Meredith Monk has danced around dinosaurs, filmed ghosts at Ellis Island, staged a three-site theatrical extravaganza that ended with motorcycles around a blazing bonfire, and once gave a vocal recital at a major concert hall in New York accompanying herself with just the tones made by rubbing a finger around the rim of a partly filled wine glass. Suffice it to say, Monk seldom does much of anything in the usual way.
After 20 years on the New York performance scene, Monk continues to challenge both her fans and her critics with works that stretch and blur the conventional boundaries of music, dance and drama, altering audiences’ perceptions—and preconceptions—in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Continuing this tradition of going beyond tradition, Monk’s latest opus, a collaboration with performance artist Ping Chong called The Games, will open the fourth Next Wave season of experimental works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month.
Created last November for Peter Stein’s Schaubühne Theatre in Berlin, The Games takes place at some unspecified future date on another planet, after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed the earth. Second and third generation survivors try to piece together the muddled history of our own lost present, intent on making some sort of meaning of it all, while “the games,” with Olympic rules and regulations that look suspiciously like fascism, continue as the future’s last desperate link to the present/past.
Most of Monk’s previous works have tried to mine the past for clues to the present, as even their titles (Quarry, Recent Ruins, Education of a Girlchild) indicate. The Games shifts the theatrical telescope to a startlingly different perspective, but the overall intention is much the same, as are the techniques that have been employed by Monk and Ping Chong (with whom she has worked off and on for 15 years and whose works under the auspices of his own Fiji Company have elicited their share of acclaim).
As unique and unconventional as those techniques may seem to some, Monk doesn’t see her work as being particularly iconoclastic or new. She uses words like “rigor” and “discipline” frequently in describing her methods—though The Games captures brilliantly her awareness of the other side of the coin, when obsession with order and rules and leadership wipes out human freedom completely.
Her own definition of theatre is indeed radical, in the true sense of the term, and rooted in antiquity extending back even beyond Aristotle. “For me, theatre, in the broadest sense of the word, is really a place where you can take storytelling, acting, visual images, movement and music, and put them into a form where these elements are not separated. And I think the only place where those things are separated is in Western culture. In Africa, in Southeast Asia or Japan, they certainly are not.”
Monk has also described her goal by saying that “all the elements in my work—the lighting, the text, the movement, the music, the visual images—are part of one mosaic which will hopefully form as full a perceptual, emotional, spiritual, kinetic entity as possible.”
Her collaborator Chong has written about his own early theatre pieces as “bricolages,” a term drawn from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss referring to how (in Chong’s words) a “luminous new world” is often the result of combining bits and pieces of “existing older worlds.” Though Levi-Strauss was discussing the blending of cultures that often occurred when “primitive” societies came in to contact with “civilized” groups, Chong found the reference distinctly apropos to what he was trying to achieve in theatre: “I was trying to use existing materials and put them in a new context, and come up with a third mutation.” Alone or as collaborators, he and Monk both deal with “dreams, metaphors, archetypal links and patterns.”
Both agree, as Monk puts it, that “the elements have to be woven together very carefully. How these elements are laid side to side is what gives them a kind of resonance.” Finding the exact balance among all those elements, she adds, is “like a psychic necessity to me. My way of being whole. To integrate all those elements and explore how things go together. That to me is theatre, and ‘theatre’ fascinates me because it is the widest definition of performance.”
In the fall of 1964, Monk presented a short dance theatre piece called Break at New York’s Washington Square Galleries. Though she’d made a few works previously at Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied dance under Bessie Shoenberg, the woman who inspired at least three generations of New York choreographers, it is Break that she’s commemorating in calling 1984-85 her 20th anniversary season.
In addition to The Games, among the plans set so far are a retrospective of Monk’s films and videotapes at the Whitney Museum next April, a revival of her best-known large-ensemble work Quarry at LaMama this winter and a concert at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 7, 1985, featuring the haunting “Dolmen Music” and a new choral work as well. The Games will tour the U.S. following its October stint at BAM, and Monk will take her vocal trio to Texas and California in November, and a larger ensemble to the Midwest and Southwest next March.
