New York

Meredith Monk/The House

La Mama Annex

Quarry is the most recent of Meredith Monk/The House’s mixed-media events, revolving around Monk as the quarry mining herself for self-knowledge, and Monk as the quarried prey, a powerless reagent for others’ preoccupations. She plays a child, which was her final transformation in an earlier piece, Education of the GirIchild. The House is Monk’s 10-member performing group, which, in this event, was augmented by 30 additional performers. Together they premiered this 90-minute piece subtitled “an opera in three acts,” blending speech, song, organ, bicycle bells, dance, ritual movement, mime, props, lighting effect, and film, with a sense of the fantastic akin in spirit to that first great choreographer, the Elizabethan Inigo Jones.

The La Mama Annex performance space is about the size and shape of a regulation basketball court, and presented a symmetrical view to the audience ranged around it in two tiers. Each of the space’s four corners was laid with a rug and on each rug were placed different domestic objects: a dining room table and chairs; a writing table and chair; living room chairs and table; a large cloth, a smaller scroll, and a basket of round objects, perhaps small pebbles or grain. Except for that last area, each rug is lit by a floorlamp, whose pool of light offsets the less intimate theater lights. In the center rests a pallet and floorlamp, by these a chair and radio, and on the chair sits a maid, reading a picture magazine. The house lights dim, and when the performing space is lit, Monk is lying in pajamas under the pallet’s quilt. In a high-pitched voice she complains: “I don’t feel well. . . . It’s my eyes . . . What’s the matter? . . . It’s my hands. . . . It’s my skin. . . .” Eventually she falls asleep and Quarry’s action begins.

Though Monk moves in and around the pallet as much as she lies quiescent in it, the entire piece has the fragmentary nature of a dream. It’s like the dream-instruction of some Pacific Island groups, who teach their children to solve problems, encounter allies, defeat enemies, and play—in their dreams. Monk’s arrangements have that spatial prelogic experienced in sleep. Though some scenes are nightmarish (and Monk on her pallet screams and twists in fear), unlike the devilishly skewed logic in Richard Foreman’s Rhoda in Potatoland, Monk’s temporary panic is not a panic of language broken down; it’s the panic of vertigo, for objects and people in space are necessarily separate.

On and among the rugs are enacted pieces of a child’s vision of the world. An Old Testament couple is frightened off by a visitor with camera; adults discuss committees and read letters, sometimes breaking off their concerns to approach Monk and soothe her; three young girls eat dinner and dance disco-style; in a twilight, visitors stroll and bicycle across the set; six dictators kill each other off, and the cast performs calisthenics with military grit. Movement varies: fluid in trained dancer style; an awkward expressiveness, freezing at the height of a gesture to underline its importance; the studied casualness of traditional acting. Much of Quarry’s cohesion is maintained through sound: ambient rustling from the audience, subaudible whispers among performers, bicycle bells, electronic organ tones, speaking voices, canned music, choral chants, and Monk’s amazing voices, whose monotones, quavers, ululations, and sharp yelps rivet the attention. Periods of silence act as ground for the figures of sound, the piece timed like one long musical phrase, ending with a polyrhythmic/polyphonic chant.

A five-minute black-and-white film, projected on the wall behind the sparingly used proscenium stage at the far end of the space, condenses the piece’s examination of scale and perspective. Rocks in a quarry appear to be pebbles until, unexpectedly, people step out from behind them. In the film’s second part, people dressed in white are draped motionlessly on logs floating on black, visually impenetrable water. It slowly becomes apparent that the angles they are floating on violate the laws of perspective; unexplained trickery is happening to make the shot. The relaxed face of one of the floaters drifts onto the screen. Clearly he must be sleeping. The camera pans over his head and the screen fills with inky water until it’s hard to know whether or not the film is still running.

In Monk’s previous work, disjunctions in scale were usually handled either from a monumental or an intimate perspective, but not from both ends at once. For instance, Juice, performed in three parts in 1969, ranged from the use of the entire Guggenheim Museum in part one, down to intimate video images in part three at Monk’s loft on lower Broadway. Large-scale works such as Needle-Brain Lloyd and the Systems Kid, performed at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival in 1970, shared none of the intimacy of Small Scroll and the solo Anthology, both performed at St. Mark’s Church in 1975. Finally, in Quarry, Monk makes both ends meet.

Barbara Baracks