WHO GOES TO SEE MEREDITH MONK IN PERFORMANCE AT BAM
I am seven rows from the front, left side of the orchestra. Frye boots feel as casual here as they did when I interviewed for a service position at The National Arts Club earlier that afternoon. This is where our audience is! A patron (and I can only call him a patron) sitting behind me came last night, too. Not that it matters, but he is British. A man comes up to him to give him a kiss on the cheek and say hello. They are in conversation.
The patron and his friend first spot someone in the audience named Paul, and. Less than two minutes later, one of them exclaims, “And look! There’s Paulo!” The gang’s all here. I feel excited to be part of this audience, even though I have no idea who anyone is. I am, for the first time in a while, unable to spot a single familiar face.
An actual monk is in the aisle seat a few rows behind me. Many of the women near me are thin, grey hair, immaculate haircuts. They wear jewel-toned cardigans, grey, or earthy browns. Someone behind mentions French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Sitting next to me, two native-French speakers are engaged in heated discussion.
Ambient sound before the performance starts the room echoes with faint ambient sound. The sound is like—
- Spirits inside a treasure chest, haunting us
- Pirates of the Caribbean-esque, at midnight when pirates turn into pillaging skeletons
- Hollow, forgotten cisterns like in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland
TAXONOMY OF TERMS
- the artist’s words, quoted from PAJ Publications’ Conversations with Meredith Monk
- a space map referencing a salient movement, scene, or section in On Behalf of Nature
- textual description of that reference
- making uniform or stabilized, often at a new lower level
- “…flattening had to do with knowing that the underpinnings would come through more.”
- The performers walk dispassionately, as if conserving energy. And yet they are performing specificity, in where they face, to which direction they move, and in relation to whom.
- As with nature’s formations and innerworkings, there is at once an initial arbitrariness and an overarching necessity of specificity about the piece. Flattening as performance strategy is in part Monk’s response to strabismus, an eye condition she was born with. With strabismus, “your eyes work independently,” she explains. “I don’t see true three dimensions.” Given Monk’s self-described sculptural and tactile approach to performance-making, I wonder about her nuanced ability to make us see the stage as somehow stark and rich—like our eyes, too, are allowed to work independently to see two very different spatial qualities.
- a philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence
- As a principle for On Behalf of Nature: “You are allowed to take shards or fragments of something old, but it always has to be transformed into a brand new form.”
- The strings that hang down from the ceiling before the performance begins turn out to be attached to unseen bells, which Monk and the performers ring to conclude the piece.
- When I walked in and saw circles hanging from the ceiling, I assumed they were merely a way to acclimate us to the space, to suggest latent energy of the performance to come, to perhaps stand for the performers that were to come in and fill the space. To witness these strings at the end of the piece as music-makers in their own right was to witness Monk’s propensity for the phenomenological: don’t assume that just because you’ve seen something identical-seeming to what’s in front of you that they are in fact the same, or that they behave the way you’d expect them to.
- a thin line in the surface of something that is broken but not separated into pieces; moment, instant
- “What I have to give is exploring the cracks between the art forms.”
- The musicians eventually join in one of the formations: a straight line bisecting the stage—divided, but not broken.
- The way Monk moves fluidly between art forms is no longer a rarified practice: most dance performances I’ve seen in the last month—if not every single one—have used some combination of film, live music collaboration, intentional, crafted costume, and spoken exchange of words in the midst of movement. Monk was one of the pioneers who introduced such a between-the-cracks way of making, but now that it is prevalent, I wonder about those who will lead us further.
- “PERFORMANCE ART”
- a nontraditional art form often with political or topical themes that typically features a live presentation to an audience and draws on such arts as acting, poetry, music, dance, or painting
- On performing artists using visual elements in the seventies: “the one thing we had that was different from the visual artists was the fact that we used time as an element.”
- Five performers enter with a performance art version of the kind of scatting traditionally used in jazz music. Their arms, first above their heads, slowly descend as they back into shadow. In this way, sections of the performance ebb and flow in and out of each other. The lighting changes more starkly: first concentrated downstage, then up, then emanating from the scrim.
- As a piece of performance art, Monk’s use of all elements is spare and considered. Rich purple and orange lighting fill the stage just as movement becomes more subtle and the eye wants to narrow in. Movement gives way to sound gives way to movement is overshadowed by violin is supplemented by light is complicated by movement. All of it happens and none of the transitions are transitions.
