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Flash 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 keep evolving.

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