Philipp Gehmacher and Meg Stuart in Maybe forever.
Maybe forever, Meg Stuart’s and Philipp Gehmacher’s first joint-venture, is a contemporary interpretation of motionless dance that comes alive thanks to the alchemy between two kindred minds. Its themes of alienation and melancholy are ultimately woven into a harmony that touches the heart with its sheer power and vulnerability. Such is the impact that it reaffirms one’s faith in the authentic presence within a theatrical framework.
In Maybe forever, Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher represent, as choreographer and dancer, the sensitivities of two generations. Meg Stuart’s 1991 debut - Disfigure Study - was a registration, an illustration, a rendering of and a comment on alienation, speed and fragmentation in an age on the run. One year later, she made a solo piece about a man reaching for his memories, in which the absence of motion articulated a new vocabulary of ‘movement’. But standing still expressed an explicit political message rather than a new perspective in her choreographic work: the man on stage was the French critic and organizer Jean-Marc Adolphe who had organized a project in Paris around immobility as a reaction against the wars in the Gulf and Bosnia.
If standing still for Meg Stuart is a political, rational or conceptual statement imposed on or added to the body, Philipp Gehmacher’s is a different kind of motionlessness. Over and over again, he comes to a halt in order to fully grasp the reality of the body in the here and now of its environment. The resulting vulnerability is devoid of social and theatrical conventions. Again and again, he makes the connection with his body and his immediate surroundings in order to create the possibility for transformation and renewal. Taking this as the nexus of the performance, Maybe Forever can be read as an expression of the urgent need for purely individual survival strategies - and also of personal responsibility - within what Peter Sloterdijk describes as the hyperkinetic project of modernity, whereby continuous and ever faster movement is both the motor and cost of admission. Whoever is caught up in this mechanism has no time for what is in front of them. Such an insurmountable present must be compensated for: wistfulness and melancholia about the past are never far away. And as chance would have it, these two states of mind form the framework of Maybe Forever.
Kinship and difference
In the impact and nature of their respective dance languages Philipp Gehmacher (Salzburg, 1975) and Meg Stuart (New Orleans,1965) just had to be kindred spirits. Far away from home both of them straightaway left their mark on the dance scene with a similarly describable idiom.
They are connected in their clear and stubborn view on the alienated body and the crippled communication that is both its cause and effect. At the same time they diverge in the way they transform their views into performance art. The differences in their approach were beautifully illustrated in the performances that each of them presented earlier this year in Kaaitheater.
In February I saw Gehmacher’s As if there’s no tomorrow, a compelling performance with three dancers in a - apart from a battery of loudspeakers - naked space in which the dysfunction of body, time, space and communication is explored.
With its vocabulary of blindly looking, reaching, fumbling, an aborted touch, hesitating, jerking, staggering, falling down on hands and knees, As if there’s no tomorrow develops a repetitive cycle of deceleration and acceleration on revolutions in time and space. Afterwards my memory labels it as ‘classic’. Classic as in timeless, universal. Gehmacher does not want to explain: ‘As a general rule I won’t have anything in my pieces that explains what I do - it should always just be it, in the moment. ... In time and space that is always something that I do - disrupting time, disrupting space - that is my way to arrive at signification and that is the formalism of my work.’ He thus points out the extended present that I identify in Maybe Forever.
Compared to Gehmacher’s cyclical, inward minimalism, Meg Stuart’s Blessed, which premiered in April, was rather reminiscent of an (excellent) baroque epic. In the cardboard set of visual artist Doris Dziersk, an ecological apocalypse evolves in five tableaux centered around a man, the dancer Francisco Camacho, who is out of synch with himself and his surroundings. Even his numbness does not keep pace with the way the world collapses around him.
His movement vocabulary evolves from stiff to overly supple, to big uncontrollable spasms of a man in a state of shock. Meanwhile his world of cardboard art (shelter, palmtree and swan) has turned into mushy pulp by means of an incessant downpour from the stage’s sky.
In its clear and linear structure, Blessed delivers an almost political message that is perfectly interlaced with the movement material, the set design, the costumes and the lighting. The outside world is emphatically present in Meg Stuart’s work, in its environmental issues and its alienation theme, as well as in the person of the artists and musicians who work with her.
