Art Beat: Very different works [dash] both impressive

Gee, I really like Meredith Monk. And I want to know what she eats and what she does to stay in shape.

And because she said Thursday night at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts that she's a practicing Buddhist, I want to take up that religion, or philosophy, again.

In earnest.

Monk spoke after she and seven other dancers and musicians presented her newest music-theater piece, "On Behalf of Nature," in the Colwell Playhouse — the same venue where I saw a much different non-narrative piece on Feb. 28 — "The Demo," co-created by composers/performers Mikel Rouse and Ben Neill.

"The Demo" is about technology, specifically Douglas Engelbart's 1968 demonstration at Stanford of nascent computer equipment. Appropriately, it is techno heavy.

Monk's piece is about the fragility of nature and our relationship to it, with her trademark extended vocalizations and movements that I felt even I could do!

It's lighter on technology, with three musicians at the side of the stage playing violin, bells and other percussion instruments.

Video came later in the show, when the performers were not on stage, as I remember. It showed scenes from nature as well as a few of people using technology.

One of my friends thought the video was overkill, that the music and movement sufficed to evoke nature and our tenuous relationship to it.

I didn't mind the video.

And I really liked the Monk ensemble members' layered costumes — I've always liked the sensible little black boots that she and her performers wear on stage.

While planning the ecological art piece, Monk didn't want to create more waste. So she had her longtime costume designer, Yoshio Yabara, "create new garments with unique shapes for each performer, fashioned from his or her old clothing," Monk wrote.

My concert companion described them as futuristic Oliver Twist clothes. For me, they evoked bag-lady chic or long-ago forest creatures.

During the "talk back," Monk said she believes non-narrative pieces such as hers give audiences a break from our discursive, busy society. Non-narrative or nonlinear pieces do put me in a sort of ethereal zone, in which I relax and my mind wanders in a nonlinear way.

As a longtime storyteller (reporter), I admit I sometimes feel a bit irked watching non-narrative performance pieces. I try to figure out "What is this all about?" From now on, I will sit back and enjoy, let my emotions roil and not take notes.

As I did with "Nature" and "The Demo," an experimental music-theater piece. A couple of my friends left during the intermission of "The Demo" and didn't return, feeling they had had enough.

I stayed and sort of enjoyed the immersion in the technology, the sounds and the images. The tech aspect included three Rouse-Neill collaborators at a bank of computers in the orchestra pit, and Neill and Rouse at their computer stations on stage.

Five local performers sang at times while moving around on an elevated platform behind a dark scrim. I assume they represented computer workers at the remote location to which Engelbart connected via his computer.

After the performance, Rouse said he was exhausted. He sang through the entire piece and at his computer controlled the video images that were fed to him by his collaborators in the pit.

Some of my friends didn't like "The Demo" music, though they liked Neill's performance on his mutanTrumpet, a hybrid acoustic-electronic horn. At times, he played in a sort of plaintive or reflective tone.

One friend thought the music was too repetitive and didn't like Rouse singing over and over at one point "word" or "bootstrap," two computer terms. In general, I believe the music reflected the drone or binary operation of computers.

Co-commissioned by Krannert, "The Demo" was presented as a work in progress in a full production, its first, by Rouse, Neill and other collaborators, most from New York.

So they will likely revise it; Krannert Director Mike Ross believes the team will fine-tune the balance of old video with new. In the projections, Rouse's face at times would morph into Engelbart's, and vice versa. Rouse portrayed Engelbart; Neill played Engelbart's key collaborator, Bill English.

At the original demo, Engelbart showed how his computer could organize prosaic things, like organize a grocery shopping list.

Text also was presented. In some, Engelbart told of becoming obsessed with a Red Cross manual he found in a hut during World War II, likely in the Pacific Theater. In another piece of text, he told of the epiphany he had about wanting to help mankind through his work.

I think Rouse sang most of that text, but I can't be sure because I had a hard time understanding some of the vocals.

University of Illinois computer science Professor Roy Campbell attended "The Demo" (as well as the Monk piece). He told me that he thinks "The Demo" was "fabulous" and that Engelbart, whom he had met, would have liked it.

During the talk back, Campbell said his Ph.D. adviser had attended the original Engelbart demo and later told Campbell 60 percent of the people there didn't know what was going on.

My companion for the evening was a computer geek who thought Campbell was slyly referring to "The Demo" audience. But I don't necessarily agree with that.

My friend was not enamored of "The Demo."

But, "As pure history, it was reasonably effective," he told me later. "It might have been more so if the repetitive droning meditations in the score hadn't muddled the underlying message.

"It was an earnest effort. I applaud their goals."

I do, too. Before doing an advance story on the new piece, I had never heard of Engelbart or his demo — even Rouse said when he first saw it online he thought it was an elaborate Internet art hoax.

My computer geek friend also thought "The Demo" is a hagiography of Engelbart, who died last year at age 88.

"Our culture likes to find 'The Guy' and elevate an individual like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs rather than celebrate collective achievement," he said. "There is a more than a whiff of that in elevating Engelbart. He does deserve it, arguably more than some better-known tech titans."

One aspect of "The Demo" that my friend appreciated was that it opened with images of text spelling out the funding sources for Engelbart's work: NASA and other government agencies.

My geek friend said most people want to believe the computer technology we use was developed by private companies, but actually the government seeded the early research, which he said led to incredible returns.

It was Neill, I think, who said during the talk back that Donna Cox, director of the UI's eDream, best described "The Demo" as dreaming forward and backward with the technology. Strangely, Monk wrote something for the "On Behalf of Nature" program that speaks to Cox's idea:

"This idea of spiraling around to the past to make something completely new is also a way of appreciating what is here in the present and working with what we have."

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or mmerli@news-gazette.com. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/art-and-about.

Topics (2):Music, Theater

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