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Review, 7-9: Monk in the Hospice
Singing and Dancing Impermanence
By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2004 Josephine Leask
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LONDON -- As part of
the Rosetta: Live festival, Meredith Monk, all too rarely seen in
Europe, recently presented a selection of old works together with
a new work-in-progress, "The Impermanence Project," at the Riverside
Studios. The festival was organized by the British society Rosetta
Life, which sends professional artists into hospices to work with
people who have life-threatening illnesses. This was Rosetta Life's
first national festival of the arts and palliative care, designed
to celebrate the collective voice of hospice users in Britain. Monk,
invited to lead some workshops with a small group from a hospice,
told me the participants were immensely inspiring people because
of their unbridled creativity and courage. They exchanged stories,
songs, and anecdotes, amazing her with how much time they spent
laughing. They also inspired and generated new material for the
piece her company performed here.
Upon returning to New
York to rehearse with her company on "The Impermanence Project,"
Monk found a piece of music which had been composed by her late
partner. She reworked an extract of the music into a short melody
and sent it to London, where the group of hospice users learned
it. During a subsequent visit to London, she separately recorded
each member of the group singing this special phrase and filmed
them; it is their voices that we hear at the beginning of the piece,
their visages that we see on video. While the performance features
Monk and her professional vocal ensemble, the presence of the hospice
users is felt very strongly throughout the work.The glimpses of
their very different faces and sound of their distinct voices are
both moving and celebratory. Some of them had already passed away
before the premiere, and it was a fitting way to commemorate them.
Monk's stage presence
is vital and dynamic; she seems physically unchanged from the images
which I had seen of her performing in the '60s and '70s, a distinctive
looking woman with long pleated hair. She conveys a mixture of incredible
intensity and humor and her use of the voice is almost unbelievable.
She seems to talk in tongues and at times performs her own duets
simply by using her phenomenal vocal range to juxtapose resonances,
for example clicking with her tongue while humming at the same time.
Many years of experimenting and inventing has resulted in this orchestra
of voices within one body and confirms Monk's doctrine that she
uses the voice "as an instrument." Her body is also part of this
instrument and movement accompanies the voice as organically as
the sounds are created. Although Monk is a powerful solo artist,
her company is an impressive group of individuals as well, all of
them multi-skilled performers -- movers, singers, and musicians.
They perform together with Monk like her family and while each group
member has a particular style, they all share with their director
an unassuming honesty and generosity.
"The Impermanence Project"
is an abstract work without a narrative and contains voice and music
all the way through. Movement is limited mainly to simple gesture,
although there is a significant dance section within it which Monk
calls "Particular Dance." The work explores all angles of the state
of impermanence that we as humans live with, from the last things
that we do before we die, to regrets, to what we leave behind, to
our fears and our celebrations of life. It resonates with the dying
and the living. The combination of voice, instrument and movement
taps into our memory banks, recalls our personal pasts and nudges
us into wondering what we too will leave behind us.
The gestural movement
in the performance is intrinsic to the music and at times looks
very striking, as when a seated man and woman perform mundane fidgets
and pedestrian actions such as pulling sleeves down or straightening
a skirt, the movements slowly changing to more surreal gesture until
the performers seem to float on top of their chairs as they balance
precariously, shifting weight in slow motion. Supernatural sensations
are also triggered by the haunting, sometimes distressing but always
quirkily harmonious voice work. In other sections Monk creates whole
stories around a basic embrace or stumble. In the "Particular Dance"
section, the performers take turns doing an idiosyncratic improvisation,
freeing their inhibitions as they dance out exactly how they feel
at that particular moment. This section seems to me like a mini-workshop,
chaotic, awkward and clownish compared to the rest of the piece,
which is tightly devised and seamlessly performed, and while it
is my least favorite section it provides some light relief from
the intensity of the work as a whole.
In a recent telephone
conversation, Monk likened "The Impermanence Project' to a crystal
rotating in her hand with each face depicting another aspect of
'impermanence,' and said she hopes that it will resonate with each
person who sees the piece. The project is a textured work which
profoundly evokes memories and sensations, and one which will certainly
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