Meredith Monk

The multifaceted artist performs three stages of life.

Photograph: Jesse Frohman

Meredith Monk, the last artist to be produced by Dance Theater Workshop before it becomes New York Live Arts, has created—in her inimitable way—a performance experience. (She was also, remember, the last performer to grace Merce Cunningham's memorial.) In Education of the Girlchild Revisited, Monk looks back at a seminal 1972 work, in which she performed a solo that documented the life cycle in reverse; she starts out old and ends young. Joined by Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin, Monk also presents Shards, a new piece weaving together music and movement created between 1969 and 1973. She spoke at her Tribeca loft.

Why did you want to bring Education of the Girlchild back?
Actually it started in 2008. Charlie Reinhart was doing an anniversary at the American Dance Festival, and they asked me to do something for that, and because I have a soft spot in my heart for Charlie from the old days, I said yes. I woke up in the middle of the night, and I just thought, You know, maybe I should do the Girlchild solo. I feel like it's taken about two years to get to the point where I have total freedom. It's very much channeling these characters. I've been working more, in these last years, in a kind of purity of being, and then, if there are characters, they come out of that, but Girlchild is really like an acting piece. I'm dealing with three personas, or three aspects of this one person's life, and so it's just more intense in its transformative aspects. It has been so profound to work on it.

Because you're revisiting your mind at that time?
Revisiting particular concerns. Revisiting a certain level of intensity that's sustained. It's 35 minutes. I think the gestural aspect of it and the way it fits with the voice—those two things simultaneously. My work now is meditative, too, but this is really like—it's what Lanny [Harrison] says in [Babeth M. VanLoo's film] Inner Voice. She says, "This is like dharma practice," even though I wasn't even a Buddhist at that time. But the thing of sitting for 20 minutes when the audience comes in—I do remember sitting there. It's like I made up what became a meditation practice for me. Sitting there and actually just being completely aware of my breath and not freezing in the stillness—I have to still keep it alive and be very centered. In the old days, when we did it at Common Ground, the solo was the second half of the piece, and I remember they would put me up on the platform and as I was sitting there, people were just walking into the performance space, because it was a loft kind of situation. Someone right next to me would be saying, "Well, what did you think about that first half?" It was really funny. Staying centered with that and keeping the integrity of the human's just a little bit more extreme, and it's been wonderful to get in contact with that and to get open enough and on-the-dot enough—focused enough that within those characters I actually have freedom. I performed at Bryn Mawr, and I felt like I'd worked on the form and worked on the form for three years, and now the form is so much a part of me. I feel this freedom that I remember as a young performer with material.

Will you sit while the audience comes in this performance?
Yeah. That's part of the piece.

What concerns are you revisiting?
I was reading a lot of biography at that time, and I was thinking, How do you do biography or portraiture in an abstract theater form? I had read Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, and that was really inspiring. I was going to have three different solos. I can't remember what the other two were going to be, but then after I'd done this solo, I felt that that idea had fulfilled itself. I felt much more strongly inclined to make a group work with my group at the time.

How is Girlchild a meditation about youth and age?
I don't know why I was thinking about age at 29, but I saw a beautiful picture in a magazine. It's so great. [She disappears and returns with black-and-white magazine photos of a old man.] One inspiration was this potter. I was thinking about when you're old, there's no gender. Male and female are almost the same. The other thing I was struck by with this man was his joy. I thought it was very inspiring to think of life that way. And then, as I worked on the piece, I started really thinking about my grandmother on my father's side. She was Polish and was gardening, I think, until the day she died. [Laughs] She was also really strong. I didn't have so much time with her, but there was just something about that spirit. And here's a funny thing: I come from an Eastern European Jewish background, but we were not practicing at all. When I was singing, I was rocking and someone said, "That's just like davening." And I said, "What is davening?" Isn't it interesting that you might not consciously know about these things, but somehow they come out through your blood and your breathing? So that these roots of all of us as human beings—that we may not even be aware of—are there in our bodies, our voices, our breathing. That's what happened with the solo. How at that age could I actually get into my body that postural thing of an older person? Now, it's quite hard for me. I'm closer to that character in age, but to get that in my body... Each time I've performed the piece in the last three years, I find a different challenge with a different character. With the young woman, I have to remember that softness and that openness and to think of my body as really fluid and to think of my voice as really light.

