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Counterpunch

Visionary Artists Can't Be Penned In

March 29, 1993|LOUISE STEINMAN | Louise Steinman is the author of "The Knowing Body: Elements of Contemporary Performance and Dance" (Shambhala Publications). She was script consultant on the PBS film "Ishi: the Last Yahi" and performance curator at Barnsdall Art Park from 1986 to 1991.

If Lewis Segal, the seasoned dance writer, can mistake Meredith Monk's mythic landscape of the mind ("Facing North") for ethnographic reportage--we're in trouble here. Think metaphor. Segal finds Monk's chamber theater piece "suspect" because he sees a white woman artist "interpreting" another culture (" 'North' Samples a Culture," Calendar, March 15). "In 1993 we prefer artists from that culture to speak for themselves," states Segal. If we apply this logic to American art of the 20th Century, then Martha Graham shouldn't have choreographed "El Penitente" (1940) because she wasn't Latino; and Miles Davis shouldn't have composed "Sketches of Spain" (1960) because he was from St. Louis. In 1993, artists do speak for their own cultures. However, Monk does not purport to "speak for" or replace the cultural work of indigenous peoples in her theater. You don't have to be an Eskimo to wear a parka.

The wilderness Monk and her collaborator Robert Een explore in "Facing North" isn't a literal place on the map--it's the Arctic within each of us. It's a mythic wilderness where survival is predicated on cooperation among humans and respect for all spirits who make life possible. Monk and Een share moments of tenderness and joy, play and work common to humans in every culture. This is a mediative world of magic and silence. When you make a sound in this stark landscape, it resonates with the force of a gesture. It's an act of being.

"Facing North" encompasses a set of moral values now endangered. At the end of the piece, the Couple, hand-in-hand, slowly exit their sanctuary. After a brief pause, we hear the unmistakable sounds of the mechanistic world encroaching. There's a feeling of sadness and loss because a way of life has passed.

After 25 years as a pioneering force in the arts, Monk has earned the right to comment and explore all aspects of human culture at this critical juncture for our planet. Every artist in tune with his or her time understands that there is a cross-cultural continuum in their own field. For God's sake, let the ones with vision look everywhere. In 1993, we don't need to further ghettoize our communities by insisting artists restrict themselves to their own ethnic subject matter.

Segal suggests that Monk's work is patronizing and then, unbelievably, writes: "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." This is both an outrageous summation of the history of the experimental dance and theater of the 1960s and '70s (which provide the basis for most interdisciplinary performance to this day) . . . and an unforgivable tarring of a group of dedicated, conscientious artist-innovators.

It seems to me that Segal approached Monk's theater with a less-than-open heart and a more-than-full political agenda--encumbrances that occluded his ability to perceive the substance of the work.

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