At Bryn Mawr's McPherson Auditorium Sunday afternoon, the first dancelike movements Meredith Monk made in her 1972 solo from
Education of the Girlchild
were small, rhythmic hand movements. They opened up to a still-minimal and unembellished upswept arm, a small bend, and a turn of the knee - not so much dance, but the expression of dance.
The performance was the culmination of a weeklong residency in which the Peruvian-born Sarah Lawrence grad and MacArthur Fellow, who was just named one of NPR's "50 Great Voices," led workshops that explored her singular brand of vocalese and movement.
Monk, 68, begins Girlchild sitting motionless in whiteface, wearing a gray wig and baggy muslin pants laced with leather strips. Her puppetlike gestures recall younger days, and soon she removes the wig, reverentially kneeling to the age she would become as she loosens her hair and personifies a younger version of herself. With its superb theatricality and stagecraft, the piece gained in poignancy as I realized she is now reaching the actual age she envisioned 40 years ago.
As the older version, she deploys the lower registers of her voice, skating emotional planes between nostalgia and fear, threatening and soothing, creating little etudes that reveal the nexus between human movement and vocalization. In the original version she leaps from her raised dais to her younger self. Now the dais has steps that she descends robustly.
She takes baby steps and veers among psychobabble, baby-talk, yodeling, and laughter, accumulating evocations of those ecstatic solitary moments we have when we let ourselves explore our bodies and voices in private when we are young. The effect is of extreme gravitas and dignity, which seemed to leave Monk completely spent at performance's end.
Shards is a compilation of music, images, and movement from the Girlchild period, when performance artist Ellen Fisher began performing with Monk. Here, she joined Monk as a mysterious figure in black pantaloons and caved-in hat. Fisher, still a fascinating mover in her 60s, did the most dancing - which sometimes looked like a mix of Judson Street postmodern movement and Electric Slide - and seemed to be having a great time.
Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin accompanied Monk with vocals. Sniffin also played two of the three keyboards that stood their ground on the stage. Monk and her work held their ground as well.