The melodic music emitting from the classical piano is nearly drowned out by the insistent, almost impatient sound of pots and drums beating Morse Code-like sounds into the air. Occasional radio clips and beeps interject as the percussionists rotate between unified beats to independent rhythms.
The piece is entitled Credo in Us and on Thursday, Sept. 22, the Mills College percussion group will accompany a troupe of dancers in a performance of the work to kick off President Alecia DeCoudreaux’s inauguration ceremony.
“We are starting out collaborating from the get-go,” said Molissa Fenley, who graduated from Mills in ‘75. “Here are all these nuggets of classes and divisions – how can we bring them together? I think it’s that sort of interaction throughout the College that the President would want.”
Fenley choreographed the piece and will perform it with a troupe of current and former Mills students. Mills performers from other departments will accompany them.
“The Fine Arts Department, consisting of the Music Department, Intermedia, the Dance, the Visual Arts – we’re very connected and interested in keeping connected,” Fenley said. “When I received this commission, it was a commission with the music.”
The music, from 1942, is by John Cage and is titled Credo in Us.
“It’s one of his really wonderful cacophonous pieces, where there’s some percussion, there’s piano that goes from a jazzy feeling to an almost Americana/Copeland-type of feel,” Fenley said. “There’s a radio that played, again, just turned on the radio at a certain time and whatever was on the radio was in the piece, there’s some classical music played here and there – all these layers of different events. So I’ve chosen to make a dance filled with many layers. There are a lot of Dada-esque things going on.”
A 12-minute percussion work that has been performed, and will be performed, by the Mills percussion group a few times over the years, Credo in Us represents a unity between the Fine Arts Department and a wish to collaborate more in the future.
Fenley and her dancers have gone so far as to agree to dance in whatever space the Mills Art Museum has created. Because the Museum commissioned Frances Stark’s exhibit to host during the performance, the troupe will perform with and around the walls scattered about the room.
“(Stark) has produced an eight-piece, cinematic experience that includes eight video projections and related drawings,” said Stephanie Hanor, Director of the Art Museum, in an e-mail. “This is the largest video installation that she has created and pulls together ideas and materials that explore the complexity of her identity as an artist, as a writer and performer and as a person.”
Such themes speak directly to Fenley, for she feels that Mills helps its students to be individuals.
“I was given enormous confidence (at Mills), that, as a young women, I could just set up shop and start being a choreographer, and that’s what I did without any questions about it,” Fenley said. “I learned from my experience here at Mills that this was really a place for people to find their own way.”
By having all of the Fine Arts Departments contribute, the Museum hopes to fulfill its mission to provide innovative art.
“Both the exhibition and the Credo in Us performances are ambitious events that take a lot of cooperation, managing and creative problem-solving,” Hanor wrote. “Working with living artists to create new work is part of the mission of the Art Museum, and these two projects are terrific examples of how we can activate our space and introduce students and the larger community to contemporary artistic practices.”
Fenley has many plans to activate the gallery, one being the props that the dancers will use as they move through the space.
“I have some tarps, I have some helmets, fans, parking lot cones, dishes, pots and pans – it’s a complete cacophony of things,” Fenley said. “The costumes are by a wonderful person in New York named Khadda Madani, and they’re very colorful. It’ll be a feast for the visual as well as the oral.”
Even the seating will be avant-garde, thanks to the Intermedia Department.
“People will be situated in chairs alongside each of these banks, and then where you see the video, there’s going to be a live-feed video that plays simultaneously. So no matter where a dancer might be, someone seated can see what they’re doing on the video,” Fenley said. “It’s sort of like every seat is the best seat.”
While Stark’s exhibition does not directly tie into DeCoudreaux’s inauguration, Hanor belives that it does contribute to its theme of change.
“Frances Stark’s work epitomizes the struggles and successes of bright, creative and engaged women,” Hanor wrote. “It’s important that the Art Museum supports women artists and, in turn, supports the goals and values of the College as it moves forward.”
Fenley believes that one of the best ways for the College to move forward is to start unifying departments and working towards joint causes.
“The Fine Arts, in all departments, are an entity in a very experimental mode. We want to present that to the President as a way of welcoming her to Mills,” Fenley said. “I hope that I’ll be able to work with more departments outside of the Fine Arts in the future.”