Meredith Monk's Magic Frequencies
by Marcia B. Siegel
Meredith Monk calls her latest work a science-fiction chamber opera, but
Magic Frequencies has more dance in it -- and probably less singing --
than any Monk piece in a long time. Co-produced by Monk's House Foundation and
the Dance '98 festival in Munich, the work had its American premiere earlier
this month at the Joyce Theater in New York. Compared with the intergalactic
scope of Monk's ideas, transatlantic collaboration must have been a cinch.
In Magic Frequencies, aliens have landed on earth and have started to
learn earthly customs. Or have they? It could be that the earthlings are
learning to live in space society. Or maybe the two peoples have already
exchanged places and taken on each other's behaviors. Which would mean we'd
have to wonder about every stranger and clumsy dolt we know -- did they just
get off a train or a UFO? Or are we all astral bodies together on the
Monk suggests all this in a series of spacy scenes, projections, and musical
interludes that are populated by the same six actor-singer-dancers and two
musicians. There's a sort of progression, but Monk isn't concerned with stories
so much as with the identities of five people from different worlds who meet
and become sociable despite their differences. On one side of the stage a
lab-coated astronomer (Coco Pekelis) fiddles with dials and charts and kills
time waiting for data. On the other side Allison Sniffin and John Hollenbeck
play a variety of offbeat accompaniments on keyboards, drums, theremin. So the
interplanetary encounters are framed, you might say, by Science and Art.
At first the angular silhouettes we see aren't even certain to be people.
Clumps of geometric shapes move through an indeterminate zone that's neither
earth nor solar system. Then a table and chairs are brought out and Monk sits
down to a meal with Ching Gonzalez. They carry on an animated conversation in
wordless tones and gestures, interrupting and responding to each other the way
people do when they know each other very well. They're so engrossed in their
tête-à-tête that they don't notice some blurry forms gliding
past in the distance.
Heads peek out from behind three big lucite screens and stare curiously at
Monk and Gonzalez. Then three figures (Lanny Harrison, Katie Geissinger, and
Theo Bleckmann) cautiously advance till they're standing next to the dinner
table. They inspect the diners, the silverware, the salt shaker, like explorers
investigating exotic plants. Then they make themselves at home. They sit down
at the table on stools conveniently built into their costumes. They help
themselves to ears of corn from a platter and imitate what Monk and Gonzalez
are doing. Once all of the five are chomping heartily, they sing a convivial,
still wordless five-part chorus. After dinner the aliens lead Monk and Gonzalez
off to their lucite cloudland.
More encounters follow, interspersed with dancing, levitating, swimming.
Gonzalez lies in an antique spool bed, sick or dying, and the others come and
stand near him like mournful relatives. Geissinger and Bleckmann enter a square
of light with smart, shiny black shopping bags and sing a duet where they might
be about to start a romance. Have we met? He holds her hand. They sing. But
they turn away finally, not quite clicking. Harrison, dressed in a business
suit, reads news bulletins -- all bad -- against a chorus of bored
yeah-yeah-yeahs. Harrison opens her jacket to reveal a black patent-leather
breastplate. Geissinger is standing upstage swathed in gauze. The lighting
makes it hard to tell, but she might be naked underneath.
After all these visions, the characters stand next to a display of dollhouse
maquettes: a dinner table, an airport ticket counter, a desk, a store, a
bedroom. As the stage goes dark, an eclipse is projected on the backdrop.
Magic Frequencies is small and spare but very detailed. It took me back
to some of Meredith Monk's earliest works -- Vessel and Juice from the
'60s, or, more recently, her Arctic duet Facing North. Although I think
I've learned to "read" her cryptic symbols and actions, this piece laid bare
the Monk lexicon again -- the preoccupation with maps and minutiae, with people
who meet over the teacups in the midst of journeying to the stars and somehow
find they're on common ground. It was nice to see her reinventing her perennial
themes of time travel, transformation, and the possibility that life will
survive after all.