Lessons in experiment
Works by Meredith Monk & Simone Forti
For roughly 50 years, performing artist and director Meredith Monk has straddled the worlds of dance, music, theater, and performance art. Her work has been called “landscapes of sound.” She uses the human voice as an instrument — her performers yelp and growl, hum and yodel. For students at the New Mexico School for the Arts, learning an excerpt from a piece by this preeminent artist meant moving into uncharted territory: dancing with their voices. “Now they’re using their whole bodies,” said Adam McKinney, chair of the school’s dance department. “It’s beautiful to see the power.” The Monk piece appears as part of the school’s Winter Dances at the James A. Little Theater this weekend and in Albuquerque at the Hiland Theater next weekend. Rally, an excerpt from a full-length work by Monk called Quarry was set on the students by Paul Langland, who first worked with Monk in 1974. Langland, an associate professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and part-time Santa Fe resident, approached McKinney with the idea of introducing students to some of the dance pieces, along with performance concepts from the ’ 60s and ’ 70s. Langland’s curriculum with the young performers included working with them on Monk’s techniques, exposing them to contact improvisation and the work of choreographers aligned with New York’s Judson Dance Theater, and having them experience pedestrian and task-based dance vocabulary. “It’s good to understand unencumbered movement,” he said.
Quarry premiered in 1976, featuring 40 performers, and was presented at La MaMa Annex, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Venice Biennale, the Kennedy Center, and the Spoleto Festival. It won that year’s Obie, an award for off-Broadway excellence. “You attempt to refresh people’s perceptual awareness,” Langland said. “You create work where you don’t know where you’re going as a performer. Quarry is operalike in its complexity. The songs have no words, the characters don’t have lines, but poetry and the narrative are circular. When Quarry came out, no one had ever melded dancing with singing in this way. It was the same year as Einstein on the Beach [Philip Glass’ opera, originally directed by Robert Wilson]. Meredith was more organic and mythological. Wilson was high-tech. Cerebral.”
Monk owns a retreat in the Jemez Mountains, and she stopped by the school on her way there in October to watch a run-through. “She was really small, and she had an amazing amount of energy. We could feel ourselves feeding off her,” said Madrone Matysiak, one of the 24 dancers in the piece. “We did see videos, but Paul wanted us to come to it together. It can’t be set in stone. First we learned the vocal parts, then he taught us the movement. I think the dance hints at World War II, at the struggles families had to go through. It’s sorrowful, but there is also a peacefulness. At the end we’re all lying onstage, but we’re not dead. We’re waiting for something. I think the piece has an ‘everything will be OK’ message underneath.”
“The thing that is really great about working with high-school students is that they are capable of incredibly sophisticated work, but where it comes from, they’re not always sure,” Langland said. “They’re so young. Their bodies have the ability to do really advanced work, but they’re not yet conscious of what power they hold. Seasoned performers have a way of reliably accessing inner presence and focus. When these kids find that, they’re amazing. Sometimes you have to explain it to them.”
Langland also taught the students Simone Forti’s 1961 piece Huddle. He had performed with Forti, a key figure of experimental dance. Early on, Forti found improvisation and animal-based movements much more intriguing than the techniques of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham, with whom she was studying in New York. She is known for her 1974 book, Handbook in Motion; for collaborating with Yoko Ono; and for teaching improv workshops to generations of dancers.
Huddle takes place in the lobby during intermission. “It’s a simple structure. Bodies climbing over each other one at a time,” Langland said. A 2010 review in The New York Times describes the piece as a cooperative rugby scrum. “It’s slow, simple yet intricate. …You have time to think about how fragile this whole human situation is, how sometimes you just have to withstand burdens and trust others to be careful with you.”
The NMSA students had the opportunity to work with the co-artistic directors and dancers of BodyTraffic, a contemporary ballet company based in Los Angeles. In fact, the directors set a new piece, A Trick of the Light, on the Santa Fe dancers before it had premiered with their own company. BodyTraffic was in Santa Fe in November for an engagement at the Lensic Performing Arts Center and spent several days with the students between their own rehearsals. A Trick of the Light was commissioned by the company from Joshua L. Peugh, originally from Las Cruces. Peugh was chosen as one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” for this year. “It’s 1950s-inspired,” McKinney said. “The music is like pop music — comedic.” “C’est Magnifique,” “I’d Like You for Christmas,” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” are some of the songs that make up the score. “It’s happy and uplifting,” Matysiak said. “I’m a pretty serious person, but this piece is not so serious. It’s fun to dance. It’s nice to have a break from the dark.”
NMSA’s dance students all study ballet as well as modern dance. Also on the bill is Not Another Nutcracker — McKinney described it as “not a Christmas piece” — which uses music by Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky. “It’s about two young adults going in and out of a dreamscape.” The concept was provided by members of the dance faculty and features work by a number of choreographers, including McKinney. Clash rounds out the program. It’s a five-minute work by McKinney for his advanced students — “a big, full-out dance with lots of lifts and turns. It’s a hard piece. They might need oxygen.”
Meredith Monk; top, Monk in Quarry, 1976
Simone Forti performs in Los Angeles; right, a recent performance of Forti’s 1961 Huddle