Take a Trip With Monk

The New York Times 14 Jan 1974English

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Meredith Monk doesn't call her works dances any more. "Juice" (1969) was billed as a theater cantata, "Needlebrain Lloyd and the Systems Kid" (1970) as a live movie, "Vessel" (1971) as an opera epic, and "Education of the Girlchild" (1972-73) as an opera. Editors are never sure what kind of critic to send to one of her performances.

Actually, Monk has never seemed interested in working with movement alone, not even in the mid-sixties when she thought of herself, I guess, as a dancer and a choreographer. In the small, innovative pieces she made then -many of them were solos or duets- she experimented, just as she does now, with layering and juxtaposing motion, music, speech, film, environment, costumes, objects in such a way that they imbued each other with a mysterious significance possessed by none of them alone. Some of the effects that she achieved with simple equipment, meticulous planning, and the cooperation of friends were astonishing. For instance, in '16 Millimeter Earrings" (1966), a color film of her own face was projected onto a paper globe which she had put over her head: an alarming technological nightmare of alienation.

Some of Monk's early pieces struck me as intriguing, but highly private. Now she's found ways of objectifying her visions. For one thing, the visions don't all belong to her; they emerge also from the minds of those who perform with her. And she makes you aware of the timeless solidity of certain materials and acts: bread and the eating of it; water and the drinking of it; books and the reading of them; wood, stone, metal; labor, journeys, trials, summonses, histories, deaths, births. And dreams about all of these.

For the spectator, her works are journeys through a dense landscape of meticulously shaped events. Some of the inhabitants are dancers: some are not. They may wear overalls or slickers or velvet gowns or bathrobes. One may have big red boots on; another may have a white-painted face; women may wear mustaches. Some may perform by sawing wood, or, in her outdoor pieces, riding a horse or driving a bus. Certain everyday sights and sounds acquire a surreal edge because they're isolated from their usual context or performed with great deliberation and intensity. Other quite fantastic images become grounded in reality because of the straightforward way in which they're presented. Events can be as specific (and miraculous) as a woman shooting an arrow into the center of a target, or as miraculous (and specific) as the final hair-raising moment of "Vessel" when Monk, identified with Joan of Arc -wearing a derby, gray pants and T-shirt, with her hair in a score of braids and her arms and neck painted silver- begins an odd skittering little dance that carries her into the depths of a dark parking lot, where she disappears into the flame and sparks of a torch held by a man who is suddenly there, welding something.

Many of Monk's recent pieces have involved actual journeys through time and space for the audience. For instance, the first part of "Juice" took place in the Guggenheim Museum, the second part a week or so later at Barnard's Minor Latham Playhouse, and the third part later still at Monk's loft. The diminution in scale from the vast museum to the small loft also involved an intensification of focus, a zeroing in on intimate details, and a gradual lessening of formality. "Vessel", Monk's most stunning work, was also in three parts, and, as in "Juice", each of the three parts revealed new aspects and dimensions of the same characters and events, but "Vessel" grew larger and louder. It began in a long, dim tunnel of a loft, progressed to a bright theater (the Performing Garage) and ended in an immense parking lot. To see this extraordinary and cryptic mosaic of the life of Joan of Arc, members of the audience had to line up on rickety stairs, drink wine while they waited for a chartered bus which took them from the loft to the theater, and then walk several blocks through one of Manhattan's decaying warehouse districts to the lot where "Vessel" culminated in an extraordinary pageant.

The works which Monk created for specific sites were enormously complicated to produce -to say nothing of expensive- and hence almost unrepeatable. Perhaps that's why "Education of the Girlchild", which just finished a series of performances at a downtown loft and also at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, is more portable. The piece -the opera- has evolved over a two-year period, during which time Monk and members of her group, the House, have performed it many times and in many different kinds of places.

While Monk first saw "Vessel" as a tapestry, in terms of textures, colors, shapes, "Education of the Girlchild" began with people and evolved into a kind of legend. The most prominent people are Monk and the five other women whom the program lists as Companions. They're all dressed in white clothes of varying styles, and in the beginning they're all sitting around a white table, around a lifetime of tables. They differ wonderfully in age, shape, weight, color and style -ranging from Lee Nagrin who is monumental in size, and soft but strong, to Lanny Harrison, who is rangy and swings through a lot of space when she moves, to Monk who is small, swift, and vulnerable. Every deliberate, unhurried act they perform is both clear and elusive in meaning. At some point, they stumble over another woman (Coco Pekelis) who is buried under a mound of cloth. Who is she, dressed in full Peruvian costume, cranky and old and as stiff as if she'd been buried for centuries? A distant relation? A long lost member of the tribe?

Some see "Education of the Girlchild" as an odyssey or an exodus, perhaps because of the several "journeys" the characters make, perhaps because of the way in which two interlocutors shroud areas the performers are leaving, and uncover or frame ones where they are going. In another way, the work could be construed as a biography of womankind, a myth of real and imagined lives. There is a part in which the Companions simply sit and weep; another in which Monk and Pekelis sit at a table and converse in soft, wordless singing, while the others gravely rearrange a baby Stonehenge of bricks, pondering each move as in a chess game. At one point they perform ambiguous ordeals, summoned by an Ancestress (Margo Lee Sherman) whose shuddering body seems possessed by the halting, garbled, guttural incantations she emits.

Monk herself, in the remarkable solo that comprises the second part of "Education. . . " weaves in voice and motion a portrait that could be a condensation of, or a heritage from, all the notable women in the first part. Her songandance also slides back in time from the platform where she begins -white-wigged, stiff, and ancient- down a long trail of muslin to a point where she becomes light, fluid, and sings in a windy, innocent voice.

Coming from a musical family, Monk has always made music. (She's cut one record and is working on another.) The music for this latest opera, like all her music, has a ritualistic quality, an Eastern flavor. She seems concerned with small intervals, with fragments of repeating melody. Often an organ, one of her favorite instruments, will play a particular tight, clustering pattern over and over with varying inflections, while her voice -formidable in the range of its pitch and texture- natters its own designs, nudging its way between tones, sobbing, laughing, sighing, snarling.

What dancing there is in Meredith Monk's works these days shows the same preoccupation with minute gradations of shape and energy. Her style takes unemphatic note of awkwardness and angularity, pointing up those small transitional moments that we usually notice only in still photographs of people moving. Her own dancing is light, sweet, full of tiny fidgety motions, yet her limbs have a flyaway sprawl. She makes you think of a puppet, or someone in a trance. In a way, the movement is like the scenery and costumes; they all look handmade -clumsy but beautiful. Childlike in their intrepidness and in their humor.

Since Monk rarely develops an idea linearly, the events in her works seem to me to be analogous to the fragments of a long-buried vase. They might, for the scientific mind, make a logical whole; for the poetic mind they might symbolize a whole. Yet many of the fragments are so lovely, so specific in hue that it almost doesn't matter what the mind of the spectator does with them. I hoard them myself.