Smile Politely

Meredith Monk dances with what it means to be human

There is a feeling both empty and whole where the boundary between skin and earth washes away, inside and outside no longer exist, and the vastness of sky or sea moves through us. To linger here is a dream. To be taken here by a work of art is a gift. We experienced this at Meredith Monk’s performance Saturday night at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Weaving vocal and instrumental music, movement, light, and film, Monk — a pillar of Minimalist Art — and the women of her acclaimed vocal ensemble, with help from girls in the Central Illinois Youth Chorus, performed her composition Cellular Songs.

Lights dimmed and a film, glowing with five pairs of hands moving harmoniously together, projected across the width of the stage. Three silhouettes emerged and we heard a singular voice, that of Meredith Monk. Her tones began to divide and repeat and then there were three. Three voices growing, resonating, and alternating simple sounds to create an ambiance at once elegant and curious. The performers began to move their hands, wrists, elbows, knees as they sung. At times my mind saw them as grasses, sea grasses. It is said that the ocean is 80% unexplored and my wonder felt cast into the depths, held and guided by a kind, authentic nurturing. We were transfixed and carried on voices so clearly from women and entirely ethereal that the basic understanding of what it is to be human felt tickled. In fact, at the simplest of gestures I heard audience members giggle in delight more than once.

From the darkness at the edge, two more performers joined the stage with movements both playful and kind. Vocal tones circling through the singers rolled around their bodies to the tips of their black boots as they danced the joy of being together, responding and reacting in reciprocity. There are times when words become worn, and there are words we hope will grow deep roots in our conversations. The only words that were spoken in Monk’s performance on Saturday were in the song “Happy Woman.” It began with a violin and grew to voice as Monk sung and gestured us through different ways of being a woman. “I am a loving woman… I am a sassy woman… I am a dying woman, I am a tired woman… I am a happy woman.” We are all of these, and what a relief to hear it sung and shared. As the words quieted, one performer stepped forward and gently took Monk’s hand walking with her to join the others gathered at a piano where they began to play, together.

Photo from Meredith Monk’s website.

Sustaining sounds and movements arched gracefully through the evening. Layers were removed and added. Doorways of light, evocative fields of color, and films were seamlessly woven in and propelled forward with bursts of fresh harmonics and shapes created by uniting bodies, light, and shadows on stage. We glimpsed and felt into the spaces between. While movements conjuring seagrass transformed into cilia, we watched our cells and their breadth of processes and interactions, occurrences generally so small and seemingly hidden that we must use our imaginations.

There was a moment when one performer made her way to a bench near the front and as the others refreshed their cords with a sip of water, her hands came together and shot out in the gesture of a dive. With great strength, she moved through space, diving, arching, demonstrating a power that felt like resiliency. Then she softened easily back into the fold much like the transitions offered in Monk’s performance of the “Happy Woman.”

Near the end, the five performers were joined by ten girls from the Central Illinois Youth Chorus, all dressed simply and similarly in white with black boots. Their voices brought new textures to the sounds circling through the performers as they spread across the stage. They all laid down, each with one arm raised, gently waving in the air. Slowly they gathered, pulled together into three groups. The lighting shifted into live video, filmed from above, resembling a living, breathing fabric, and their voices became softer and quiet. Magic that even now sounds like something that could have been maximalist but was in fact stripped down to a clean and steady essence.

Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

The audience rose to standing ovation and I began to weep. It is not everyday that we are blessed with sharing an evening in the presence of a woman who has devoted her life so fully to her art. Meredith Monk is a revered composer, musician, and performance artist who has experimented with the vast possibilities of the human voice since her 1966 work 16mm Earrings (her first vocal score). She has been hailed as “a magician of the voice” and “one of America’s coolest composers.” Among many accomplishments, Monk has performed for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, she is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and a 2015 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. This was not her first visit to Champaign-Urbana or collaboration with our community, and I hope there will be more! Perhaps for now these sounds and gestures will move through us and grow bright days rich in the wealth of kindness.

* The performance of Cellular Sounds was accompanied by a five screen video installation – Bloodline Shrine (2018) that introduced the concept of cellular interconnectedness and the performers — Meredith Monk, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Joanna Lynn-Jacobs, Allison Sniffin — with close up, singing portraits, images of their physical, cellular bodies, inner ears, brain scans, X-rays, and photos of their ancestors.


Meredith Monk: Cellular Songs
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois
500 S Goodwin Ave
Urbana, IL
Saturday, November 5, 2022
7:30 p.m.

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