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Flash Review 1, 7-24: Ambiguous "Mercy" is No Mercy at All
Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton's useless beauty at ADF

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods

Becker: We were supposed to save the world.
Interviewer: What happened?
Becker: Nothing happened. We just got into more interesting material.

-- Marshall Brickman, "Simon"

DURHAM -- "Mercy," Meredith Monk and Ann Hamilton's new collaboration, may indeed be about the famous televised killing last September of twelve-year-old Mohammed Jamal Aldura, a Palestinian child shot by Israeli soldiers in Netzarim. It may also be about the larger limits of human compassion and fellow-feeling in this, the age of the disconnect.

But then, a work as amorphous and disappointingly vague as "Mercy" could just as easily be about nearly anything. The advance press on this collaboration promised an examination of the degree to which the quality of mercy has been not only strained but repeatedly breached in an era of realpolitik. Such a work of courage and conscience would be useful in our time. Judging by its premiere last week at the American Dance Festival, "Mercy" clearly isn't it.

In reality, this multi-media performance piece presented a collection of musical moments and images, carefully crafted but fundamentally incoherent. The July 15 issue of the New York Times reported that its co-creators differed to some degree on its focus. While Monk was said to have favored a clear representation of present-day acts, Hamilton was concerned that the work might lose an element of universality if the characters and situations in "Mercy" were historically identifiable.

Apparently Hamilton won that argument: The characters in this work are rarely identifiable as historical figures, archetypes or almost anything else. As a result, "Mercy" remains universal in the worst possible way: at this point it's impossible to tell what the work is about. Given the subject matter on which it was based, "Mercy" ultimately seems disingenuous and evasive, if not downright narcissistic.

The closest this work ever comes to fulfilling the promise of its premise comes in sequences that foreground the video technology with which the work is more than momentarily obsessed. A very small video camera broadcasts real-time footage from a number of unlikely locations. It's placed on the head of a pencil as it writes. Even more improbably, it's placed in the mouths of singers, looking out at other performers -- when teeth and lips aren't closed about it. It traces the contours of an illustration on a light table.

But the pencil traces the words far too fast for an audience to read; the camera is placed too close to the illustrated image to ever give more than momentary details. The performance plays on this, as those on stage ask a series of questions about the image that the audience cannot answer. Later, footage of a printed page lingers briefly on individual words before jumping from place to place, reducing text to a blackened blur. We have the technology to apprehend and broadcast staggering amounts of information, but the ones who possess it don't always use it to give the full picture.

Similarly, the visual images evoked by performers on stage give fragmentary data at best. Two women sit at a table. A group of people suddenly appears at the side doors of Page Auditorium, and slowly makes its way onstage. Their dress suggests a clutch of emigres, looking for sanctuary. A man sings to a woman seated away from us. Twin weighted threads descend from the ceiling. Minutes later, they're revealed to be stage-sized bubble-makers; when the artists sing into them, the force of their breath creates giant iridescent sinewaved forms that lift from the frame and then fall back onto it.

Yes, they're all lovely images, and all carefully crafted. But the distance between these dots makes any connection between them tenuous at best. And since the performers rarely move -- aside from walking from one portion of the stage to another -- the connection between this work and modern dance may just be the most hypothetical one of all.

In our modern-day Omelas, Hamilton and Monk's response to injustice fails its subject matter by imposing thick layers of aesthetically-crafted abstraction and opacity on top of it.

They needn't have bothered: the world does this too much already. That's the problem. That trait, which this work unintentionally mimics, is ironically one of the elements in our time that most arguably limits the quality of mercy.

By all accounts, this collaboration started with the noblest of intentions. But unfortunately for its co-creators, its audience and the world, Hamilton and Monk ultimately got into more interesting material.

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