The COVID-19 pandemic forced New York arts presenters to abruptly close one year ago, in March of 2020, shelving all future plans. After weeks and then months of hoping that performances could resume in the vague window of the near future, it became apparent as the virus spread that any live-audience shows in 2020 weren’t going to happen. The old adage that necessity is the mother of invention was never more apt, and some presenters dealt with it more inventively than others, taking advantage of the sudden availability of artists, and the digital tools now relied upon for communication.
New York’s Joyce Theater remounted Molissa Fenley’s landmark solo, State of Darkness to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Originally created in 1988, the work—in part a tribute to the death of Fenley’s friend and fellow choreographer Arnie Zane—explored profound, stubbornly relevant topics including the environment, endangered species, and racism. At 35 minutes, the dance pushes the limits of the performer, testing the dancer’s physical and mental stamina. Fenley first performed it wearing only tights, flouting costuming standards. (In the Joyce series, the women wore tops in a nod to the internet’s ageless reach.) In 1990, The New York Times’s Anna Kisselgoff described her sui generis angular, slashing style as “full-blown whiplash power.”
In the recent Joyce project, an incredible roster of seven dancers performed the work at different times—Michael Trusnovec (Paul Taylor Dance Company), Cassandra Trenary (ABT), Annique Roberts (Ronald K. Brown/Evidence), Shamel Pitts (Batsheva Dance Company), Sara Mearns (NYCB), Lloyd Knight (Martha Graham Dance Company), and recent Juilliard graduate Jared Brown. The breadth of genres represented by these wildly divergent dancers provided viewers with a fascinating sampling of one dance performed in seven unique ways by those at the peak of their powers. It also challenged audiences who chose to view the entire seven versions—a kind of dance-viewing binge.
The performances streamed live from the Joyce in late fall of 2020, with reprise screenings in early 2021. I spoke to Fenley and Joyce Executive Director Linda Shelton via Zoom about the project; what follows are excerpts.
Susan Yung (Rail): I understand this was meant as a tribute to Arnie Zane, who died of AIDS-related complications. Is that correct?
Molissa Fenley: It’s certainly part of it. In 1987, I made a work called In Recognition (1988), and that is the piece prior to State of Darkness (1988). Arnie Zane was a good friend of mine and he died of AIDS in 1988. I wanted to make a work for him before he died, so that was In Recognition. State of Darkness came after that; it certainly has the AIDS epidemic in mind, it has Arnie in mind, and a lot of other things. Its scope is larger in that it’s not just dealing with the AIDS epidemic, it’s dealing with the idea of endangered species, the idea of systemic racism—the things in our world that put us into a state of darkness—that condition of things. That was present then, and is present now, with the COVID pandemic being as horrific as the AIDS epidemic was in many ways.
Rail: What are some of the images and themes that went into the creation of State of Darkness?
Fenley: State of Darkness is choreographed to Rite of Spring (1913), which had a very particular scenario developed by Roerich, Stravinsky, and Nijinsky. It deals with the idea that there was a “chosen one” determined by society; that chosen one dances herself to death in order to propitiate the gods, particularly the harvest god. There’s all sorts of imagery in the work about the ancestors, about spirits, about animals … and I didn’t follow the idea of a scenario in State of Darkness; I wanted to work with the idea of the actual threading of the music itself. If you listen to it, these ideas are already present. They’re inherent within the way the musical form unfolds. So, in my rendition, there are parts that are about ancestors, there are parts that are about animals; the figure who was dancing for the 35-minute-long solo encompasses and meets all these different aspects of himself/herself/themself.
The stage is set up very particularly—it’s like a topography of life, really. The downstage center is a place of power. The topmost center is a place of reincarnation, the place of beginning, the place of renewing oneself. Downstage right is the area of the ancestors; it’s sort of a spiritual place. Dead center, across the entire horizontal stage, is the place of animals. Each time the dancer returns to one of these places, they are imbued with its history.
This imagery is something I created in order to choreograph the work so that there’s a narrative, and yet it’s not so specific that you would have to follow the narrative as such. Again, the scenario that I used, or the unfolding of what happens when, is very specific within the musical score itself. The dance is situated on top of that score in different ways. Sometimes the dancer precedes some kind of sound, or a crash in the music—like an augury. And sometimes it goes afterward, so it’s like an afterimage of that particular musical score sound. Sometimes the dance and the music are absolutely in sync; sometimes the dance is going off completely on its own tangential rhythmic form, as, of course, does the music.
The dance is intertwined with the musical score in a very intimate way, and yet it’s surprisingly not even counted. The phrasing is woven inside of the music in a way that is rhythmical for the dancer, but not necessarily within the metering of the Stravinsky score, which is very polymetric and complex.
Rail: The piece demands physical and mental endurance. What considerations went into making the final section? It must take so much will power, energy, and concentration.
