Off-Broadway Music Theater Review: ON BEHALF OF NATURE (Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble at BAM)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on December 8, 2014

in Theater-New York


Personal works of art, in which the artist must invent a new language all her own to communicate her unique dreams, are, for me, the most valuable kinds. But one consistent characteristic of such creations is that this language, being new, is often partly or wholly inaccessible to the public. At 72, Meredith Monk is still such an artist. Which is why I was a little surprised at the ecstatic audience reaction to her show On Behalf of Nature. Apparently her work, as personal as it is, speaks to the hearts of many people.

Photo: Julieta CervantesPerformers walk around the stage making sounds into their microphones as musicians play, in what feels at first like an eccentric polyphony of voices and instruments peppered with moments of silence, in which simple footsteps become part of the score. But before long one realizes that what is being weaved together on the stage is a sort of audio-spiritual experience of the natural world. Ms. Monk’s composition at turns suggests intimate conversations, sounds heard in villages, the cacophonies of big cities and jungles, songs of water and stone, trees and grass, of the moon and the sun; it’s as if the essences of these things pass through the artist’s dream and come out the other side transformed into a musical poem with movement, with light and shadow and color (lighting design: Elaine Buckholtz). Ms. Monk gives voice to what surrounds us, objects animate and inanimate, articulating the connection between solar flares and microbes and people and animals, everything, showing the universe as music, as one single living organism. In case it’s not clear what the show is about, a silent, intentionally primitive, Koyaanisqatsi-esque black and white film projected towards the end of the show basically explains everything.

Nine performers of different shapes, sizes, ages and sexes make up the cast. The idea seems to be to create the impression that they are random individuals plucked from the globe; their raggedy-looking costumes, which are sewn together from their own old clothes, and the intentionally clunky choreography, seem meant to suggest the lumpy awkwardness, the inexactness, the lovely imperfection of life. Or something like that. I’m not sure. I don’t really get Yoshio Yabara’s costumes, which are meant to suggest the performers’ personal histories. I understand this intellectually, I’m just not excited by what I’m seeing. Nor am I much moved by the choreography.

I’m glad that Ms. Monk exists and creates her art—and it is art, in the most serious definition of that word. I just don’t enjoy it. And her music is beautiful, it’s intricate, full of subtlety and nuance. With it she captures the truth of things. She can take a sunbeam and make it audible, alive, fluid and penetrating. What would fish sound like if they could sing? Or hemoglobin? Or moon craters? Ms. Monk has answers to these questions that are remarkable and lovely. And if they move you, you are blessed.

In addition to Ms. Monk, performers include: Sidney Chen, Ellen Fisher, Katie Geissinger, Bruce Rameker, Allison Sniffin (voices); Bohdan Hilash (winds); John Hollenbeck (percussion); and Allison Sniffin (keyboards, violin, and French horn).

photo by Julieta Cervantes

On Behalf of Nature
commissioned by BAM for the 2014 Next Wave Festival
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St
ended on December 7, 2014
for tickets, call 718.636.4100 or visit

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