Impermanence in action

Conceived, directed and composed by Meredith Monk
Brooklyn Academy of Music
November 4, 2006

by Tom Phillips
copyright 2006 by Tom Phillips

Impermanence is a fundamental concept of Buddhism, and it is an empirical concept, not derived from any philosophical inquiry but from experience itself. Meredith Monk, a practitioner of Buddhist meditation, experienced it with the death of her long-time partner in 2003, and after that in workshops she led with hospice patients in Britain. “Impermanence” is an artistic response to their suffering and her own, but with minimal sentimentality or self-pity. 

Monk has always been a madcap artist, and she retains her zany touch as a dancer even in the face of tragedy.  Past sixty, she still balls up her fists and shadow-boxes like a fidgety boy, fending off an invisible foe. Her company members writhe and twitch and mug in comic spasms. But the real depth of this show is in the sound.  Monk does not even bill herself as a choreographer any more; her heart is plainly in her music, her own unique genre that began with using the voice as an instrument, expanded now so that she also uses instruments as voices. “Impermanence” has dance elements, but all the performers are musicians, and the show is dominated by sound, played off against gesture and a rear-screen video. 

Before it begins, we hear the recorded voices of some of the hospice patients, singing or humming a simple melody composed by Monk’s late partner. A video screen projects a series of faces, fading from one to the next, many with fleeting, enigmatic smiles. Monk enters and sits at the piano, calmly sounding a minimal, repeated series of dissonant chords, and singing a song with fragments for lyrics — last chance, last dance, last rose of summer — mixed with her signature vocalizations, full-throated sounds of elemental life. She shrieks, groans, gasps, pings, pants, giggles, gargles, ululates and utters unclassifiable noises, in an astonishing range that comes straight from the center of her being. 

The first half of the show is episodic, each of the nine performers (including three instrumentalists) getting a chance to express their individuality. The second half draws them inward, into a more solemn ensemble. The video changes subtly, focusing on more faces but then zooming into extreme close-ups of eyes. Eight performers now cluster around the piano, playing a polytonal piece for nine or ten hands.

Later they sit on the floor, keening a wordless chorus as they watch a ghostly slide show — a montage of old, black-and-white snapshots. We see a black civil war soldier, a dapper businessman, a 1940s glamour girl, a poor child — each caught in some past karma, non-existent today. Accompanying the chorus is a deep, soulful bass clarinet. Photographs like these — so expressive of lost moments in real life — seem the perfect expression of impermanence, the illusion of fixed entities.

In the last scene, Monk and soprano Katie Geissinger face off in a vocal duet, staring into each other’s eyes as Theo Bleckmann zips on and off stage on roller blades, and other performers roll slowly across the floor and off.  Geissinger walks away and joins them on the floor, leaving Monk to sing into empty space.  Finally, Monk lies down and rolls off too, lifting an arm again and again like a drowning swimmer. 

Does this sound depressing? If so, I have failed to convey the liveliness with which Monk and her highly talented friends address the phenomenon of death. Dancer-singer Ching Gonzalez knows how to be all over the place without losing his center; and the three-piece band of percussion, reeds and an occasional violin offer a plangent polytonality that is just right for the ultimately un-resolvable subject matter. 

We also can’t forget the complex, shifting lighting design by Noele Stollmack, and the subtly brilliant costumes, by Yoshio Yabara. In part one, the performers seem to be wearing their own clothes, and after the break they come back in copies of the same, in ashen gray. 

“Impermanence” is probably not Meredith Monk’s greatest work. The first part includes a bit of domestic reminiscing that borders on the sappy. And some of the minimalist lyrics seem not worth repeating a hundred times, as they are.  But as an artistic response to the ultimate facts of life, it earned its standing ovation.

Photos, all by Stephanie Berger, from top:
Kate Geissinger, Meredith Monk, Ellen Fisher
Kate Geissinger, Meredith Monk, Ching Gonzalez, Theo Bleckman, Ellen Fisher
Meredith Monk, Ellen Fisher

Volume 4, No. 39
November 6, 2006

copyright ©2006 Tom Phillips



©2006 DanceView