Yvonne Meier: Monkey Do


Watching a piece by Meier is like seeing a bunch of fearfully imaginative kids playing in a sandbox—their improvisatory wildness controlled by structures that are themselves hard to fathom. Some of the “scores” the dancers abide by in Area 51, a collaboration with Aki Sasamoto, are “The squid” and “The sensitive uncle makes mistakes.”

The first time I saw Meier’s work, she gnawed on a board. I was smitten. I also have a memory of getting lost in a maze-like creation of hers at P.S. 1 and the choreographer coming to fetch me where I stood gazing, not unhappily, into darkness. She dreams up interesting relationships between materials and humans—starting one piece with Ishmael Houston-Jones taped to the floor, and having the protagonist of her 1997 Mad Heidi (a nod to her Swiss origins) dive naked into a box of dirt and later spin furiously, dislodging a storm of walnuts from her immense pocket of a skirt.

When we enter the church and throughout the chit-chatting minutes before Area 51 begins, two heaps of large, dark-blue pillows sit on the floor. When Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting turns the setting theatrical, small shifts occur in the piles. Yikes! There’s something furry inside each. Out struggle two simian creatures, homelier than any gorilla. The larger one (male) has a red felt tongue lolling out of his mouth and is determined to mate with the smaller, more sinuous one; she’s not having any. Initially pillows buried furry things, and now a furry thing eats the pillows; Sasamoto and Arturo Vidich drag out an immense fake-fur sack and stuff the cushions into it. Meanwhile the randy ape (Osmany Tellez) grooms himself nervously, pursues the feisty female (Elizabeth Ward), and attempts to climb among the spectators.

New music comes on, and now there’s a third monkey (Sasamoto, I think, but Vidich is soon suited up too). They have a fine time treading on the tidy fur bundle and pushing it around. Tellez gets stripped of his suit and stuffed into the sack along with the pillows. Try to picture this: a huge fur egg with a man’s head sticking out of it being made to career around the church by monkeys (Tellez appears surprised not alarmed). There’s monkey-dancing, a scream from the balcony, and other shenanigans, before Meier switches her focus from fur to plastic.

Two of four black trash bags up on the altar platform start to move, rolling and squirming down the steps. Even though we know they’re powered by dancers (Tellez and Ward), they still look like objects come to life. While the little one, squatting, rocks back and forth, the larger one stretches to its full height. They confer. (Something misfires, I think; when I saw a version of this in a gallery event, Meier gave the bag-people instructions via cell phone. At St. Mark’s. I can barely hear her speaking, and she gets up from her seat in the audience to re-position one of the performers). Eventually, all four cast members are in bags, and, with small knives, cut their way to freedom bit by bit.

There’s a fine spate of demented dancing by Vidich while he’s still half trapped, but eventually Opus 51 peters out in some maneuvers with three white boards. As with almost all improvised pieces, there are inevitable longeurs in this post-apocalyptic playground. But watching these engaging performers respond to Meier’s and Sasamoto’s propositions—smart, witty, and more than a little nutty—about our world is a pretty cool way to spend an evening.

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