The Boston Phoenix
April 29 - May 6, 1999

[Dance Reviews]

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Adventures in postminimalism

Meredith Monk at Sanders, Daniel McCusker at Green Street

by Marcia B. Siegel

Meredith Monk Once the minimalists had made their point back in the '70s, they faced a dilemma. Minimalism's purpose was to shave down performance to its basic dimensions, eliminate thrills and effects, and leave the audience with so little to focus on that it could transcend mere spectatorhood and enter into euphoric strata of perception. But it was clear that walking on a grid to a metronome, squatting in a pool of light, or spinning in one direction for 10 minutes would engage the audience just so long. Yet adding almost anything theatrical, physical, or narrative risked piercing the heart of minimalism itself. Choreographers inexorably want to build from small forms to bigger ones, from stripped-down concepts to complexities. How to do that without betraying the minimalist philosophy became the next decades' project for the faithful. Meredith Monk and Daniel McCusker, who've been pursuing that riddle since the '70s, offered different solutions here last week.

Meredith Monk proved her absolute mastery of postminimalism in the one-hour A Celebration Service, which was presented at Sanders Theatre by World Music. Without fanciness or exposition, she orchestrated an excursion for the mind, the eyes and ears, and, yes, the soul. I left feeling neither solemn nor exalted, but satisfied in ways I hadn't known I wanted to be.

Unclassifiable, Monk has invented a whole series of terms for the kind of performance she does, but it's not only the labels that change. The formats do too. Beginning as a dancer-choreographer, she discarded virtuosity and incorporated singing and talking into her earliest works. She concocted huge site-specific pieces and films with personal, small-scale materials. She did concerts and cabarets and recordings. In some ways, her finest achievement is the ensemble of singer-dancer-actors that she's gathered over the years. Most of the current group have worked with Monk since the 1991 opera Atlas. She has cultivated their skills, and their individual talents are intrinsic to each new work.

You could say A Celebration Service is a recital of song, dance, and words. But the minute you try to imagine that scenario, the boundaries break down. The whole space is choreographed. The 12 dancers and two narrators do plant themselves on two feet and address the audience directly. But when they sing, they gesture; when they recite a poem or a prayer, they may shift positions; they dance sitting down and they sing while dancing. What they perform is inspirational but not sentimental or didactic. How they perform is sometimes contemplative, sometimes joyous, but never preachy. Or, as Pablo Vela says in a Buddhist text about ordinary miracles, "Drop concepts now!"

To give the audience a part to play, Monk supplied a program containing not only the order of service but the spoken texts to ponder again at home, and the music to two of the wordless songs. We actually got a chance to sing one of these, "Quarry Weave #2," as a four-part round. Music is at the center of any Monk performance, and for two of the songs, the company moved out into the audience on the lower floor of the theater. Singing in this way exposes each individual voice but also wraps the audience with sound, bonds performers and listeners closer as a community.

The idea of the individual's unique contribution to a total effect pervaded the piece. Lining up on the stage to chant a rocking syllable ("Fields/Clouds"), the performers bounced and swayed, each in his or her own way. In a "Celebration Dance," they started shuffling and stooped over, twanging a rhythm on jaw harps. Although the general idea of the dance was the same, each person had his or her own variations. The dance then opened up to a whole series of rhythms and patterns and goofy poses, with a recurring sort of square dance in the middle. Later on, six women and two men, soprano Randall Wong and tenor Theo Bleckmann singing in falsetto, reprised the "Quarry" chant we'd learned. Sitting cross-legged in a circle, they reworked that eight-measure line into a whole series of new timbres and successions.

Monk's music draws from world singing styles but doesn't try to imitate them authentically. Often its mainstay is the ostinato, a short phrase that repeats throughout and anchors a melody or a set of elaborate vocalizations. A piece can start as a song but evolve into a conversation, a chorus, even a visualization. In "Other Worlds Revealed," from the 1991 opera Atlas, the singers lined up and passed one sound along: "Shhhinnngggshhhiiinnnnggg." Before one person's note died away, it would be replenished. The space resonated, like bells echoing across cold mountain valleys.

