If nature were to rise up and speak in defense of itself, its voice might sound like a Meredith Monk theater piece. That was the goal of Monk’s new work, “On Behalf of Nature,” presented at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. The path-forging choreographer-composer-artist created the piece — theater without words, dance with voice — to embody “nonhuman entities” communicating through her as a spokesperson.
Monk is wise to prefer abstraction over narrative, aura over character, symbolism over clear meaning, which allows the viewer to map her work onto his or her own thoughts and perceptions. Various ideas arose in my mind in reaction to the movements of Monk and seven collaborators, three of whom also played the array of instruments to one side of the stage: tree-branch arms waving in the wind, ants marching in rows, aboriginal dances both anxious and joyously whoop-filled, a couple lost in admiration of an open vista, waves crashing on a shore.
Only when she used video — to cover the change to white, transfigured costumes — did the work become too literal, focused on a series of images like those in National Geographic. The theme of recycling, seen most notably in the costumes made by Yoshio Yabara from the old clothing of the performers, was also a bit heavy-handed.
Sounds of wood flute, clarinet and other reeds, lots of unusual percussion — such as the space-age sound of bowed flexatone — and even French horn enlivened Monk’s style of quasi-minimalist repeated chords, punctuated by sections for voices only or for movement performed in silence. Particularly memorable tableaux included a spellbinding vocal section, beginning with a seated couple on a long, intertwined “oo” vowel, joined by offstage voices and instruments in a hanging tapestry of sound. The closing image was of rings suspended on silvery threads, which the dancers had just used to ring bells above, left swinging on the empty stage.
Downey is a freelance writer.