Duke Performances, Reynolds Industries Theater
Multimedia mama Meredith Monk has been at Duke on a residency for two weeks, and last night presented a show in Reynolds Theater that brought her past into the present. The show repeats tonight—who knows when you might have another opportunity to see and hear the woman so important to the beginnings of a strain of art that we take for granted today. Monk isn’t for everyone, and this work will appear dated in some ways—because it is. You will probably feel more satisfied by if you realize beforehand that it is minimalistic, highly personal and downright peculiar.
Also, not much happens. The first half of the program consists of the solo from Monk’s 1972 Education of the Girlchild. For perspective: Ms. magazine began publication in 1972. Title IX, ensuring equality in sports education for girls, passed in 1972. Women were not admitted as Harvard undergraduates until the following year. So when you watch the slow, constricted life-memory unfold, keeps those things in mind. Monk was 30 when she made this piece, imagining herself an old woman time-travelling, remembering and honoring the stages of her life.
Girlchild is meditative, not active; distant, not passionate. It may frustrate, anger or bore, and it will certainly demand your patient close attention. The movement language is not all that interesting—but the way in which the movements are carried out can be. At the very least, the piece has value has an historical marker. For me, the voice work overrides all other considerations. Even nearing 70, Monk’s voice thrills. Her range extends from unusually deep to high and light, and she makes many instruments sound from her throat and mouth.
The program’s second half, Shards, features sections from two 1971 projects, and three songs from Girlchild, performed by Monk and three other women. There is some dance, but these pieces are primarily musical, with much in common with Philip Glass. Both the electric organ and the voices (sounds, with words or phrases sometimes swimming to the surface) advance and repeat, repeat and advance, almost to the point of making you crazy before they come to a surprisingly well-resolved halt. Again, the voice work is far more compelling (from today’s perspective) than the staging or the movement.
The younger women’s voices and performances are fantastic, and they sound as Monk must have decades ago. Her voice, though, is the essential one, full of wisdom, full of joy. I’m glad I saw the Education of the Girlchild solo again, but the Shards make me happy. Inexplicably, wordlessly happy.
Meredith Monk performs the program again tonight at 8. Visit the Duke Performances website for information and tickets.