What about the middle character?
I think of her almost as a farm woman—very straightforward and honest and right to business. The gestures are clear and articulated. I love that character, actually. I love all three of them. But they are one person. I think of them more as persona than character because character always implies psychological acting, and I think I'm doing much more. I'm pulling everything down to essence—I'm not trying to think about what kind of toothpaste the person used. I'm going to the essence of those three stages of life. It's a distillation. It's not realism in any way, and even though gestures are kind of based on real gestures, they're abstracted. The other thing I was working for was that you can have these three stages of life and maybe you see the same gestures, but by repeating those gestures you see how change has occurred. Also vocally, as well.

Did you invite members of the original group to watch the solo as you relearned it?
Lanny Harrison watched it. I think her basic thing was just telling me to really relax into it. And to not be worried. When you start worrying about form, then you're not in the moment. It's good to start out that rigorous; then, at a certain point, you just have to let go. But by being that rigorous in the first place, the body and the voice are free. There have been different performances of it over the years. The first time I [revived] it, I was watching all of [the versions] on video, and I got kind of confused. The second year I started working on it, I decided to just go to that 1973 videotape. That's it. Period. It's better to stay with one, and that's my prototype. That was another step along the way.

How much had it changed over the years?
I did the solo in 1972 in my loft at 597 Broadway. People always talk about that because I was up on this little platform and that loft had huge windows. I had blue light, and people could see my back from the street. From '72 to '73, I had tightened the form. I think by '73, it had really bloomed into the form that it was going to be.

How was this a critical time for you?
I don't know if it was critical, but it was a rich time. I had just finished Vessel—a huge production. Usually after doing really big pieces, my impulse is to go back to a solo, so that's what I did. Then I had the idea of having a group part of it. Strangely enough, you could almost think of Girlchild as paring down, not only the solo, but the group piece too, because productionwise it was a more workable group than 100 people. It was very affirming of the exploration that had gone on before, in Juice and Vessel. After that came Quarry, so that was going back to the larger form. But Girlchild was, in a way, intimate, because it was just 12 people. That was important.

Is it strange not to perform it with the group section, which you added in 1973?
Yes, it is. It's sad. On a lot of levels. We've lost three people. Sad, too, because now it's very hard to do even that piece with those production values. You have to be kind of scrappy these days. And you have to be really imaginative, like, Okay—I can do another form with this, and [that became] Shards. I love the piece. In the old days, Lamson's five-and-ten was my big inspiration for everything. What can I do with a Slinky? What can I do with crepe paper? As artists, I think that one of the good qualities we have is that we're imaginative. We're resourceful. We like challenges.

What were your ideas?
The question with Shards was: How theatrical will it be and how not theatrical will it be? I didn't want to just do a music concert. That didn't seem right to do with Girlchild. One prototype for this dates to '72, when I went to the Nancy Festival [in France]—you really can't do a 35-minute solo as a whole presentation, and so I did a second half that was called "Raw Recital," and it was my solos. Ping [Chong] was on that tour and he did movement and I still kept my face white. I had a Victorian dress on, so it was a little bit theatrical, but more recital form. Usually I go into a rehearsal with questions. If you have the question, you usually have the piece, I think. You have the key to how to work on a piece. With my big commission for St. Louis Symphony, two years ahead of time they asked, "What do you want?" I was like, "Well, a chorus, two soloists and a chamber orchestra." But I didn't have any piece or anything! And then when I started working on it, I was like, what was I thinking? And so I sat down at the piano and thought, Well, the question of this piece is how do you make it so that the chorus is sometimes like the orchestra and the orchestra is sometimes like the chorus and the soloists are sometimes like instrumentalists, the in instrumental soloists in the orchestra are sometimes like vocal soloists. It's called Weave.

What about with Shards?
I went in with questions like: If we almost think of it as a music-concert format, how theatrical can we get? How much can we add and yet not try to make it be an imitation of Education of the Girlchild? That's the thing that I'm thinking about it. I was like, We're not trying to do the poor woman's version of Education of the Girlchild. How do we actually make a totally different form, but use some of the material, and also think about what I was doing musically around that time? We are doing some selections from Key, my first album, and then we're doing Vessel Suite. I made Vessel Suite in 1993—it's selections from Vessel, and it's quite theatrical. And then I started thinking structurally. We have the road [in the solo]. What would be another way of working with it that has a little bit of the feeling of Education of the Girlchild part one? I always thought of it as a more horizontal kind of structure, where you see different events but not the linear structure of the road, which is more vertical. We have three stations and we cover each one up and that becomes part of a landscape, which is closer to the principle of Education of the Girlchild. There's new movement in it that was not in the original, and in the Girlchild section we have a simplified and compressed version of a section called "A Test." We just have simplified gestural aspects of it. I have to tell you, it's been a joyful process. We've had a wonderful time making this piece. It's such a wonderful group of women and it's very positive. Sometimes you have to let go. There was no way I was going to recast Education of the Girlchild. No way. I made it on these particular human beings and that's that.

