When Molissa Fenley formed a small company in 1977, many people had taken to jogging in a big way, as if they wanted to be fit enough to outrun enemy attacks, natural disasters, and the aging of their own bodies. Fenley’s patterned, repetitive, aerobically paced dances responded to that image of a fit human being. When she began to focus entirely on solos, she slowed her pulse to track more introspective paths, yet remained tireless. Watching her Provenance Unknown (1989, revised 2006) at the Joyce, you feel the power of her breath, her openness to space. Her arms carve up the air as she travels with steady footsteps around the stage, pausing occasionally to balance on one leg and revolve slowly. Philip Glass’s 1988 Metamorphosis for solo piano ripples beneath her passage. On opening night, the composer plays—magnificently—an onstage piano (at other performances of two separate programs, the musician is Pedja Muzijevic).
Fenley is a distinctive mover. You’re always aware of her long, muscular back (often bared by her costumes) as the power behind her smooth gestures. Cassie Mey, who replaces her for the third and fourth sections, is taller than Fenley, with supple legs that extend like fishline spinning out from a reel. Her dancing is luxuriant, beautifully phrased within the ongoing pulse. The two women join for a brief final duet.
The piano is also onstage for the new Dreaming Awake, which shares its title with Glass’s score (also played by the composer on opening night). Here Fenley sets herself against Mey and Katie McGreevy, all of them wearing Oana Botez-Ban’s blue dresses with a single thick diagonal slash of red or blue. While the choreographer dances the first and second of the three variations, the other two performers, in unison, perform the third and the first. The women have equal status, yet Mey and McGreevy inevitably seem like attendants, reproducing what Fenley has just laid out after she has finished with it and moved on. The image of dancers as both athletes and thinkers is highly controlled. Their arms shape the air; there are no flyaway gestures. Patterns in space fold back on themselves. As in all Fenley’s works, she lays out a territory and revisits it many times, adding details, building in intensity and complexity, but never breaking free. She trains you not to expect climaxes.
Her other premiere, Calculus and Politics, sets faster-paced movements to Harry Partch’s 1952
Castor and Pollux (heard on tape). To the shimmer and thunk of Partch’s marvelous invented percussion instruments, McGreevy, Mey, Ashley Brunning, Eric Jackson Bradley, Luke Miller, Paul Singh, and Dusan Tynek work in shifting counterpoint—say, one couple in mirror-image synchrony, another pair side by side, and three individuals. As they slide in and out of unison, your eye travels to catch new alliances. The atmosphere is bright and clever. Khadda’s costumes are offbeat patchwork, with odd draped half-skirts for the women; lighting designer David Moodey turns the backdrop a different saturated color every few minutes. In addition to slightly finicky hand gestures, Fenley introduces some fluffy white objects that the dancers hold for a while. It’s only clear that these are swans when a toy swan on a pole is held out from behind a curtain to offer a silver jump rope to whatever performer is willing to give it a whirl.
Calculus and Politics, as in other Fenley pieces, most movements take only two counts to execute, and its bouncy passages suggest fancy variants on jumping-jacks. I find myself wishing for some of the sweeping steps to take more time or pause in the river of Partch’s music. That’s not Fenley’s way. Her ingenious, demanding patterns divide and re-form, challenging the dancers to get through them without flagging and alerting us to the subtleties within strength.