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Letter from New York, 11-20: BAMix
Monk ascends; Armitage blends

Armitage Gone! and Burkina Electric's Megumi Eda, Wende K. Blass (guitar), and Leonides D. Arpon in "Itutu," a collaboration between the two companies. Julieta Cervantes photo courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music..

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2009 Philip W. Sandstrom

NEW YORK -- While conjuring up memories and collecting dreams, Ellen Fisher buoyantly circumnavigated the stage, clad in a white peasant dress which made her resemble a busy shepherd or a solitary gleaner. Later, as she skirted the perimeter, Fisher defined the space, revealing its vast emptiness -- an area that would soon be filled with the otherworldly sounds of Meredith Monk's "Songs of Ascension." It was a magical prefix that mesmerized as the audience reverently entered Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater, which now doubled as a sacred hall of music.

The show, seen October 21, opened formally with a procession of performers in softly textured costumes colored in gentle mixes of oranges and reds, walking purposefully down the two aisles of the Harvey. Once they'd alighted on the stage, Fisher herded them into a central grouping of singers and musicians blending "Hey Ho"s with luscious instrumental underpinnings; the melange of sounds made me smile and nod. The combination of the Todd Reynolds String Quartet and the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble, featuring Meredith Monk, was a marriage made in Heaven.

Through combining vocal tones, string instruments, odd percussion devices, and unique wind instruments Monk formed a unique sonic experience. By utilizing a format of group compositions and solo laments, she shared what appeared to me to be glimpses of an ethereal euphonious community as it traversed the hours of a day, or the days of the week. At every moment the drama was entrancing and unforgettable, although the stories were never spoken and the text was unintelligible. Every character touched my soul. I was transported to another level of emotion, and propelled to the next spiritual plane, by the power of the human instrument. It brought an unstoppable grin to my face and tears to my eyes that continues to resonate weeks after the performance. I felt like I was viewing a William Blake scene from "Paradise Lost" and for a moment being able to enter that world and be awash in its brilliance.

"Songs of Ascension" is a collection of many songs, in many parts, both vocal and instrumental, from lonely vocal solos and musical interludes without voice to rounded accompaniment of the vocal by the instrumentals and vice versa. Monk has created a world in which the voice transcends language -- or perhaps I should say where voice transcends text, where the voice, even though containing no text, is the lingua franca.

The choice of the Harvey for this production was curatorial genius. BAM executive producer Joseph Melillo understands what Monk's work is all about. The first Monk work I saw at BAM was "Politics of Quiet," at the now quartered Playhouse Theater, a theater that was originally built for small ensemble music presentations. To imagine this Monk work in the larger Gilman Opera House is to imagine it lost in the venue's vastness. To see, and most importantly hear "Songs of Ascension" in the Harvey was bliss. The evening provided me with an enlightening epiphany: The human voice is indeed the most wondrous of instruments.

The evening culminated in a grand intermixing of a large two-part chorus, which filled the far right and left edges of the heaven-like sky-high balcony, and the core company vocalists with musicians on the Terre Firma of the stage. During these moments of divine co-existence of the voices of the Heaven and the Earth we were engulfed by a most complete eschatological experience.

Armitage blends

Karole Armitage's command performance in the post-show discussion of "Itutu," a collaboration with Burkino Electric seen November 6 at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, was a pleasure to behold; Armitage is one of the most articulate choreographers I have ever heard. Her account of the process, more like her journey, of producing this dance, followed the logic of a clear thinker. By acknowledging the effects of African culture upon American sensibilities and proving the relevance by explaining how the culture of Africa has influenced how Americans see dance, music, and art, Armitage provided a basis for the methodology used in the dance.

Armitage revealed that within the rigor and structure of her style, she was forced for this collaboration to rely upon spontaneous choices inherent in the Burkina Faso style. Some of these choices were dependent upon the varying length of the music, others on the nature of disparate dance forms meeting head to head, Still others by the extremely personal nature of movement of each dancer in Burkino Electric and her own company, Armitage Gone! Dance.

Noting that the creation of "Itutu" followed the thread of experience, Armitage explained how the dancers of Burkina Electric drew their moves and vocabulary from their African tradition of Burkina Faso, while reminding us that her vocabulary is completely dependent upon a ballet foundation. Therein lies the challenge. Her goal in "Itutu" was to marry the two styles or at least achieve peaceful coexistence. As seen November 6, she not only succeeded in that undertaking but also proved remarkably adept at blending the styles of both companies into a third unique entity. Within the dance, by melding, juxtaposing, and separating the two companies' vocabularies and personnel, she successfully created a near-seamless work that held the feeling of a whole. It was a melange of styles that worked.

The dancers, all exquisite, were at ease with each other and within each other's styles. The group work of the integrated companies appeared poised and precise.

This dance proved, once again, that Armitage is able to work with most any musical style while maintaining her own aesthetic. Her unmistakable abrupt athletic and balletic form rides herd over the aural structure. While following the music, in this case Afro-Pop, she makes it her own. The choreography worked because far from sublimating her creation to the incessant beat of the music (credited to Burkino Electric and band member Lukas Ligeti), Armitage forced it to work for her and to show off her vision.

Visual design has always been a strong point in Armitage's work, and this show was no exception. The scenic drops by Philip Taaffe, costumes by Peter Speliopoulos, and gorgeous atmospheric lighting by Clifton Taylor enhanced the production, to the point of turning it into grand opera in the best sense. Through the use of floating transparent imagery and the imaginative use of lighting both on the dancers and on the scenery, we were transported to an ever-deepening world, a magical land of blended cultures, revealed in the dance and music.

There was one dissonant exception to the harmony between the elements: The final act began with a drum platform being rolled on stage like an intrusive block of architecture that did not fit the dance, the set, or the mood. To see Lukas Ligeti perched on this red carpet throne, pounding away on his bright shiny drum set like a kid in a toy store, was disappointing and distracting. Why was this guy even there? We didn't need him; the dance didn't need him.  What were the producers thinking? Unlike the live singer, Mai Lingani, who blended into the choreography seamlessly, the drummer appeared like an ill-conceived after thought. I can only hope that when this dance tours the world the drummer is sequestered to the orchestra pit or better yet, left on the dock.

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