In an upstairs studio at the UCLA Dance Building, two masked figures stand behind a tabletop model of a snowy hillside inserting tiny trees and then people while they sing. One voice is high, female, birdlike and the other low, male, growly.
Soon the masks come off and the two performers become the figures from the model--except the white-cloth snowscape they inhabit is treeless and flat. To the mournful tones of a harmonica, they slowly stagger toward one another and hold hands. . . .
Meredith Monk has described "Facing North" as a chamber music/theater piece about a barren wilderness and the fortitude and tenderness of two people surviving within it. True enough. Moreover, in its manipulations of scale and time, along with a perspective at once mythic and childlike, it reminds the university audience of Monk's seminal contributions to the American avant-garde in the 1960s and early '70s.
As in the low/high vocal contrasts of the prologue, co-composer Robert Een most often embodies male weight and force here: clomping heavily through imaginary snow while Monk moves more quickly, or pantomiming hunting tasks while she keeps watch.
Their wordless duets sometimes preserve this gender distinction but also often blend their voices in slightly warped, deliberately archaic melodies--something like a child's recollection of a folk song from an unfamiliar language.
The 40-minute piece began as music, and in the performance Friday, the setting by Debby Lee Cohen, the lighting by Tony Giovannetti and the spare stage movement (sometimes gestural, sometimes rhythmic but never quite dance) always framed, reflected or reinforced the singing as the creative core of the piece.
In an interview published Friday in these pages, Monk made a case for "Facing North" as multi- or interdisciplinary. The rest of us might recognize it as opera--from the static pictorialism of the stage environment right down to the minimalist coloratura passage of one of its later duets.
Some of us might also find the piece backdated in the way it turns nature into a backdrop for vocalizing and fey vignettes about picturesque snowfolk. The nose-rubbing sequence alone might qualify the work as patronizing, but the whole approach is questionable.
The sensibility for "Facing North" comes from a time when Sarah Lawrence grads like Monk roamed the world in search of data that they could shape into public declarations of sensitivity for other Sarah Lawrence grads and kindred spirits.
Right now, however, art making has other priorities. In 1993, there's something suspect about an artist who visits another culture and brings us back nothing but the same kind of personal showpiece she's been making for the last quarter-century. In 1993, we prefer artists from that culture to speak for themselves.