Monk distributed the parts of the performance all over Sanders, which is a spiritual space anyway, with its warm wood and high vaulted ceiling. Standing in one of the upper balconies, Dina Emerson began with a wordless chant. Emerald Trinket Monsod spoke a prayer by the 12th-century abbess Hildegard von Bingen from the top of the room, looking a little like one of the hortatory statues that flank the stage below. Carlos Arévalo and Stephen Kalm with a big bass drum led a boisterous procession through the aisles. Joining the parade were about 10 Boston-area modern dancers recruited for the occasion, swooping and flourishing with their own march variations.

The piece ended on the stage with a communal circle chant, a rhythmic stepping from side to side and everyone lending his or her own clapping, calling rhythmic overlay to the texture. No one stepped into the center to attract attention; everyone in the troupe had gained a distinct identity by that time anyway.

Daniel McCusker, who danced for seven years with one of minimalism's purists, Lucinda Childs, pursues more conventional dancing and dance structures, but he's also grappling with the paradox of doing more while staying minimal. His program at Green Street Studios continues this weekend in alternation with one by choreographer Ruth Birnberg.

McCusker's concert included three group dances that shared the idea of working a limited amount of movement material. As phrases recur in the course of the dance, they accumulate an expressive range, almost by accident. The phrase shapes themselves hardly vary; over time they acquire the status of signs. Familiar actions become elastic as they emerge on different combinations of dancers, connect in a different order. One woman impatiently jabs and pokes at herself; later, other people swarm around her and the same gestures push them out of the way.

Now and Again, which had its premiere earlier this year in the Dance Umbrella's crowded "Boston Moves" concert, looked more personal and almost dramatic in the studio space. The seven women appeared first in assorted pairs. They subtly shifted from doing the same movement in unison to doing it in canons, and then to patterns in counterpoint that resolved back into comfortable unity. Movement material got added but the dance structure remained a process of redeploying and rematching the dancers so that the choreography always looked different. When several women were on at one time, they might have been doing three or four different phrases, but they would suddenly synch together rhythmically or pause and begin again.

The reticent music for this piece was a sequence of notes, for strings and possibly a clarinet, possibly a synthesizer, by Richard Munson. With a fast, steady-state underpinning, the short phrases repeated, shifting gradually to make new rhythms and melodic combinations. Influenced by Steve Reich, this music had that hypnotically fascinating ability to keep changing into new things that characterized the best of minimalism, and McCusker's dance worked the same way.

I thought Changed Not Lost (1997), which ended the program, had a similar intent, but by then the important entrances, the self-directed gestures, the partner work where accidental conjunctions became intimate encounters, all seemed less compelling than they had in the first piece. Holly Ratafia's eccentric, misterioso lighting played up the meaninglessness and hid the meaning.

With a new work, Accommodations, called "an ongoing project," McCusker seemed to be looking for new but still modest alternatives. A nonsequential collection of blackout sketches, the piece featured Brian Crabtree's kooky pantomime, a sack of oranges, various game structures that are used to generate choreography and movement, and fragments that might have been retained from a yoga class. A trio did a tiny sitting dance and fell to their sides. Blackout. McCusker and Crabtree did a suggestive duet over a cup and saucer. Blackout. Four couples on the floor exchanged poses as if they were giving one another some kind of therapy. Blackout.

There was a strange score, credited as: "Georges Delerue (with alterations), written for the films of François Truffaut." Some of it sounded like Bach in two competing keys, badly recorded.

Late in the piece, some of the bits recurred or took up where earlier ones had left off. At the end all nine dancers lined up and passed an orange from one to the other with do-your-own variations. I felt I was reliving some improv class from long ago.

One good minimalist idea that never failed for me was to show the same thing twice in the same program. It's such a simple way to demonstrate that everything changes so we'd better look closely all the time. McCusker's Three-Minute Solo (1998) was performed first by 14-year-old student Laura Pilitsis and later in the program by McCusker himself. It was quite touching to see this choreographic miniature in its first delicate tracery, and later as a fully matured art object. Both dancers gave it as much as they had, no more, no less.

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