“Monk’s works stretch and blur the conventional boundaries of music, dance and drama.”
Monk was a part of the mid-’60s avant-garde boom now known as the Judson Era, in homage to Judson Memorial Church, the Greenwich Village cultural landmark where most of the early Postmodern dance/theatre experiments were performed. She formed her own ensemble, The House, in 1968 and started doing large group pieces in unconventional spaces, including an outdoor arboretum at Connecticut College, the dinosaur room of the Smithsonian Institution and a sculpture exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
At the Chicago performance, audiences discovered Monk and six other members of The House in frozen tableaux around the metal statues of sculptor Beverly Potter, while in other areas of the museum “extras” scampered about in a game that resembled touch football. A three-section 1969 work called Juice, performed along the spiral ramp in New York’s cylindrical Guggenheim Museum, made use of 85 performers. The next work, Vessel, began in a rehearsal studio, moved into a theatre (the Performing Garage in Soho) and, finally, out into a large parking lot down the street, where motorcycles raced, a bonfire raged and all sorts of non-proscenium, expanded theatrics could take place.
Monk has described this period of her career as “trying to give the theatrical audience the kind of immediacy of environment that you can usually get only from film.” After the bonfire, however, her pieces became somewhat more conventional in standard theatrical terms: less gigantic and mobile, more content to stay within the confines of a proscenium arch (or at least an in-the-round setting).
At the same time, the works were becoming more and more musical (with scores composed and usually performed by Monk herself) and took on an increased sense of ritual—almost a hushed, sacred quality. The characters in the pieces (played most often by members of The House such as Monica Mosely, Blondell Cummings, Pablo Vera, Tone Blevins, Lee Nagrin and Daniel Ira Sverdlik) became much more full-bodied and distinctive, while at the same time they remained nameless, mysterious, as much universal symbols or archetypes as they were “real,” individual personae.
Some of the most extraordinary of these were those realized by Monk herself (the old woman who follows a moonlight path back to her own birth in Education of a Girlchild, the frightened child who wakes up screaming in the night at the start of Quarry, the mysterious androgyne from Paris).
“About the time of Recent Ruins, in 1979, I began to have doubts about the limitations of theatre, Monk reasons. At the same time, performing her own music had become more and more important to her—and was to serve as a temporary alternative to the larger multi-media works she had been doing for the past decade.
Monk’s own musical background is extensive: Her mother and both grandfathers were professional singers, and one grandmother had been a concert pianist. Meredith herself “learned to sing before I could talk” and studied piano and music theory from an early age.
Her music, like her theatre, consistently explores new territories. “At the beginning, I started out just dealing with my own vocal instrument, she explains, adding that what she discovered about her own voice’s possibilities took her to various kinds of non-classical music from all over the world. Her singing often has a chantlike quality to it; at other times it seems like keening or a baby crying. Instead of confining herself to the hotes of a scale, Monk experiments with all sorts of tiny gradations of tone and texture. The result is what critic David Sterritt has referred to as “evocative effects ranging from folk song to birdsong,” a music that is always disturbingly eerie, full of an extraordinary sense of feeling and fluidity.
Solo concerts and small ensembles began to feel particularly satisfying. “I could play more than one role each evening.” she explains, “changing character in each new song. There was a very direct communication with the audience. It seemed to be a much more ethical way of dealing with performance—much better than the fourth wall thing.”
But there were major theatre works in this period, too. Recent Ruins was a kind of anthropological spectacle; Specimen Days examined the metaphorical implications of the Civil War and was first presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival. With her next work, Turtle Dreams, which Monk has called an “apocalyptic cabaret,” she re-examined the balance between music and theatre and “allowed myself to take the music concert format and put in some of the theatrical elements. I needed this time to rethink theatre a little bit. Now I’m ready to work on a big piece again.”
“The fear of nuclear annihilation was especially strong in Berlin at the time ‘The Games’ was in rehearsal.”
