An article in Saturday's Style section incorrectly gave Meredith Monk's age. She is 42.
Meredith Monk is talking about "Quarry," her multimedia dance/theater work about World War II and the Holocaust as perceived by an 8-year-old child:
"I remember being in school and being told about the bomb -- the atom bomb," she says. "It hit me like a shock, that there could have been such a thing. I remember after that, every time I'd hear planes overhead, the fears that would run through me.
"I was just a baby . . . I didn't really live through it. But it had tremendous impact on me all the same," says the 45-year-old choreographer, dancer, singer, composer, director and filmmaker.
Among the results was "Quarry," which continues for four more performances this weekend at the Kennedy Center's Free Theater, with Monk portraying the child. Its stage imagery -- with components of movement, speech, music and film -- has the larger-than-life, dreamlike aspect of a child's imagination.
"When I was putting 'Quarry' together in 1976, I remember some of the cast members who had lived through the war telling me about all kinds of details of American life at the time, like 'Lucky Strike Green Goes to War,' " Monk says. "But I didn't use many specifics -- what I was doing was in a mythic vein. I was trying to create an atmosphere that I hoped would transcend my own experience, and even become something very contemporary."
The mythic character of "Quarry" is in keeping with Monk's approach to dance and theater. She once wrote that her goals were "to create an art that breaks down boundaries between the disciplines, an art which in turn becomes a metaphor for opening up thought, perception, experience . . . an art which seeks to re-establish the unity that exists in music, theater and dance -- the wholeness that is found in other cultures, such as Kabuki theater, Kathakali and ancient sources of early performance . . . an art which reaches towards emotion that we have no words for, that we barely remember . . ."
Monk's career has been a pilgrimage toward those aims. Born in Lima, Peru, and raised in Connecticut, she was singing, playing the piano, dancing and composing at an early age. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, she moved to New York in the mid-'60s and began showing her offbeat dances and theater pieces, some of them at the Judson Church, the scene of so much avant-garde ferment at the time.
In Washington in 1969, she produced the still-memorable "Tour: Dedicated to Dinosaurs," a multimedia event involving choral chanting and movement, presented in the rotunda and surrounding galleries of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. It was the first of a number of Washington visits for Monk, including, most recently before the current "Quarry" tour, a solo vocal recital at the Hirshhorn Museum two years ago.
Last season, Monk celebrated her 20 years of creative activity with, among other things, an evening-length futuristic collaboration with Ping Chong, "The Games," that opened the Brooklyn Academy of Music's "Next Wave Festival" that year; a Carnegie Hall debut with a program of her music; and the "Quarry" revival at New York's La Mama Theater, the site of the original staging.
"We played it in some funny places the first time around," Monk remembers. "We took it on tour to Italy, and in Venice, at the Biennale, we were supposed to perform in a boat factory with a glass roof. When we got to the dress rehearsal, somehow the glass roof was gone. At the performance it rained like mad, and the audience -- Antonioni was there -- came with umbrellas, raincoats and galoshes and sat through it all."
Further mishaps awaited in Florence. "We were in the opera house, and hadn't counted on the raked stage. One of the characters in 'Quarry' -- one of the dictators -- appears in a wheelchair, which was supposed to move in a straight line across the stage. In Florence it wobbled all over the place."
With the retrospective year behind her, Monk says she feels a chance to make a fresh beginning.
"I feel like I'm starting all over again. I'm working on a new solo and a duet, for La Mama in April. They're to be called 'Acts From Under and Above.' I'm trying to go back to working very simply from basic materials again, stripping things down. I'd like to open the solo form out to include other elements -- the last solo theater piece I did was the 'Plateau' series in 1977. At this point, I don't really know how I feel about solo work, so this new one is an experiment. It's my test."
Monk seldom confines herself to a single medium, however; she's now working on her first feature-length film. The retrospective year also included a survey at the Whitney Museum of her prize-winning film and video work. Her powerfully evocative, 28-minute black-and- white film "Ellis Island," which won the coveted CINE Golden Eagle Award, was seen nationally on public TV last year.
The film in progress is to be titled "Book of Days," she says.
"I've been thinking about it for two years now, but we're still in the money-raising stage. My cameraman Jerry Panzer who shot "Ellis Island" and I are stubborn about shooting in 35-millimeter, and that raises the costs. Right now, we're rehearsing parts with a small group. I've written music for a chorus of 21, five solo voices, keyboards and mostly medieval instruments, like the bagpipe and rauschpfeife," she says.
"The film will be about time, in a way. Part of it will take place in the Christian community and Jewish ghetto of the Middle Ages, part in ancient Jerusalem and part in contemporary New York. I play only a cameo role in it. I'm aiming to give the film an elegiac quality."
However it turns out, one can expect it to be surprising -- it wouldn't be Monk otherwise.
"It's always a big struggle when you're trying to keep yourself challenged. If you don't rely on formula to make it work, it never gets any easier. You intuit what you're looking for -- but then you have to find it. It's like a mystery story that needs solving."
The remaining performances of "Quarry" are at 3 and 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. Admission is free, but available seating is extremely limited.