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Dance Review Print

Double Dose of Interdisciplinary Performance at ADF: Meredith Monk and Bill T. Jones

July 10, 2008 - Durham, NC:

I have to admit I had a little nap early on in Meredith Monk’s solo performance that opened the double-bill American Dance Festival concert in Page Auditorium. What can I say? I was bored.

But then she began to sing.

Oh my. Almost anything can be forgiven while Monk’s voice fills the room and vibrates within your chest cavity.

For this rare appearance in the area, Monk, a brilliant pioneer of multidisciplinary performance art, performs the 35-minute solo from her 1972 Education of a Girl Child: an opera. Wearing a white wig and glasses, and a white apron over white blouse and pants, as the audience arrives she sits nearly motionless on a white stool on a raised platform covered with a spill of white cloth flowing over the stage to another white stool. The light is harsh on the old woman. Her movements, when they begin, are excruciatingly slow and codified. Eventually, Monk gets off the platform and goes back in time and over the white cloth path to the stool downstage, removing wig, then glasses and apron, then loosing her long dark hair at the girlchild stage. More or less ongoing and repetitive piano music weaves through the process, which is punctuated by that incredible voice.

Only occasionally and briefly does the movement attain the same beauty and power as the voice, and I kept wishing she would just hold still and sing. I expect the work seemed more significant in 1972. But it suits the larger ADF festival program by standing in contrast to the brand-new work in the interdisciplinary genre by Bill T. Jones that followed.

For this ADF-commissioned world premiere, Jones has reworked his 2005 Another Evening: Serenade into the 45-minute Another Evening: Serenade/The Proposition. Where Monk’s work is spare and restrained, Jones’ work almost short-circuits your brain with excessive information. It’s got live music, live spoken and sung text, recorded text, and shifting photographic images filling the backdrop. It’s got half a dozen white columns on stage, and striking black and white costumes on the 11 dancers, and an arsenal of lighting effects. The stage side curtains are removed to reveal the lighting equipment and to make doubly sure that we “read” this as performance, not a window on any reality. But the performance breaks through the proscenium and spills to the floor, where the musicians play, and over to lecture podiums on either side of the stage, which reinforces that this is a serious work about history — 19th century America; Abraham Lincoln, the war, and something about Richmond. Much use is made of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its bizarre word-pictures.

The flow of verbiage is overwhelming and mystifying. I did not derive any new understanding from it. What does this scrap of, say, a speech by Lincoln, have to do with Bill T.’s fragmentary memory of arriving in Richmond as a young child, with his family? And what are the long lists of place names in aid of? All this talking interrupted the movement, made it hard to revel in the dancing when in came. Since the Bill T. Jones dancers are some of the most beautiful and exciting in the world, as are the dances that Jones’ choreographs, this was a little aggravating.

Both the works on the program, however frustrating, linger in the memory. Artistic experiments working toward the total work of art are always interesting. These are, perhaps, more interesting to think about than they are to experience.

Note: This program continues on July 11th and 12th. See our calendar for details.