Lessons in ex­per­i­ment

Works by Mered­ith Monk & Si­mone Forti

Pasatiempo - - News -

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

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