Meredith Monk Brings Ellis Island to Life

World-renowned performer discusses film with MFA students

Performer Meredith Monk is in the middle of a two-week residency at Duke.

Noted vocalist and choreographer Meredith Monk is less known as a filmmaker, but when she's behind the camera, she finds poetry in silence.

On Sunday night, Monk and a group of students in the Experimental/Documentary Arts Master of Fine Arts program screened and discussed Monk's 1985 film "Ellis Island" as part of her two-week residency with Duke Performances. Her residency will culminate with this weekend's performances of "Education of the Girlchild Revisted."

Seated around a large rectangular table on the third floor of the Carpentry Shop, 25 students and members of the public asked Monk about her work as a filmmaker. Although she is best known as a dancer and vocalist, she also directed dozens of short films and one feature-length film.

At 28 minutes, "Ellis Island" was shot in both black-and-white and color and features almost no dialogue. The "poetic documentary" transports viewers to Ellis Island's decaying corridors. By juxtaposing her own vocals with the images in the film, Monk conveys the immigrant experience to her audience. Monk said the film was in part inspired by her grandparents' journey form Europe many decades ago.

"(Making this film) was a very painful process," Monk said. "Human beings were commoditized at Ellis Island. (The film) is all about dealing with the 'other'…and the fact that you can make another person into an object."

When asked about the absence of dialogue in many of her films, Monk said she prefers to let the audience fill in her images and sounds with their own experiences.

"I'm trying to make a form that's non-manipulative," Monk said. "I'm laying out these tiles and letting people make their own mosaics."

The discussion branched into all aspects of Monk's work, including her conceptions of place, sound and beauty. Dan Ruccia, a longtime Monk fan and graduate student in the music program, moderated the discussion. He said interacting with a performer of her stature was a rare opportunity for him as a young artist.

"It was a great film to discuss," Ruccia said. "The simplicity and the depth in her work is just fantastic."


For more information on Meredith Monk's residency and "Education of the Girlchild Revisited," visit the Duke Performances website.