PRINT May 1973

Meredith Monk: An Introduction

TO SAY THAT MEREDITH MONK is a dancer, musician, singer, composer, director, and film maker is to say both a great deal and a little: Her particular art form defies these professional ascriptions and eludes classification. Her performances—what she refers to as “composite theater” and “nonverbal opera”—integrate elements of theater, dance, film, music, singing, and mime according to carefully conceived compositions. They juxtapose reality with a personal, surreal imagery—real space and time in terms of specific sites, props, dimensions with a psychic space or fantasyland undemarcated except by the limits of the mind.

Monk has been concerned with the nature of the audience’s visual experience since 1964 when she abandoned the concept of dance as pure movement, and the constraints of her classical ballet training. Having found pure movement “too abstracted and distilled from reality,” she looked to the combination of several art forms. The Happenings taking place in New York stimulated her thinking; they showed the availability of a wide range of materials and settings. Her ideas about theater expanded to the point that she could discuss them with such words as “collage,” “tableau,” “tapestry,” “mosaic,” and “figure/ground.” Planning her work, distancing herself, she operates like a director or film maker structuring each scene, considering each frame. Like a cameraman probing every technique of his trade and each possibility of his lens, she plots close-ups, wide-angle views, shots in and out of focus. Though used, chance and improvisation are only minor factors in the scaffolding Monk builds for her work.

The methods of procedure Monk employs can be dated to Break, a solo performed in 1964 at the Washington Square Galleries. A collage of sharply defined words and movements, it portrayed different states of mind; an accompanying recording of crashing cars simulated the intensity of emotional trauma. Watching the performance has been compared to seeing a mirror shatter, leaving jagged fragments, each of which formed a whole but also functioned independently. Her images should be thought of as parallel, separate and distinct, but also part of a continuum.

16 Millimeter Earrings, performed at the Judson Church in 1966—a dance more seminal to her development—blended a wider range of elements, especially film which she utilized for the first time. The mask motif that often occurs in her work first appeared. A portrait of an adolescent was presented by a series of strange images: transpositions of fantasy/reality and surface/reflection gradually revealed the individual and her metamorphoses. In the solo, Monk’s hair first became a red wig, then transformed to red-colored streamers blown upward by a fan, and finally to fire. At another point, moving from an oversized table, she turned, shifted, and then lowered a basketlike drum over her head. An animated image of her face, contorted and out of focus, was projected on its surface and a doll’s effigy on a screen behind. As in Juice in which Monk projected the faces of her performers on television 100 times their normal size, the distorting lens of the camera added another mask. Quick changes in scale and focus, a zoom lens treatment, emphasized the contradictory juxtapositions.

Break and 16 Millimeter Earrings took place in theaters or proscenium spaces where attention centered on the performer or actress, the audience retaining its traditional position. Subsequently, Monk began to experiment with work designed for specific nontheater sites and a mobile audience. Her intent seems less the encouragement of the kind of audience participation of Happenings, and more the extension of techniques developed in solos expanded to other physical circumstances and environments. For example, in Blueprint, 1967, the audience, seated outside a building, witnessed a frieze of figures moving through its doors and windows. Several “Tours,” including Tour: Dedicated to the Dinosaurs, performed in the halls and rotunda of the Smithsonian, and Tour: 2: Barbershop, presented in three galleries of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, further explored architectural spaces.

These works led to others on a more dramatic scale with greater narrative content, more performers, and larger spaces: Juice: A Theatre Cantata, 1969; Needle-brain Lloyd and the Systems Kid, 1970; and Vessel, 1971 (discussed in detail by Mark Berger). Despite their large scope and scale, and their demands upon Monk as scenographer and producer, these works exhibited concerns that have consistently characterized her work.

Likewise, Monk’s theater since 1971 should not be considered a departure from her earlier interests and techniques. Reduced in scale—she has been doing solos or pieces with only a few performers—the variety of her means and the nature of her juxtapositions remain. They constitute an intensification and crystallization of elements in larger pieces. Apparently, reexamining her esthetic as a performer and actress (the solo being the purist form of expression) enables her to essentialize. Without being less metaphoric, the simpler structure condenses and amplifies the experience. Ambiguity is minimized.

Key, a record Monk did in 1971, reveals the extent to which she analyzes the various mediums incorporated in her work, in this case, singing. A variety of nonverbal expressions—nasal wails, ululations, moans, quivers, monkey-laughs for example—impress one with the range, flexibility, intensity, and color of her voice. They sound like chants organized in hypnotic patterns and induce a flow of fantastic associations. At one point, between the songs, a man’s sonorous voice describes a dark room decorated with a lush purple velvet sofa and filled with fragrant red roses whose petals slowly fall to the floor, forming a thick soft carpet. His nonnarrative articulation serves as a counterpoint to Monk’s own performance. The juxtaposition of what can be conceived as tangible with what is unknown and dreamlike is enveloping. It underscores what the subtitle of this work, “an album of invisible theatre,” suggests: Monk’s primary concern is with an expansive theatrical experience.

She has explained: “I think of myself primarily as a nonverbal actress—even the songs that I sing come from the various characters that inhabit my psyche.” This conception can be understood in Education of the Girlchild (Part 1); Monk dramatized several stages of a woman’s life. At first, she was seen as an old woman costumed in white muslin with a white wig, seated like a mannequin at the rear of a raised platform. Ambiguous motions, plaintive chants, and enervated movements bring her to life, or, to the agony that is her life in old age. Removing the white wig, Monk depicts a younger woman, her hair bound up in a knot, in the prime of life, but approaching the sadness of additional years. The last image is that of a young, eager girl child. For each image, Monk goes through motions, female if not always domestic, explicative of that particular phase, but not readily identifiable. Similarly, though her phrases may sound like English, they are usually unintelligible. Neither her gestures nor words lend themselves to easy definition, but they succeed, ironically, in representing the activities and passions of a woman’s life.

Our Lady of Late, performed early this year, was more strictly a music concert; it had a sparse formal structure and a unified image. Dressed in simple costume and sitting alone on the stage behind a table with one goblet on it, Monk sang about 20 short pieces varied in terms of composition, melody, color, and speech. They demonstrated the control Monk exerts on her voice, indicative of the discipline, energy, and intelligence that dominate her work.

Angela Westwater