During the mid- 1990’s I served as Dance Editor for Showbusiness and wrote weekly dance reviews and reported on the dance scene in New York City
REPRINTED FROM SHOWBUSINESS - DANCE REVIEWS -SPRING SEASON 1991
By Stanley Siegel
May 15, 1991
Meredith Monk places all of humanity on the tip of an iceberg in her new performance piece, Facing North. In a compelling synthesis of gestures, movements, and sound phrases, Monk and collaborator Robert Een transform the chapel of St. Mark’s Church into an arctic anthropological site in which they explore the rituals of ordinary life.
A custodian of multimedia theatre, Monk has been creating startling narratives with minimal amounts of movement, sound and stage design since the early 1960’s. Dance observer Jack Anderson, once equated Monk’s theatrical events with the ballet spectacles of the 19th-century. Romantic choreographers composed dances with complex steps, whereas Monk’s offerings seem austere; both styles combine richly varied movement, mime, and fully developed character roles to convey the dance’s narratives. Like her predecessors, Monk sought a new aesthetic form to express a varied range of human dilemmas. Although seemingly vague, intuitive, and highly personal, her mixed media events are similar in musical structure and formal composition to the ballets of the last century.
In Facing North, Monk and Een perform their epic on a vast white cloth that blankets the sanctuary’s floor like freshly fallen snow. Against the sound of cracking ice, they begin their unconventional tribute to human survival. As archetypal figures, clothed in hideskins and wearing white porcelain-style masks, the duo carefully place miniature human figures onto a white molded mountain slope while echoing each other’s full-throated sounds. The solemnity of their actions and the rhythmic cadence of their deep sighs, amid the bleakness of the frozen landscape, amounts to a primordial image. When Monk and Een remove their masks and labor into the snow as real people, the choreography reminds us that we are each born into our own mysterious wilderness.
For 45 minutes, Monk and Een perform a string of ordinary activities. Whether drinking from bowls, dressing, praying, or playing, Monk fastidiously defines and illuminates each action by stripping away all extraneous movements. She displays these daily rituals with such respect and affection, we experience them as we would a collection of rare artifacts.
As much musician as choreographer, Monk draws on an astonishing range of vocal styles from shrieks to Native American “throat singing” to wordless folk song. In an exquisite duet, Monk and Een construct a melodic song by building on each other’s sound syllables. As they lumber towards the other in what appears to be an ancient wedding ceremony, the music swells into a magnificent gregorian chant sung in perfect fifths, sounding earthly and mystical at once. In an enchanting passage, the couple breaks into a burlesque style song and dance routine. While they playfully exchange gestures, he winks, she winks, collide shoulders, and slide to the ground, their vocalizations progress from simple rhythm yelps to wildly rousing folk song. Monk’s vocabulary of sounds has no literal meaning, and her choreographed movements seem disjointed and quirky, but coupling them with ordinary activities from her character lives, Monk fashions a theatrical language that seems absolutely familiar. Though the characters seem alien at first, we gradually feel intimate with them.
Just as we surrender to the idea that the lives of these primitive arctic survivors are no different than our own, organized by routine and ritual, with no wasted moments and little room for chance, we hear the startling roar of an approaching helicopter. The unexpected has happened. In an instant, Monk thrusts us from the simple beauty of little moments into the age of anxiety. She forces us to worry about what lay ahead for these people for whom we have developed such affection. Suddenly, no one has control, no ritual can master the situation. Monk shatters the trust which she has so carefully seduced us into accepting. We are reduced, both characters and audience, to mere objects in her environment.
As master at creating paradox, Monk confronts us in Facing North with an experience that feels simultaneously familiar and foreign, primitive and contemporary, serene and anxious. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing. Even with its classical structure, characterized by an emphasis on form, simplicity and restrained emotion, Facing North will survive as a rare relic of the avant-garde.