- a manifestation, form, or arrangement of being; a manner of expression
- On experimenting with expressive forms as a young person: “It has a lot to do with how a biological organism finds ways to make itself whole.”
- The violinist seems to have the role that italics or an exclamation mark has on the page: her bow confirms an already building drama. This, in one scene in particular. She plays as the other performers move. When all of a sudden they freeze, she lowers her instrument and sings alone.
- Monk’s musical, visual, and movement compositions all have accents: we want to watch every performer all at once to soak in the information she has given to us. The violinist, the patched up costumes, the linear clusters occurring far away from us upstage. In the film that plays, too, we see slices of human nature and nature’s nature that interact together and allow us to build theories from their detail.
- to uncover by digging away and removing the earth that covers it; to form by hollowing out
- On her developing interests in the sixties: “I was moving towards the idea of space as a sort of canvas of activity.”
- Hands clasped behind her back, Monk marches in and mimes a rant at the audience. We laugh. She circles around herself, and goes to speak again. This time she actually does. Her words are garbled and coherentand she is a swirl of energy.
- If Monk’s stage was a canvas for activity, just as equally was it what Richard Foreman, in his essay collection Unbalancing Acts, calls a “chamber of ideas.”
- a basic truth or theory: an idea that forms the basis of something
- “…every piece is its own world. I think my job is to, first of all, find out what that world is, what it needs, what its laws or principles are.”
- A duet occurs four times, in four different parts of the stage, in which two performers sit as if picnicking by a river in spring time. They sing, they harmonize, and then they walk to a different part of the stage to do it again. Only on the third time do their specific postures change, slightly. Feet that were once rooted to the ground, knee pointing upwards, now relax as knee drops to the side.
- In gathering her principles, as per her program notes, Monk turned to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s work with bricolage: “the process of assembling or making something from what is already at hand. In pre-industrial societies, one object could function in many different ways by an act of imagination.” If I were to identify Monk’s most resounding principle in her latest work, it is her commitment to letting us, her audience, use our own imaginations.
- the totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environments; an often delicate or intricate system
- “Sometimes I just ask myself, ‘How am I doing this?’ Instead of having more resources, I have less.”
- One performer traces a circuitous river with two fingers, then waves at us.
- Gesture and choral arm movements populate the piece. As long as there are bodies on stage, these elements have the potential of existing. Monk uses them liberally, and we see the physicality of work that is non-waste-creating, simple but not simplistic, fully material but not full of materials.
- use of contrast or interplay of elements in a work of art
- “I try to create a counterpoint with the different elements to make one larger whole. Sometimes a piece will want to have media. Sometimes it won’t.”
- The performers all run to the front center of the stage, and the lights go down. They stand in front of a singular light source that illuminates them the way a bonfire does a coven of witches or children telling ghost stories. As soon as the image is conjured the performers disperse and the moment is gone.
- Monk’s use of cluster formations versus patterns of chaos and dispersion are counterpoints to each other. In addition to these movement-based dynamics, the other elements of On Behalf of Nature are in constant dialogue with each other, determining for themselves what the performance will be. (See “4. PERFORMANCE ART”)
How can artists and writers manage to join in the defence of the planet and wild nature? Writers and artists by their very work ‘bear witness’. They don’t wield financial, governmental or military power. However, at the outset they were given, as in fairy tales, two ‘magic gifts’: one is the ‘Mirror of Truth’. Whatever they hold this mirror up to is shown in its actual form, and the truth must come out. May we use that mirror well! The second is a ‘Heart of Compassion’ , which is to say the ability to feel and know the pains and delights of other people, and to weave that feeling into their art. For some this compassion can extend to all creatures and to the world itself. In a way nature even borrows the voices of some writers and artists. Anciently this was a shamanistic role where the singer, dancer or storyteller embodied a force, appearing as a bear dancer or a crane dancer, and became one with a spirit or creature. Today, such a role is played by the writer who finds her- or himself a spokesperson for non-human entities, communicating to the human realm through dance or song. This could be called ‘speaking on behalf of nature’ in the old way.
—Gary Snyder, “Writers and the War Against Nature”