Monday, March 21, 2011

Messages from Meredith

In 1975 I had been under the spell of Judith Dunn and Steve Paxton, both former Cunningham dancers and Judson Church pioneers, for four years. At Bennington College it was their ethos that held sway. Dance was performed as task, as an everyday kind of activity that involved investigation and rigor but certainly not emotional “expression.” Judith Dunn exhorted me to wipe that grin, or whatever, off my face, saying “let your body say it instead.” And, when confronted with potential sexual rumblings and arousal in the newly birthed form of contact improvisation, Paxton exhorted dancers not to play the “gland game.”

Then along came Meredith Monk. For a week of workshops, Monk had us embody our most disgusting habits, sink deep into sensation with exercises from Alexander technique, and, strange for dancers at that time, make sound. These activities confused me. How could the worlds of formalist post-modernism and fleshy, tender hearted and unabashed expression co-exist? Like a koan, that question has dogged me since.

Another week of workshops and performances some thirty six years later at Bryn Mawr College has provided, if not a complete answer, a chance to sit again with the deeper questions raised by Meredith Monk’s work, and to speak with her about them.
Her evolution as an artist has involved a refinement and a rich flowering more than any shifts of course. The fusion of elements – voice, film, movement, into striking stage pictures and ultimately moving theater is unchanged. Today she collaborates more, handing over the authority for pieces of the production to a visual artist for instance – Ann Hamilton. Her musical palette has broadened with complex instrumentations. But the purity, the depth, and the power of what she does has only grown with time and water under the bridge.

Today Monk is a Buddhist. Although in 1975 she had not yet found a formal practice or teacher, her starting place – one of compassionate regard for human beings and their experience, both painful and delightful, is in line with the Buddhist stance. People without any spiritual allegiance can recognize something fundamentally sane in her position as a performer. Although she herself features, it is never about her. Rather, she has always understood how to position herself as an everywoman, with an approach to physicality that reduces action to its simplest skeletons. She becomes like an animation of herself, effectively communicating that the work is about US.

Although ‘dance’ was the rubric that Monk was often categorized under, her approach to it was never in line with those who practiced movement for its own sake, conveying its own meaning. Rather, movement for Monk is what animates her onstage personalities, be they the quirky ladies of “Education of the Girlchild,” or the elegant celebrants of “Songs of Ascension.” Movement is life, and a body in motion is one conveying a story about how it is to be alive on this deeply troubled but spectacular and potentially benevolent earth.