Two dance generations in phases of respectively ‘cyclical inside’ and ‘linear outside’ around and along a core of alienation. Where exactly would they meet? How would they manage to be more than their sum - and find the point where one and one equals three? As by now my curiosity is overexcited I watch Maybe Forever twice in a row.
On a basso continuo of charming natural sounds, gurgling water and twittering birds at a greyish daybreak, a duet between a man and a woman sets off. He drags himself over the stage floor toward her, like a man in the desert looking for a drop of water. As she lies down next to him and holds on to him, he aggressively nails her to the floor and keeps her neck imprisoned in the hollow between his torso and elbow. When a bit later they get up, he has a second go: He blindly reaches for her arm and embraces her with stretched forearms, holding his palms upwards. Then he moves away from her to kneel and put down his gesture on the floor, as in an offering. She clings to him again, he drags her along moving away from her. Every time they lose: they never meet.
This small cycle is the start of what at first sight could be described as a parable on desire, loss and melancholy, with two ex-lovers telling their story in a succession of dance duets and solos, soliloquies and songs. The protagonists are a man (Philipp Gehmacher), a woman (Meg Stuart) and a musician (Niko Hafkensheid), the latter being a hyper-cool solitary chorist who lightens up the atmosphere by cracking the occasional joke. Accompanied by his electric guitar he comments on what is going on with his unpretentious evergreens that stick to your mind for days to come. ‘Maybe forever’, he sings, ‘this day is taking me out/and I wonder if I’m now on my powerful side/this day comes true/when my wishes all slip out’. Here he introduces the chorus: time and desire, which I, as a spectator, will carry with me for the rest of the performance.
Every aspect of the performance seems like a building brick that illustrates the tragedy of the missed meeting and the impossible present. Time and again the present has to make way for a melancholic mourning project: the desire for what is not present here and now.
Time is translated into what has passed and what could have been: love, memories and wishes.
Next to the songs, the melancholy is interlaced in each of the attributes on stage. Against the backdrop is a projection screen as high as the ceiling with dark grey curtains on either side. One image remains projected on the rhythm of the performance, in changing gradations of colour and clarity: two overblown, fluffy dandelions. When we were kids, we called them ‘blowflowers’. If you were able to blow all fluffs in one go, you could make a wish, just like candles on a birthday cake. Behind the big curtains is the space where maybe wishes come true - later the musician announces a Reward waltz and the lovers can really dance together for a while as a reward for all their unfulfilled aspirations. On the left, in front of the projection screen, is a low grey construction, a kind of estrade with two broad steps that lead to a small platform. An altar for the sacrifice rituals of desire, or a tombstone for things passed. Time will tell.
Up front are a couple of microphones for making declarations and raking up old memories. Then there is the soundscape that adds yet another layer of time to the story: ‘Shall we do our wishes at the same time, so we don’t have to listen to each other?’ we hear the woman say.
With Gehmacher’s first solo this interpretation is rearranged.
He enters and seems to hesitate. He makes a somewhat lanky step forwards and sits down on the floor with his legs in front of him and his arms alongside his body. He spreads his arms to the sides and upwards. His movements are not fluent. Every time the sequence is interrupted, he stops and comes back to start again from there. He reaches up, falls down on his knees and puts down what he
found up there in front of him here. In the meantime the woman displays herself on the steps of the tomb. He gets up, walks to the screen, stares at the image and raises his arms again. She walks up to him and imitates his movements. The audience is fascinated. I am touched to tears. How come?
Gehmacher sheds time and makes the present possible. He succeeds in involving me, his spectator, in his cryptically phrased it-moment. How does he do that? I notice two ‘techniques’. For one, there is his idiomatic repertoire of hesitating, jolting, standing still - just as many ways to give himself the time to again and again return to what is going on now. There is no need for any armour of display: there is only room for inwardness and vulnerable strength. And here the second purification of Gehmacher’s movement material shows: that which I will call (for want of a better name) his mental idiom. He shuffles with his toes pointing inward and his head slightly stooping and passes us, the highbrows in the audience, as if he were not of this world. Great spasms pass through his body, jerky movements he does not seem to be in control of. Every step forward is more like a falling forward. He gazes into nothingness. His is the vocabulary of a disabled mind, or rather, an otherwise abled mind which we associate with the kind of behaviour that won’t give in to social discipline and that has no clue of a self- conscious display of the ego.
