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Modern Marvel: Professor inspires other dancers

Associate Professor of Dance Molissa Fenley performing her modern piece entitled “94 Feathers.” (Courtesy of Molissa Fenley)

Modern dancing consumes Molissa Fenley’s life. The Mills associate professor of dance’s passion shows when she performs. In her award-winning interpretative routine “Regions,” Fenley elegantly lifted her arms into the air while sitting with her legs arched and balanced on the armrests of a wooden chair. In “Mass of Balance,” Fenley used props as an extension of her body, slowly swinging a long wooden pole around her to reinterpret the flat empty space of a stage. The audience followed her every graceful yet powerful movement when she performed “Planes in Air” with two other dancers under moody blue lights. They were transfixed by Fenley’s pointed ballet shoe tracing across the floor in a rond de jambe while she waved a large white paper fan.

Dancing even engulfs her everyday activities, in the way she would glide briskly out of a gym room at Haas Pavilion after a dance course has ended, wearing a loose sweater and leggings with her dark hair pulled up into a tight ballet bun. Her students would follow after her chattering amongst themselves and sharing admiring looks at their professor.

In honor of Fenley’s work, Mills Dance Lecturer Ann Murphy will be holding a seminar in the Faculty Lounge on Wednesday, March 16 at 12:15 p.m. entitled “The Work of Molissa Fenley.” The lecture is a part of the Spring 2011 Faculty Lunchtime Seminars hosted by the Provost and will focus on Fenley’s last 33 years of choreography, during which she has composed over 70 works with famous dance companies from around the world.

Although she was too busy to be interviewed, Murphy had nothing but kind words in her brief e-mail to The Campanil.

“She is quite remarkable,” Murphy said. “She grew up in Nigeria, went to high school in Spain, then began dancing as an undergrad at Mills (at the age of 16). Finally, after graduating (in 1975), she put herself on a bus and went to New York intent on becoming a renowned choreographer, which is precisely what happened.”

Today, Fenley, 57, continues to perform and choreograph, which has made her a powerful influence on the College’s dance department.

Since she began teaching at Mills in 1999, she has instructed spring courses like Ideas of Space, which “explores the particulars of both geometric and mythic space and their potential use in creating choreography,” according to the Mills website.

“Inspiration comes from myself,” Fenley said of her own choreography. “I can look at ideas from films, music, videos and nature — all those things to produce work because choreography is constantly changing for me.”

Students say Fenley has inspired them to think critically about their own bodies within space and time and has taught them to see the meaning in each motion they create.

Kristine Anderson, a second year pursuing a MFA in Dance, tries to follow Fenley’s example by pushing herself beyond her comfort zone.

“She has instilled in me the idea to go after what I want, a sense of fearlessness,” Anderson said via e-mail. “(Fenley) also encouraged me to make my own show, encouraging me that I have a choreographic voice and work to be seen. I didn’t realize this potential in myself until (Fenley) brought up the idea. She is an endearing mentor.”

The seminar is in lieu of Murphy’s collaboration with Fenley on a book on her choreography that is scheduled to be be published later this year. According to her website, it will be an accumulation of essays by people Fenley has worked with.

Can’t make it to Ann Murphy’s “The Work of Molissa Fenley”? You can attend the next few Lunchtime Seminars listed below. Each lecture is from 12 to 1 p.m. in the Faculty/Staff Lounge. All faculty, students, and staff are welcome.

Tuesday, March 29
Vivian Chin, Ethnic Studies
Title: “Universal? No! Global and Local? Yes! Asian Diasporic Literature and Pop Culture Representations”

Wednesday, April 6
Bert Gordon, History
Title: “Tourism, Economics, and Porcelain from the Beginnings to the Present”

Tuesday, April 12
Priya Shimpi, Education
Title: “Children’s Learning from Third-party Interactions”

Tuesday, April 19
Zvezdelina Stankova, Mathematics
Title: “What comes from within…when life serves you lemons”

Tuesday, April 26
Walter Haas Pavilion (WHP)
Dance Studio 117
Sonya Delwaide-Nichols, Dance
Title: “Oakland Ballet”