The Games is a giant step back toward the big pieces Monk did in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Monk had mounted Vessel at the Schaubühne in 1980, and had been exceptionally impressed by the Schaubühne actors, as she told the participants at Theatre Communications Group’s National Conference last June: “Though classically trained actors, they were very forward-looking and very interested in trying to stretch themselves in different directions.” She suggested for the return visit that Chong join her as collaborator, as a kind of learning experience for the actors of the highly-regarded state-supported theatre “so that they could see that people could slug it out and still be friends. In Berlin, theatre really tends to be a dictatorship situation and people are very used to doing exactly what they are told to do.”
She and Ping had originally planned to do a work about the Lost Colony in Virginia. “The idea was to somehow deal with this thing about Berlin as an island, and New York as an island, and the Lost Colony as an island, and even the Schaubühne itself as an island—a kind of community that eats itself up because it’s so enclosed. But then, the more we thought about it, I started feeling that these people at the Schaubühne had done enough of that historical kind of work—and that I’d done enough historical work myself—so I decided to maybe do a science fiction piece for them instead.” The Schaubühne itself does both new plays and new versions of the classics (the Greeks, Shakespeare, German playwrights), usually with meticulous attention to the text. Since Monk and Chong do not use a similar literary approach, they had to spend about 3 weeks of the 10-week rehearsal period “getting the actors back somehow to being much more direct.”
In the end, the piece caught fire and Monk was sorry when BAM’s budget did not permit bringing the original German cast over for the engagement. “We made the piece for them. It took a lot of work to get to the point where they were really beginning to dig into it, and they’re such an extraordinary ensemble.”
The Games deals with survivors in a post-nuclear holocaust world—and the fear of nuclear annihilation was especially strong in Berlin in the weeks following the installation of new American missile bases. At one of the rehearsals, Monk recalls, an actress arrived to report that she’d heard that American troops in West Germany were holding “maneuvers on how to build mass graves quickly.”
Stressing that she’s never considered herself in any way an “agitprop artist,” Monk told the TCG Conference, “For the past few years I’ve been thinking about the fact that we do have the possibility of total annihilation right now, which is a new situation. And I’ve had a lot of anguish about what we can do as artists. The only contribution that an individual artist can make in a society like this is that we can offer a palette of feeling or emotion that a person does not experience in normal life in a society that is systematically taking away gradations of feeling. We can offer perhaps a larger experience, or an experience that has more of the intensity of life in it, so that a person can leave the theatre with some questions about their lives or about the society they live in. That’s about as far as we can go.”
Even beyond its Doris Lessing-like futuristic humanism, The Games also fittingly exemplifies what the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival is all about—a work that (to quote BAM president Harvey Lichtenstein’s definition of the festival selections) “embodies the current generation’s quest to extend the boundaries of artistic expression.”
This year’s 10-week-long festival opens Oct. 9 with The Games and closes Dec. 23 with a revival of Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, one of the most widely heralded multi-media works of our time—and a piece which, like The Games, premiered in Europe (at the Avignon Festival in France in 1976), where such productions seem to get more appreciation—and financial support—than they do on American turf.
Among most of the artists on this season’s BAM agenda—from Monk to experimental composers Steve Reich and David Van Tieghem to choreographer-visual artist Remy Charlip—there is a clear creative kinship: an openness to new ideas, new ways of doing and seeing and hearing, while at the same time re-examining lost or forgotten traditions and non-Western cultures and artforms.
Monk once told interviewer Robert Hurwitz: “Every time I do a piece, I want to create a new world. I think that if I were in the audience, I would want to see a new world every time I went to a performance. I love the adventure: not just for the sake of being new, but for finding something I’ve never thought of before. I can’t say that if I see a beautiful performance of an old form that I wouldn’t love that. But for me, I’m most interested in seeing someone who is really trying to find something fresh. You could say a fresh way of seeing things that have always existed, too. Because everything you do has always existed; when you create something, it’s really a process of uncovering.”
Or waiting for the next wave, or for the games to begin.
Rob Baker reviews dance and reports on the performing arts for The New York Daily News. He traveled to Berlin last year to preview The Games.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!