So the drawings were there for that kind of intimate feel of looking at something that’s small. And actually I unfortunately don’t even have one package left. Somebody walked off with my last one. Francesco probably has a package somewhere.

I read that you’re referred to as a “postmodern” dancer. What does that term mean as it relates to dance?

Yes, it’s a very unclear term. Modern dance would be the so-called pioneers. Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Pauline Koner, Doris Humphrey—Isadora Duncan is the mother of them and Balanchine is sort of in there, but he’s in the ballet world. It’s an era. And you would think of that era as spanning the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and then the era of the Judson Church people started—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Valda Setterfield and Steve Paxton. They were called postmodern because they were after modern. Then you have people like me who aren’t really postmodern because I am not of that group. The original postmoderns were dealing with the idea of a much more ‘pedestrian’ movement, less trained movement. They’re dealing with task-oriented things, coming out of Happenings a little bit, they would have these events and experiments—so that’s a particular type of investigation. And my investigation was once again going back to a more virtuosic physical technically trained expression, but not modern dance, so not coming out of Taylor, not coming out of Graham. I’ve always found it to be a very confusing term and prefer to use the term ‘contemporary,’ but then that’s gotten commandeered. That now can mean hip hop, “So You Think You Can Dance,” all this stuff is now floating around with categories, it’s really hard to say. So when I’m called a postmodernist it doesn’t make sense to me either.2-d,

It’s very interesting in the art world for that word; it becomes so open that it means everything, so it then has no meaning at all.

Yeah, I think it’s the same in dance. Now it’s sort of like a catch-all, not sure what to call it—it’s not modern, it’s not ballet, those are two distinct forms. So then uh, what is it?

What drew you to work with visual artists—in dealing with a static two-dimensional or three-dimensional work, paintings or sculptures, what attracted you to that in your work?

Well I just I really love the idea of the stage space being a volume, I’m talking about the ‘true stage’ in the sense that the theater stage space is there and the audience is out here. Not site-specific work, rather thinking about the volume of the stage area itself as a thing to be filled—you can fill it with light, you can fill it with movement, you can fill it with sound. And I really like the idea of objects or other ideas coming in—like for instance the Richard Long setting for the circle of stones, of where the actual space itself is completely shifted. And that I as a choreographer then not only deal with whatever choreographic concepts I have going on in my own experiments in phrasing or movement vocabulary, to being placed inside this space that’s changed, it’s not empty space anymore. I love empty space, but I also really like the idea of being challenged by either responding or not responding or working in tandem with a thing, of having another flavor in the space. How that space is now different because of this thing that’s inside it. What I do I as a choreographer to make either a larger picture or a smaller picture. It moves me along choreographically, it’s a challenge, it’s like using a piece of music—it has a flavor, it has a sense of structure. It asks: do you use that structure, do you make something in parallel to that structure? It’s like that. I find it as a great soundboard that I can hit off of and get ideas from.

Before I came over I was watching some clips of 94 Feathers, and I was wondering about the props used in that piece. It’s so beautifully integrated and the objects don’t seem to have any natural weight.

I love that piece. 94 Feathers was part of the Prop Dances, which also had the Jene Highstein objects with feathered props made by Merrill Wagner. For the Prop Dances I asked five visual artists to give me something I could either carry or wear. And whatever they gave me, again, I said okay to. Merrill has a huge table in her living room with a big bowl with glass top, in the bowl are all these feathers of birds she’s had over the years—parakeets, turkeys, hawks—feathers she’s either found or they’re from pets. She was interested in using those feathers and she had these metal trays that she had found in a steel foundry near where she lives in Pennsylvania that had holes in them, they were some kind of leftovers. She put the feathers into the holes and made these beautiful forms, they were just extraordinary. I was dancing at that time with Cassie Mey and Katie McGreevy, two dancers that I’d worked with for quite a while and they’re not in the company anymore. ?They moved on in their lives—that’s the other thing, dancers come and go—Cassie worked with me for ten years, and Katie for two or three, so you know it’s a solid group—and we made these pieces. When 94 Feathers was made, it was probably my first instruction piece. Where I made a dance and wrote it down, I was at Mills teaching and they were here in New York. The premiere was going to be here in New York in March during Mills’ spring break. And so I sent them the language of the phrases and asked them to make up what they thought the language was. It was really wonderful. That was the first idea of the method of following instructions and I have just continued further along with that.

Yeah, I really liked that piece—when you were lying down with the feathered object on top of you–

Oh I know, beautiful.

Part 2 of the Prop Dances Joyce Soho, New York city November 14, 2010 Choreography by Molissa Fenley Music by Cenk Ergün Set by Merrill Wagner Performed by Molissa Fenley, Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y Video by Mark Robision

When you’re co-choreographing with other dancers how is it different for you?

Well for instance, in the third part of Found Object is the poem by Joy Harjo. The poem had instructions written within it, and those instructions I gave to Peiling and Becky and myself to interpret. We each came up with movement for those instructions and then we put it all together. They showed me what their phrases were, what they’d come up with, I’d asked them to make something that’s within the stylistic body of what I might do. Not that I wanted them to make what I would make, but to make something that’s within-the-family-of—

Right, stay in the language.

Right. So they both did and then I thought okay, as one more unifying thing, there were two phrases that I taught of mine that they could do at any time during their rendition of what they were doing. We set it, they dance their phrases, and they insert my phrase 1 somewhere, and then later on insert phrase 2. Then I wanted to add the instruction of where you could replace somebody, or might echo someone for a second. There’s a part where Peiling is standing like this, and I come up and put my hand under hers, I replace her hand and she goes off and I stay there for a second. I really enjoy this method of working, which started with 94 Feathers—to trust. These dancers are all so lovely and they all work so hard and they make really good decisions. They’re very responsible. I can trust the art in them is what I’m saying. I can trust that they will carry the art feeling—my art feeling through their bodies, and that they will make the right choreographic decisions. I found that really interesting to allow that, to have another way of working.

Do you plan on continuing to work with other artists in different mediums in the future?

Oh yeah, always!

So what’s next for you?

I’m going on a really nice residency at the Bogliasco Center in Genoa. I’ll be there from November 18th through December 20th. As a sort of clearing zone, I always find when I’m starting to make a new work I have no idea what it will be, but I know that I will almost always start with a vocabulary. One big source of vocabulary for me is Greek and Roman sculpture of the body. I’ll get a bunch of books and mimic whatever the sculptures are doing, and I’ll find that suddenly I’ve got some phrases—that’s always been a big source material.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

How long does it typically take you to start something, finish something, work with it, or is just all completely different from piece to piece?

It’s different. For instance I was at the American Academy in Rome in 2008 for six months and I made a pretty major work there called Cosmati Variations. It premiered there in June. I made four parts there but only performed three, towards the end of July I made another part. I worked with Italian dancers, I had an audition and people came in. So it varies. I know that in Bogliasco being there a month I will not necessarily come back with a completed pice but certainly with material.

Thanks Molissa!

I think we cooked it!

Published in Figure/Ground December 6th, 2013.