She has the looks of a punk rocker, the training regimen of a first-class athlete and the income of a starving artist. While the best clue to Molissa Fenley’s occupation is provided by her modest income, that is likely to change soon, because she is the hottest, and perhaps sweatiest, dancer-choreographer to leap into the picture since Twyla Tharp. After watching Fenley perform in 1980, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “We have seen the dance of the future, and it works.” Thanks to Molissa, it works hard.
Fenley’s explosive choreography is furiously paced, nearly nonstop and can last a lung-searing 90 minutes. Her dances blend African rhythm, stylized Far Eastern arm movements and athletic formations. Years of running, dancing and weight lifting have transformed the 5’3″, 115-pound dancer into steely sinew. Members of her all-female company have the same muscled and close-cropped look as their leader; obviously, splay-footed swans with Modigliani necks and white tutus need not apply.
Fenley has elevated the values of stamina, speed and strength to preeminence in an art form known predominantly for fluidity and grace. This has created both fans and friction in the competitive world of art grants, privately funded productions and fellowships.
Fenley’s unusual upbringing informs her work. Born in Las Vegas, the youngest daughter of a professor of agriculture, Molissa lived in the U.S. until she was 7. Then her father accepted an assignment in Nigeria from the Agency for International Development and moved the family to West Africa. Fenley’s Third World childhood was tragically tempered by her mother’s physical deterioration because of multiple sclerosis. “I’m sure a psychologist would say this woman runs six miles every day because her mother is in a wheelchair,” she remarks.
Fenley went off on her own to Spain to finish high school and from there to Mills College in Oakland, Calif., where she discovered dance. “I liked the fact that Mills was an all-women’s college,” she says. “I wanted to be extremely studious. I wanted to immerse myself, and I didn’t want to deal with any sex.”
Fenley’s first dance class exposed her naïveté. “I did not even know what a leotard was,” she says. “The catalog said loose clothing, so I came dressed in a painter’s smock.” Molissa quickly saw that she had some catching up to do, so she went to the physical education department. “It’s like anything,” she says. “If you want to be a great accountant, you have to study accounting. If you want to be a really great dancer, you have to figure out your own route to train your body. It’s instinctual.”
Fenley decided on Nautilus and running, a radical departure from the disciplined stretching regimen of both modern dance and ballet. After four years of “working like a maniac,” she graduated with a dance degree and in 1975 moved to New York City.
When Steve Klein met her in a club in SoHo, “she was like a wild child,” he says. “Her entire wardrobe consisted of brightly colored polyester pajamas that she held together with a Star Wars belt.” The two were soon inseparable, and after their marriage in 1979 Klein became her manager. They got by on less than $300 a month. Fenley’s training intensified, and after a few favorable reviews of her work, which she performed in the experimental lab in SoHo called the Kitchen, her career was well on its way. Fenley has since separated from Klein, who is no longer her manager, and she now lives with New York Daily News magazine writer John Lombardi.
Last month Fenley’s five-woman troupe opened its first season with a triumphant performance of three of her works at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan. Next February the Ohio Ballet will unveil a work created by Fenley, and the following month she’ll head to Australia to choreograph a composition by avant-garde composer Philip Glass for the Australian Dance Theatre.
But Molissa Fenley is already feeling the constraints of her newly earned reputation. “I’m always accused of being Miss Energy,” she says, “but that is absolutely the beginning of what I do. I’m interested in my work being meaningful—not trendy.”