Meredith Monk: Faith in the Mixed Message : Dance: The genre-crossing choreographer sees new horizons for multidisciplinary art. The West Coast premiere of her 1990 duet ‘Facing North’ takes place at UCLA tonight.

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Meredith Monk is a pioneer who tells stories about pioneers. An inveterate multidisciplinary artist, she’s been making innovative dance-music-theater pieces, vocal music, films--and more--for 28 years. And like the plucky heroines and heroes who populate her sagas, she’s showing no signs of slowing up.

Monk caught the public’s eye as part of a vanguard of experimental choreographers and composers active in New York during the 1960s. Since then, she’s made more than 60 works--ranging from an epic opera and a feature film to chamber pieces--and won numerous awards, including two Guggenheim fellowships and 16 ASCAP awards. In 1968, Monk founded the House, a company devoted to interdisciplinary performance; in 1978, she launched Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble, the vehicle for her unusual music.

A rare visitor to the West, Monk is currently at UCLA as a regents lecturer, where she’s teaching master classes, showing her films “Ellis Island” and “Book of Days,” and holding forth all week. Her residency will culminate with the West Coast premiere of her 1990 duet (with co-creator Robert Een) “Facing North” at the UCLA Dance Building, Room 200, tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.


The two performances are co-presented by the Center for the Performing Arts, the School of the Arts, the Department of Dance and the World Arts and Cultures Program.

“Facing North” is set in a mythic Arctic world, inspired by Monk’s stay in snowy Banff, Alberta, Canada. Through vocal music and idiomatic chanting, Monk and Een convey a folk tale about a pair of hardy souls making their way through the wilderness. The music, recently released on CD by ECM Records, has been receiving a good deal of airplay on National Public Radio.

The UCLA performance of “Facing North” will be Monk’s first onstage appearance in Los Angeles since 1985, and her first California date in three years. And while it may seem like an unusually low-profile gig for an artist of Monk’s stature, it’s in keeping with her longstanding commitments to teaching and multidisciplinary art.

Since her last trek West, Monk has worked not only on “Facing North,” but also on her 1991 “Atlas,” commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera. The former is, in the artist’s words, a “spare, miniature, meditative and quiet kind of piece.” The latter is a full-scale opera.

Monk traverses back and forth between grand and intimate scales as easily as she moves between media. “It was nice to work in small spaces after a 3,000-seat concert house,” she said in a recent phone interview from her New York loft.

“It gave me a strong feeling of economic independence. It let me know that if the climate was hard, it would give me satisfaction to perform in a loft for an audience that comes up flights of stairs.”


Monk was reminded, in other words, why she has chosen such an unconventional career path. “It was an affirmation that I was doing it because I loved doing this kind of work,” she says. “Maybe in this time when everything is louder, faster and brighter, you have to build inner endurance. Then you can have a lifetime doing this kind of activity where you remain creative, vital and fertile.”

Her mission at the moment, however, is to convey that clarity to a new generation. “I like making an exchange with people who are young and just starting out or who are older but in the position of learning,” she says. “I get a chance to find out what they’re thinking and make an exchange of energy.”

Monk is guardedly optimistic about today’s upcoming artists. “I feel hopeful about the generation now in their early 20s,” she says. “They’re intelligent and creative people.”

Yet her enthusiasm is tempered by recollections of how different priorities were during the past decade. “The ‘80s saw a proliferation of a different kind of values. People were more anxious about the practical aspects of making art.

“Artists would have their press packages and their managers before they’d done one piece,” Monk recalls. “If people got a bad review, they would stop working: It was an instant-gratification way of thinking about what art was about. It was not the kind of atmosphere where you could nurture your creative talents and foster work that had usefulness to other people.”

But Monk says that kind of attitude appears to be fading away. “People are coming back around to the notion of making art out of love, having a sense of its healing function in society.”


Along with this sea change, Monk hopes there will also be a greater acceptance of interdisciplinary work. Although the ‘60s were a boom time for genre crossing--and such artists as Robert Longo, Robert Wilson, Ping Chong, Richard Foreman were hailed during the late ‘70s/early ‘80s as well--American art circles have a history of mishandling interdisciplinary performance.

Even today, young artists who work in non-traditional forms often have a hard time getting their work produced, presented and covered by the press. The key venues for such work are the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, Lincoln Center’s Serious Fun! Festival and UCLA.

Places like LACE, Highways and San Diego’s Sushi also venture into the field, but they can’t accommodate large-scale collaborative works. What’s more, emerging artists sometimes fall between the cracks with mass media accustomed to reviewing what’s easily labeled as theater, dance or music.

The resistance, according to Monk, is part and parcel of a larger cultural myopia. “The newer concern for the multicultural view is helpful (to interdisciplinary artists),” says Monk. “European culture is the only culture in the world that separated these functions into storytelling, dance and music. In most cultures, there’s no concern about specialization. It’s always interconnected.”

So, the less Eurocentric the arts world gets, the more open it should be to interdisciplinary performance. “There are young people who long for this sense of wholeness and by thinking in wider terms they may find a way to have that,” Monk says. “I would hope that by this time this is not a new idea. And I hope this is a good climate for introducing this idea to (combat) the fragmentation that we live with.

“When you’re weaving elements together, you’re offering an emotionally rich experience for an audience. There are so many aspects of our society that tend to numb.”