What is a Girlchild?
When the women's movement happened, it was a few years before [Girlchild]. I was just doing my work, basically. I was never really politically active in an overt way, but I do remember it would trickle down and then I would realize that some of my struggles were more political and social than I had thought. So in a way, it was sort of like realizing that you're not alone on the planet with your struggles. At that time, I was thinking about women being really allowed to have all of our possibilities as human beings; I guess I've always felt that if women have that kind of power—not political power, but personal power—that the more that it opens up for women, the more it opens up for men. I think that men are just as imprisoned in their own habitual behavior that has been passed onto them as [we are by] the limitations that have been passed on to women. I have always believed that we all have male and female within us. So that was one of the explorations of Education of the Girlchild; the group piece was, How do you take half of the human race and then explore the whole human race within that? And the other thing I was thinking a lot about was that there are these tribes of men—like Seven Samurai or Knights of the Round Table—but the way that you think of women's groups are more like they're sitting around having coffee. It has a very different quality. How would you have women have that sense of the heroic or mythic as well as the intimate aspect? Each woman [in the original cast] was so strong and unique. That's what I was going for.

Did you pick the site?
Yes. I had some limitations, and from those I chose the place that I liked. Originally Carla [Peterson, Dance Theater Workshop's artistic director] had asked if I wanted to do it at DTW and my only reservation about it was that it is a theater. What I really like about Girlchild is the feeling that it does have a site-specific aspect to it. That was also [relevant] in the process of making the piece. We performed it in many different places. In '73, we performed it at Common Ground, which was a big, square loft space, and the next week we brought it up to Saint John the Divine. And then we performed it in a boat-building factory in Venice for the Biennale with a scorpion walking across the floor and bats flying around and rain coming down because the glass ceiling had broken, and it was great! Because I had stripped Girlchild down. It was, here's the piece—it's essentialized. And then each space I go into is going to be a different dialogue. And so [the space] 3-Legged Dog is back to a kind of intimate relationship, which I think will be very nice. Songs of Ascension has come around that way; in a strange way it has a relationship to Girlchild. We did it at the Guggenheim and at BAM and in Edinburgh in a real opera house. I was worried that it wasn't going to work, but I took everything out—I mean I cleaned that place out—and it was beautiful. So it's just my old way of going into a space and sitting in it for a while and thinking: What is a space saying to me? What is it really asking for? How are these images going to resonate against that space? It's really nice to come back to that. I love it.

I've head that you are working with Bjrk. Is it true?
Yes. We are working on a project of duets. We actually don't really even know what form it will take. It will either be two songs, one of mine and one of hers, or a few songs of each of us, and right now we're just in the process of working on the music to see where it goes. I've had three rehearsals with her. I started working on my song with her in 2005, and I finished my song, and she's beginning a few songs. We're just seeing how the two voices sound together and seeing, also, that our working methods are somewhat different. And it's been great. She's a wonderful musician. She's a wonderful person and we've been having a great time.

What is your sense of how your voices sound together?
They're just different timbres. But they go together very well. And we're doing a little improvising together on one of her songs, and the way we're improvising is great. We really have a sense of each other. We've been exploring what is the process of working together, and how to work that makes us both feel that we are ourselves within the material.

Did you reach out to her or did she reach out to you?
In the late '90s, I was teaching at Connecticut College and one of my students said, "Bjrk is singing a song of yours—'Gotham Lullaby.'" She was singing with the Brodsky Quartet. It was very different than the way I would sing it, but it had the feeling of the song. So I wrote her a card and I said, "I really appreciate your version of it, and I really think it keeps the integrity of the song, but you found your own way." So we stayed in touch. In 2005, American Music Center was starting a series of broadcast programs and the first interview was with Sarah Cahill and us for NPR. Bjrk had come to the interview with a notebook full of questions. It was very touching, and we almost were in tears by the end. There was some link there. Not in the music itself, not in the way it manifests, but more in the spirit of it: It's elemental and organic. It's almost like an artistic daughter. We have a very close thing. We'll see what happens. The way I'm feeling about it is that if this doesn't work out, it's also fine.

Meredith Monk performs at 3LD Art & Technology Center Tue 7--June 11.

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