I can’t think of anyone since Martha Graham and the early modern dancers who could take something as personal as her own body language and extrapolate it into a career’s worth of performance possibilities.
Meredith Monk and Anne Waldman at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, February 24 and 25.
By Marcia B. Siegel
All artists probably think of themselves as special, but Meredith Monk escapes all known categories. Though she was always musical, she trained as a dancer at Sarah Lawrence College, with the great teacher and alumna of Martha Graham’s first company, Bessie Schonberg. From her first performances after college she was making unheard-of combinations of sounds, movements, and theatrical effects. At that time I was editing a new magazine, Dance Scope, and I put her on the cover of the first issue, Winter 1965. She was standing, folded completely in half, hugging her calves, with her hair spread out on the floor behind her. On the back cover we printed the same photo upside down.
I don’t know exactly when Monk discovered the unusual range of her vocal talents, but music became a priority. Over the next decades she refined her instrument. She has an unerring sense of pitch and control, and an ability to switch or slide from ultra-high registers to the lowest. She found textures in her voice that allowed her to turn basic emotions into vocalise. Often accompanying herself on a keyboard with simple repeating chords, she created whole villages of people with nonverbal growls, shrieks, clucks, squeaks, screams, ululations, and laughter. She was determined to scour her sound of decorations and ordinary virtuosity. She did the same thing with her movement. Any performance of hers was spare to the point of enigma, and also tremendously evocative.
Monk was always a collaborator, and she soon started training others in their own approximations of her extraordinary vocal technique. I can’t think of anyone since Martha Graham and the early modern dancers who could take something as personal as her own body language and extrapolate it into a career’s worth of performance possibilities. Since the 1960s Monk has created large and small-scale theater works, cabaret performances, meditations, and musical events. She’s recognized as a composer, director, filmmaker, as well as a performer.
Last weekend’s show at the ICA was like a recital for Monk, poet Anne Waldman, and two longtime Monk associates, Katie Geissinger and Ailison Sniffin. Essentially they all just stood up and delivered, but the performance was arranged for some variety. First, Waldman gave three of her poems against a backdrop of painted and photographic images by Pat Steir and recorded soundscapes by Ambrose Bye.
Waldman spoke in a low voice with large old-fashioned gestures and swooping emphasis. Her images referred to apocalyptic things we’re doing to the environment, and to the act of writing itself. She swayed from foot to foot, paging through the texts from a folder she held open in her arms. Each of the three poems (“Melpomene,” “Entanglement,” “Gossamurmur”) seemed like a list of carefully described events and scenes. In a program note that added literary and philosophical weight, Waldman refers to “catastrophes and wonder.”
After Waldman’s loaded news, Monk, Geissinger, and Sniffen walked to three corners of the performance space and stood still facing the center. They began a series of tones in different colors. They were miked so you couldn’t tell whose voice you were hearing at any moment. The three voices blended into one voice, then they separated into individuals. “Calling” was the name of the piece. It was like a conversation between people on three faraway mountaintops. For the next 20 minutes or so they regrouped for four more songs, all different, but all conveying the idea of community in very simple terms.
In “Scared Song” Monk sat at a keyboard, chanting a chorus that sounded like “haydndeho heydnheydnhydnheydn”, and then breaking into sub-verbal cries that suggested a child playing and suddenly seized with fear, and later there was someone anxious and then being reassured. These characters were all vocal projections of feelings you could identify without the burden of personality or literal action. Monk expresses the emotions carried by the music she’s playing and singing, but she doesn’t act them out.
In “Cellular Songs,” a work in progress, the three women stood together and began hocketing, a collective music practiced in many Asian, African and native American cultures, where a single theme is produced by the members of the ensemble singing or playing successive notes in turn. When the three women had developed a wordless three-part melody, they rearranged their grouping few times. The melody started going slightly astray, the rhythms grew irregular and the pitches slid off. Monk kept it together with a constant “hey hey hey.”
Monk and Geissinger faced each other and sang a list of thin connections in “between song”— “between the rug and the floor, between the lips and the lipstick.” At the end of the set, Monk sang one of her most famous early pieces, “The Tale,” from her 1972 opera Education of the Girlchild. Here she’s an old woman cackling and gloating because she still has her hands, her money, her memory.
The last part of the evening featured more Monk in partnership with Waldman. The two women, so different in style, engaged in amicable conversations, each one using her own composition. I loved hearing some of Monk’s early pieces again, although I own many of them on recordings. It was fine to see how they combined their assets in companionable arm-in-arm strolls (“Chenrezig Echoes”/”Chenrezig Walks Among Us”), and confronted each other with nonlethal weapons (“Falling Dance”/”Rat Tat Tat Tat”).
These duets emphasized their differences: Waldman is tallish, stately, with long black hair and a scarf over her shoulders. She steps from one foot to the other and makes broad, rhetorical gestures. Monk is small and sturdy, grounded. She seems rooted within her music, moving only the essential parts at the necessary times. What bound them together was each woman’s ability to express compassion without sentimentality.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.