Jo Stewart, Allison Sniffin, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, and Meredith Monk.Photo: Stephanie Berger
Cellular Songs | Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble
March 14 – 18, 2018
In 1851, the German-American artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze honored Colonel George Washington and his Revolutionary War comrades with the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. The iconic work features Washington at the helm of an overcrowded boat. Men hover, kneel, and crouch—oars in hand—behind him. Washington’s gaze is fixed on the horizon. And on the horizon, there is light. In Meredith Monk’s latest evening-length performance, Cellular Songs, which premiered at BAM this March, there is a moment where she assumes the precise pose, stature, and grandeur of Washington on that boat. She even tilts her chin towards a ray of light. Surrounding her, though, are not men but women.
Monk presents Cellular Songs as the latest in a series of performances that explore humans’ collective relationship with their environment. Her 2014 evening-length work On Behalf of Nature is a meditation on ecology. And as far back as 1994, Monk was examining how humans navigate their surroundings; in her site-specific work American Archaeology, performers directly communed with nature—seventy of them gathered at the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse Park and Renwick Ruin.
Monk’s latest work is more pared down. Cellular Songs features five core performers, all wearing white, and minimal set design—five stools and a piano. This piece focuses less on human ecology than human biology; Monk seeks to explore physical forms on their cellular level. But cells cannot be isolated from the bodies they comprise, and on Monk’s stage, all of the bodies belong to women. Their words are often indistinguishable and their movements unflinchingly simple. Still, Monk and her Vocal Ensemble, comprised of Katie Geissinger, Allison Sniffin, Ellen Fisher, and newcomer Jo Stewart, deftly probe the ways in which social landscapes—really, gendered landscapes—have the potential to cloud biological ones.
The women welcome patrons into their world with hums, chirps, and pleasantries. The syllables they project sound, at times, like “hey” and “happy.” They sing not from the gut but from the head. As they stroll up and down the stage, they seem composed but carefree. From here, the three women sprawl on the floor like timeless sirens. Their lush, comforting vocals only enhance this effect. But as the lights dim and the brick wall at the back of the stage assumes a hazy purple, the women trade ethereal chamber music for gasps and sniffs. Each forceful inhale and exhale reverberates through the concert hall, and their bodies sway as their labored breaths become pants. This moment is not a panicked or hysterical one, though. The women are perpetually in control of their bodies and the air that courses through them.
It is misguided to read Cellular Songs purely as a commentary on gendered roles, narratives, and expectations. Rather, the performance gives credence to the idea that social conventions have become almost a second nature. This idea is on display in Monk’s solo “Happy Woman.” Here, she runs through declarations—she’s in turn “a quiet woman,” “a tired woman,” “an honest woman,” “a lying woman,” and “a scrappy woman.” She punctuates these claims with a primal squawking and flapping of her arms that undercuts her declarations. Here, she exerts a natural right to be creaturely, to move organically and forcefully—with her gut and not her head. When she returns to her staid declarations, she highlights the constricting, emotional labor of presenting as a woman—or, perhaps more aptly, of being perceived as one.
The piece questions how women can shirk the identities cast upon them and live according to biology. At the close of “Happy Woman,” Monk sheds a white jumpsuit to reveal a second white outfit underneath, a dress under which pants peek out. The other members of her Vocal Ensemble shed this layer, too, and they pile their gauzy hazmat-style jumpsuits at the back of the stage, where they stay for the rest of the performance. This action is natural, not unlike a snake shedding its skin or a moth leaving behind a cocoon—processes that allow for further growth.
As much as Cellular Songs focuses on how an individual operates within a given environment—natural or constructed—it also calls attention to what individuals can create together. Some of the most impactful moments of the performance are when Monk and the Vocal Ensemble move, breathe, and project in harmony. In one instance, the women arrange the five stools in a circle at the center of the stage and pass around a syllable. What starts as a static whisper transforms into a dynamic roar. In another, newcomer Stewart has a duet with Fisher, Monk’s longtime collaborator. They pass syllables like playground balls and adoringly mock each other. When Geissinger and Sniffin escort Monk to the Steinway piano, they are tender and compassionate. Never do they demean, undercut, ignore, or challenge their peers. In this way, one might read Monk’s study of “the cell” not as an inquiry into a biological unit but, instead, into a unit of people.
The only element of Cellular Songs that seems out of place is its digital one. The performance begins with an aerial projection of ten hands arranged in a circle. As the thumbs bend, the palms twitch, and the fingers flutter then sharpen into pincers, they create a sort of two-dimensional, landlocked water ballet. These movements are graceful, contemplative, and free of conflict. Later in the performance, the audience sees similar or perhaps the same hands projected both behind the dancers and under their feet. This time, though, the hands are set against a mutating backdrop of synapses, highway overpasses, what appears to be a head of hair, and vicious, and unexpected fireballs. The tone here verges on cataclysmic, and it cuts against the more bucolic opening image of the hands. Here, we are reminded of the potentially destructive effect of tampering with biology. These two-dimensional, digital sequences are in line with the live aspect of Cellular Songs, but they detract from the flesh and bones of the performers on stage, and their two-dimensionality mitigates the impact of their magnified appearance.
A more powerful visual is the one that marks the end of the performance. Just as Cellular Songs appears to reach its denouement, Monk adds ten new performers, all young women and girls. By adding these dancers to the performance, Monk captures the cyclical process of cellular growth and regeneration. She also highlights how women’s bodies become marked as they grow; the girls do not partake in or even witness the more labored, guttural moments of Cellular Songs.
This arrangement of fifteen female bodies has roots in Monk’s seminal work Education of the Girlchild, which Monk first debuted in 1972 and has since returned to and expanded, she examines gender roles and expectations. She even moves through a life cycle in reverse; she begins the piece as an elderly woman and slips back in time until, at its close, she is a young girl. In Cellular Songs, Monk collapses this process and allows her audience to see the young girls, the teens, and the adults on stage at the same time.
When Leutze painted Washington and his comrades, his depiction was riddled with historical inaccuracies, among them, that the General would have taken a more spacious ferry to cross the river, not a dingy rowboat. And though he might have stood at its helm, his stance would be shaky, not triumphant. But Leutze seems to have taken creative license to capture the evening’s revolutionary spirit; with Washington confidently beside his troops, towering above them, his attention fixed on future victory, he seems an ideal leader. Monk, too, is a deft leader, but she does not tower above her comrades. Instead, she walks in step with them, sings in harmony, and holds their hands. At the close of the evening, she sinks to the ground with her peers, their limbs not just linked but tangled. Monk and her Vocal Ensemble only acknowledge the enemy in glances. Their movements tell an honest story nonetheless.
ERICA GETTO is a writer based in Brooklyn.