Since 1964, I’ve been among the many astonished by the richness of vision and depth of skill shining from Meredith Monk’s theater pieces, musical compositions, films, and extraordinary singing. She’s one of a select few who begin as completely original artists and retain the integrity of their mission through years of burgeoning accomplishment and growing fame. What better form of thanksgiving than a clutch of interesting choreographers presenting pieces—all but two specially created for Danspace’s celebration of Monk’s 40-year career—set to her music?
The exceptions are probably the most surprising works. On video, Fanny Letourneau and Claire Carver-Dias of Synchro Canada perform their swimming routine from the 2000 Olympics to three Monk compositions. Who knew swimmers could be so wittily and imaginatively elegant in the perfect unison of dolphining bodies and eerily pirouetting legs? A foot becomes a phone when Monk-as-crone in a song from Education of the Girlchild tots up her assets (“I still have my te-le-phone!”). The same song is one of four used by Ann Carlson in her Flesh for AXIS Dance Company, and it turns the six performers momentarily giddy with possessiveness. The collaborative pyramids that Alisa Rasera, Katie Faulkner, Sean McMahon, and Renee Waters form on wheelchairs manned by artistic director Judith Smith and Bonnie Lewkowicz deteriorate into kamikaze competitive zooming, yelling, and an explosive flash. In the work’s most powerful sequence, to Monk’s “Scared Song” from the CD Do You Be, the able-bodied dancers collapse one by one across Smith and Lewkowicz’s laps, to be wheeled across the floor and unceremoniously dumped in a pile, from which they rise to “die” again and again.
There were other surprises. Molissa Fenley’s Piece for Meredith, danced by the choreographer, Ashley Brunning, and Cassie Mey to excerpts from Monk’s recent mercy, is uncommonly warm, and within Fenley’s elastic, muscular style, the women are delicate and attentive to one another. To the “St. Petersburg Waltz” from Volcano Songs, Seán Curran turns himself into a man of the old country whose soft gestures and quick-stepping liveliness are intermittently tinged with apprehension and worse (is that a crazed mocking goose step emerging from fierce stamps?). It’s a surprise to see Dana Reitz there at all after too long an absence from New York stages. Her solo With Meredith in Mind begins in silence, but as she plays the air with her supple, questioning arms in Kathy Kaufmann’s exquisite dark glow of light, music from Our Lady of Late, one of Monk’s earliest compositions, infiltrates Reitz’s gestures and soft treading with the ethereal sounds of a high, sweet voice and a wet finger circling the rim of a wineglass.
Doug Varone’s Desert Tango (to a selection from Monk’s opera Atlas) is echt Varone. Two wan women, Nina Watt and Nancy Bannon, stay close and watchful, as if trying to figure out how they can peaceably fit their bodies into something resembling love. In Bill T. Jones’s Do You Be, a compelling video shot by Janet Wong, Jones becomes the vanishing man—fleetingly stripped naked, dissolving, stepping out of his image like a soul leaving a discarded body. But it’s his very alive voice that addresses Meredith on behalf of us all: “Thank you for the worlds.”
Frozen Mommy is as good a name as any for Tere O’Connor’s new work. Like many of his pieces, it’s mysterious and profoundly—bewitchingly—eccentric. The terrific performers jolt from petrified stillness into action and back with no discernible preparation. That action includes stints of reckless, veering, wheeling dancing (sometimes in meticulous unison); prolonged bouts of, say, screaming; and non sequiturs delivered in offhand tones. The score by O’Connor and James F. Baker is equally given to long silences and gunshot eruptions.
Is it just the title that incites images of childhood? Or is it also the extreme contrasts that shape the dominating—and ultimately predictable—rhythm? They bring to mind a child launching into a prolonged tantrum and suddenly turning off the roars. Some vignettes also hint fleetingly at childhood. Zombie-like, Christopher Williams leads Heather Olson—equally stiff and blank—in a circle; when he’s finished, she holds up a warning hand (don’t come any closer!), and when he touches her, she shoves him away and toddles off. If yelling “Whoooo!” seems like a good idea, everyone picks up on it. The danger of getting stuck in a groove always looms. After Williams has made himself dizzy whipping his head around, Hilary Clark—an entrancingly disheveled, sturdy, big-voiced blonde—mutters something about “those fuckin’ head rolls” and then proceeds to laugh herself crazy.
Natural and unnatural spell each other. Olson feels tall, pale Matthew Rogers’s forehead as if probing for a fever, but her touches become something odder and less identifiable. And not everything is funny. After a passage of vivid, jolting dancing, Erin Gerken topples (later a cap pistol is heard), and Williams takes a while to thrash on the floor, yanking her limp body on top of his own. At the very end, the five stand, frozen to their spots, for what seems an eternity (one spectator starts hopefully to clap). Finally Rogers falls, and as the lights (by Brian MacDevitt) bleach and fade, you can (just) hear him sobbing. Disturbing. Stunning.