Fenley: Dancing State of Darkness teaches you how to dance it as you learn it. It has an unfolding that makes it physically possible. Yes, it involves an enormous amount of stamina; yes, it’s endurance. However, the topography of the stage not only works in the realm of imagery, but also serves the dancer's physical experience. The dancer is renewed each time they return to a thematically designated place and it allows the dancer to metabolically, in a way, recover. You’re constantly within the present. You can’t start that dance saying, “I’ve got 35 minutes to go, how am I going to manage it?” You have to start it with the idea of time passing, and you’re always in the present moment. You can’t pace yourself; you can’t say, “oh, if I hold back here, I’ll do better later.”
In fact, the interesting thing about working full-out all the time is that it takes less energy. It takes more energy to pace yourself because you’re braking—you’re putting on the brakes, you’re stopping—than to allow the momentum and the dance to continue, like you’re riding this big wave. It has a way of propelling you forward, of resurging and renewing you as it goes. That was very interesting for the dancers to realize—that you actually can manage to do something of this nature. And all the dancers said, “now that I’ve done State of Darkness, I can do anything!” And it’s kind of true. But a lot of it is just giving yourself to it. Again, be in the present moment; don’t get flustered by where you’ve been, or where you’re going. It’s a constant unfolding.
Rail: Can you explain the process of teaching and rehearsing the dancers in 2020?
Fenley: Everything was on Zoom. We were on the Joyce stage; it was divided in two halves. I was on one side with the camera and the monitor, and a dancer, who changed every day, was on the other side. There was a mark down the center; we were not allowed to get within six feet. The seven dancers took turns so that each seventh rehearsal, a dancer would come back. So there was time for each person to be in the present.
So on Zoom, we worked every day for two and a half hours—starting at 3:00, everyone joined. The person with me is there, and I just start at the beginning. At first it was like, how to teach this thing? It’s such a mammoth idea. I had taken the 35 minutes and divided it into 11 different rehearsals, each of about three minutes plus. Which is not to say that it would take just one rehearsal to learn the three minutes, but it demarcated sections so that it was built chronologically.
It was a feat of love on everyone’s part; they worked so hard. I have a wonderful rehearsal director, Rebecca Chaleff. She learned the piece in 2016 as part of her doctorate dissertation for performance studies from Stanford. She was not only able to give concepts physically—this is on the left foot or whatever—but she was also able to situate the dance psychologically and philosophically for each person as well.
In 2020, we used as the standard the performance at the Joyce in 1990. The dancers spent a lot of time with the video—to be really specific about the movement, the vocabulary, where’s it's going spatially, how does it relate to the music, etc. Each dancer was given an enormous amount of information, but because it came in increments, it was manageable, it wasn’t just too much.
Rail: How were the dancers chosen?
Linda Shelton: Even before we called Molissa, I was dreaming about seeing that solo again for so many reasons—for what it stands for and how appropriate it would be and still is. In early April, we started on a wish list. “Could you imagine if this person would do it?” I said to Joyce producer Ross Leclair, “We’re gonna be opening in June!” [laughs] and Molissa has to teach this so you better get to her!” He wrote her on April 30 and ran some of the names by her—people we had relationships with.
Fenley: When I received that list of people, I was just beside myself with excitement. I said if anybody of this list agrees, I’d be very, very happy. It was quite extraordinary. Luckily six of the people did, and the seventh was Jared Brown, who I brought in as a suggestion. I’d worked with him a couple of times with my company, and I thought he’d be amazing—all of 22, straight out of Juilliard—and that it would be a wonderful range of people learning the piece. From Michael Trusnovec, who comes from the Paul Taylor company and has been in the dance world for a very long time and is very well versed and versatile, to someone like Jared—it runs the gamut from experience and exposure. It was really great.
Rail: Were you planning to do this in front of a live audience?
Shelton: In the beginning, that was my thought. Presenters were thinking about what to do with a limited audience; we were thinking of 75 people at the Joyce, with solo or duet performances. The one that kept coming back to me was State of Darkness (I saw Molissa perform it before I worked at the Joyce). In the mid ’90s, the Joyce bought the building on Mercer Street, which was Dia Art Foundation at the time, and I guess we got Molissa with the building! She was rehearsing there, and while the Joyce has a different mission than Dia, there was overlap between the artistic communities. We figured out how to be inclusive of and serve the people who’d been working there.
Rail: Will this project resume when live audience performances return?
Shelton: We hope so. We don’t have a set schedule right now because it’s still a moving target. I think it has to be seen in person. I know that those dancers want to do it and Molissa wants to do it.
Fenley: Yes, all the dancers are expecting to do it live!
Shelton: We talked about this bond that the dancers formed: they’ve said they’ll be friends for life. I think that they would never have come together if it wasn’t for us dreaming. Another beautiful thing is that our stagehands wanted to be back at work so badly; they’d have done it if it was 4:00 in the morning. They were just so excited to be back in the theater.