Monk's act a healing process

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 1997, 12:00am

Meredith Monk does not like to use the term 'shamanistic' to describe her music-theatre piece Volcano Songs, but admits it is a useful way to explain what she is trying to achieve.

'I hate those words but I do see this piece as a kind of healing process,' said the ground-breaking avant-garde performance artist from New York, who is appearing at the Hong Kong Arts Festival this week. Volcano Songs, a one-woman piece first performed two years ago, was inspired by a trip she made to Bali in 1992.

'What impressed me most was how theatre, music and dance were so much a part of daily life. It wasn't just that everyone comes to be entertained and then they go and have a cup of coffee and go home,' said Monk, who has steered clear of that style of performance since her first shows in the 1960s.

She sees traditional Balinese performance as not only reflecting nature, but affecting it as well. 'You could feel that something was actually happening while they were performing.' She hopes to create on stage 'a sense of sacred space, of performing as a kind of healing'.

It is like a theatrical poem, she said of the piece, which is based on the idea that although volcanoes are dangerous, they also provide some of the world's most fertile soil.

Although those living in the shadows of volcanoes are risking their lives, they do benefit from its energy.

Aside from the dual roles of the volcano, Monk's piece does not have a strong storyline.

'Instead it's got lots of layers, so that by the end of the piece you feel that you have witnessed a real transformation,' said Monk, who sings the voices of many characters in her trademark, haunting a cappella style.

It is not an easy piece to follow.

'In some ways it's demanding of an audience because it is very meditative. You have to let go of that narrator in your mind who's constantly telling you 'I don't understand what's going on.' You have to keep in touch with your breathing and ease up. Once you do that it's a good experience . . . there's humour in there too, it's not that serious.' There is also technology - the kind of science that breathes magic into a piece.

In one scene, Monk lies on rectangles of photographic paper as a light flashes. When she stands, there is a shadow on the ground, as if a ghost of a life is left. 'Rather like in Pompeii'.

In New York, Monk performed the piece on a small space - a change from her usual haunts, such as Carnegie Hall.

'I was a little worried because it could be slow for New Yorkers, but people really responded in an amazing way. It's an antidote to the hustle and bustle, a place to have a little peace, letting the mind clear and have space. That's what I would hope.' Monk says Volcano Songs is one of the most vulnerable pieces she has ever performed.

'If I'm doing a music concert for 1,000 people, then I've got a microphone, and a barrier, some kind of protection.

'But this piece is intimate: my goal is to not be manipulative, but to let each person in the audience have their own space. I have to stay personally vulnerable and open, to make room to let the transformation happen.' She always watches her health before any show, said Monk, sipping mineral water instead of the coffee she said she longed for, 'otherwise I won't sleep tonight, and then I'll never get on to local time.' She does tai chi, breathing exercises, and for the past 10 years has been practising a form of Tibetan Buddhism called Shambala, which she describes as 'secular, a kind of home-owners' Buddhist practice'. No icons, no candles, no prostrations. Just meditation, breathing and calmness.

As she has grown older, Monk said, her work has grown less academic and draws more heavily on the realm of the feeling.

'In 1967 I was more interested in ideas. As I've got older I've got less afraid of having a very rich emotional and spiritual aspect of my work.

Last night was her first appearance in Hong Kong, even though her ex-husband is Cantonese. She can even speak a little Cantonese. 'Mostly words connected with food, like bao-la [I'm full] because otherwise my former mother-in-law would just keep on filling my plate forever,' she said, joking.

Volcano Songs tonight 7.30pm and 9.30pm. APA Drama Theatre. Call 2734-9009