the fault lines – Meg Stuart, Philipp Gehmacher and Vladimir Miller
Damaged Goods and Mumbling Fish
The fault lines premiered at Utrecht Springdance Festival 2010 two hours before its official opening. A perspicacious move, given that in the field of contemporary dance, the makers belong to the vanguard. The question circulated whether this laboratory project should have ventured to the stage at all. My answer is yes, precisely because the performance can be read as a search for a renewed relationship between audience and performance. The latter is the more interesting because a central theme in the choreographic language of both Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher is the near impossibility of human relationships.
The fault lines germinated about two years ago in Vienna, where Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher were in a research project on image, projection and corpor(e)ality together with video-artist Vladimir Miller. Their entourage considered the result sufficiently successful to bring it onto the stage as an ‘installation-performance’. That generic name is enlightening too because as far as installations go, one can safely assume a degree of activation on the audience’s side.
In Huis a/d Werf in Utrecht, the stage of is bordered with stretches of neon-light. Gehmacher and Stuart are each neutrally waiting against a wall of the stage’s space. Vladimir Miller is squatting in front of what looks like a technical battery of camera and projector, his back turned to the audience. One could state at this point already that his gaze is turned in the same direction as that of the public. To the left a curtain is hanging down from the ceiling, the kind you may find in a traditional photographer’s studio. Here it is fitted within the focus range of Miller’s camera. Somewhere there is the purring sound of a 16mm film spool. In the middle of the stage a miniature screen is set up, hardly visible from the front row of the audience space. A second screen, the size of a torso, is equally difficult to watch as it is attached at an awkward corner to the right side wall of the stage. (Later on the back wall will serve to reveal images too). For a short while it looks as if the credibility of the set-up will be at risk. But then the performance finds its rhythm in an impossible encounter of the two dancers. Without ever looking at each other they keep on bumping into each other in all kinds of pitches and tones. Aggressive, desperate or unyielding, they stubbornly keep trying to pin each other down in an endless variety of armlocks. And, true to their creed, they never get to know each other: with his hands Gehmacher draws the outline of Stuart’s body without touching her and empty-armed puts her silhouette down elsewhere in the space, out of reach of the camera’s eye.
Admittedly at first sight the fault lines looks less digestible than the official opener of the festival later on the same evening, the re-enactment of Live, the first-ever Dutch video-ballet from 1979 by choreographer Hans van Manen. Though van Manen also works with two dancers, a camera and projection there is a world of difference between the two performances. Of course the premises of contemporary dance are different from those in ballet, a continual questioning of movement as an artistic practice on an axe running from standstill to extreme virtuosity.
The movement language of Philipp Gehmacher bears no reference to any existing dance vocabulary. His stumbling, blind, introverted idiom is highly idiosyncratic, recognizable only if you have seen him in previous performances, or in Maybe Forever, an earlier cooperation with Meg Stuart. She, for that matter, is surprisingly compliant in going along with Gehmacher’s language in the fault lines.
Apart from the dance language being less legible, the task division in the fault lines also is far less self-evident than in Live. Whereas in Live the cameraman stays closely at heel to the choreographer’s needs, the fault lines sees video-artist Vladimir Miller and his camera calling the shots. The camera is in a fixed central position : it doesn’t follow the performers but registers their movement only when their skirmishes bring them right in front. The result of these recordings is in Miller’s hands: the live-stream images are edited and shown on either one of the three screens if, where and when he sees fit.
Moreover, Miller’s new perspectives on the performers’ hopeless obstinacy gradually starts to influence their actions. While releasing their images on screen, he also sets them free: the performers quieten down up to the point where a hint of tenderness infiltrates their contacts. At one point they sit down next to each other in front of the camera to watch their images on the big screen, and, even if in reality one performer’s arm does not physically touch the other’s, on screen it looks as if they are intertwined.
With his gauging frames Miller not only opens up their potential range of action but also the time space. His perspective disengages itself from the performer’s reality and tilts them into a different time/space atmosphere, into a personal or collective subconscious that encloses underlying motives for the two performers’ moves. The unveiled images on the screens serve as tools that provide the performers with new insights they don't have to search for in vain in each other anymore.
The soundscape by Vincent Malstaf underscores old and hidden energies. There is the faraway sound of a barking dog, high-pitched children’s voices or the peeping of a swing.
In the slow revealing of the images on screen, Miller shows his métier. The techniques he uses are refreshingly down-to-earth. At one point he cuts a hole in a black sheet of paper and holds it in front of a projector. By slowly bringing the paper closer to the lens, a miniscule roundel of meaningless projection on the back wall is gradually extended into an overblown image of the performers. A little later, Miller adds a nimble spectre of colours at the bottom of the image by using coloured mica paper in front of the same projector. With this simple intervention Miller creates a sophisticated metonym for new spectra. Very deft also how at the end of the performance he brings the performers back to the here and now by drawing on their projected image a curly landscape, finishing up with bold, straight lines, as many options for new directions.
This new orientation also applies to the viewer. Thirty years after Live, the stage’s perspective has moved from Euclidean, over fragmented, to new focal points. The fault lines digs for new energies between disciplines and frames, not in the least between the performance and the individual viewer. Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher dish up new proposals of activation via Miller’s interventions: away from wrestling misunderstanding (as between the performers ) or passive watching (the fixed camera or consumerist viewing). We are invited by Miller’s example to reel in the what we see on stage in order to reshape it into a richer reality. From that point of view the fault lines can be read as an activator for a vision on art as a generator of concepts. Well, let’s just drop the issue of concepts. Art as a generator, tout court. In that sense the fault lines is fit for any stage.