His mode of progression is not rushed by wishes or expectations. He creates a nexus that escapes time and space. There is no other point of reference than the here and now of his body vibrating in space.
Harmony is the key to the impact of Gehmacher’s language. We may indeed not immediately associate his interrupted and jolting movements with harmony, nonetheless it is there and even to the degree of moving us. He uses standing still as a mechanism for unlocking in the way John Cage builds compositions on the basis of silence: for Cage every silence is music and isolated from the memory of similar moments. Time and again silence is the condition and genesis. A musician who is able to accept its creative power, Cage feels, is in connection with Nature’s fundamental heterogeneity. Cage may have found his inspiration in the ancient Daoist concept of wu wei, from his beloved oracle book, the I Ching. Daoism considers all phenomena as an organically connected whole in a cyclical and continuously changing process. In order to harmonize with the greater whole, wu wei (non-action or non-interference), or still wei wu (conscious non-action) is advised. Gehmacher applies the same procedure: every time again he interrupts the movement to accept what is present and every time again he establishes the individual connection with it.
Time’s ‘now’ is in Gehmacher’s body. Straightaway from his first solo this forms the core of the performance. A texture of memories and melancholy around it serves as counterpoint. Meg Stuart’s share lies in the force and vision with which she accentuates this counterpoint: she displays her body while he is his gathering himself, she clings to him while he is dragging her along. She tries to imitate his movements and finds a language to express how scary ‘now’ is. Her text solo is a string of memories that she connects with the ever recurring onset ‘Do you remember...?’ ‘OK, ... One, two...’ she says in the microphone - and stops short after a deep and violent inhalation. ‘I’m not ready!’ She jumps away from the microphone and her body is one big rejecting spasm. She returns: ‘It’s all around, my bravery is all around’. A bit later it becomes clear what kind of bravery is in order here: ‘His eyes are wide, he’s going to explode, bravery is all around’. On the rhythm of the text she goes back into time: ‘Where did they go then,then,then,then...?’.
Gehmacher arrives and sits down on the tombstone, with his back to the audience. She sits down next to him and their backs already show their differences. Hers is manifesting itself, his is contemplating. Meg Stuart’s sinewy ‘brave’ body is the sum of another (dance) history than the soft, contemplative body of Philipp Gehmacher.
The power of the performance lies in its counterpoint. It maximizes the impact of how onto the history of broken and fragmented movements and bodies, of standing still in dance, something new is added here. The new open and generative ‘now’ is highlighted by everything that is ‘not-now’: recollection and desire - the evergreens, memories, the image of the wishing flower, words from the past on the soundscape, the tombstone / altar. At the same time it becomes clear that no past exists that is not at work anymore: the most remote and minute past seems to give shape to the new connections that turn the body’s ‘now’ into a continuously renewed present that resonates in a continuously renewed space. Gehmacher enters, opens up to what is present now, integrates, repositions and continues, to time
and again repeat the whole procedure. In this way every standstill is a memory as well, every given that has passed is taken along.
In the text solo that concludes the performance, this is more or less what he says. As he is standing in front of one microphone and then moves on to the next, I hear somebody in the audience clear his throat. You didn’t expect Gehmacher to be able to talk, but his rhythm is in perfect harmony with the music on the soundscape. Ever so slowly, in a shifted time, as if reading a letter while it is being written, he says:
‘This is the moment where
I have to accept the place ... I want you to know
that I love and cherish you. You gave me my beginning’.
place I’m in.
And with these words relief is indicated.
Lepecki, André. “Still: On the Vibratile Microscopy of Dance.” ReMembering the Body. Brandstetter, Gabriele and Völckers, Hortensia (Eds). Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000: 334-366. Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the politics of movement. New York:Routledg, 2006.
Philipp Gehmacher in an interview with Martin Hargreaves in 2002, as quoted in: Hargreaves, Martin. “Een poging tot een goed-genoegrelaas over Philipp Gehmachers good/enough. Peeters, Jeroen (ed). Schaduwlichamen. Over Philipp Gehmacher en Raimund Hoghe. Shadow bodies. On Philipp Gehmacher and Raimund Hoghe. Maasmechelen: CC Maasmechelen, 2006: 9-26.
Bernard, Michel.”Danse et musicalité: Les jeux de la temporalisation corporelle”. De la création chorégraphique. Centre national de la danse, 2001.