Meg Stuart
Damaged Goods
Jozef Wouters/Decoratelier
DE MORGEN, A liberating failure - Pieter T’Jonck (4/10/12)

The American choreographer Meg Stuart appears to be breaking new ground with her new work Built to Last. Never before has she created a piece around existing music. This time everything revolves around monumental, classical compositions, created to stand the test of time, to defy the centuries. But if it’s in your blood, you can’t avoid it.

Four stars ****

Built to Last came about at the invitation of Johan Simons, the Münchner Kammerspiele’s current intendant. You can see this from the cast, which consists of performer Davis Freeman (Stuart’s brother) and dancers Anja Müller, Dragana Bulut and Maria Scaroni – all of whom were selected by Stuart herself. In addition, two of the Kammerspiele’s leading actors were also supposed to be taking part: Kristof Van Boven and Lena Lauzemis. Lauzemis dropped out due to injury, but Van Boven went on to carve out a place for himself, for all the world as if he’d spent his whole life dancing.

Half an hour before the end of this over two-hour long piece, it is Van Boven who expresses the concerns that go right to the heart of the performance. An essay about monumentalism by Bart Verschaffel inspired these. Humans, he claims, erect monuments to commemorate something or someone. As time passes, the first of these two meanings becomes irrevocably eroded. What is left is a stone object whose immovability makes it into a fixed point of reference in an ever-changing world. Monuments crystallise time: they are the diametric opposite of movement and life.

But is this also true of ‘monumental’ music? Music dramaturge Alain Franco has put together a collection of musical monuments. He begins with early music by Perotinus, then jumps to Beethoven’s Eroica and the late romanticism of Dvorák’s New World, finishing up with contemporary works such as Stockhausen’s Hymnen and Meredith Monk’s ‘Astronaut Anthem’. Rather than play the music in historical order, he uses it to create stark contrasts. At a certain moment, you might hear music designed to idealise something (Beethoven), only to find the following piece unravelling this idealising zeal (Stockhausen). It is an approach that results in an amazing musical rollercoaster and the meaning of the music becomes increasingly unsteady. Towards the end, recordings are also manipulated and stretched. The final composers, Gérard Grisey and Arnold Schoenberg, are thus barely recognisable.

The way the dancers use the music undermines the meaning within it even further. They go to every possible extreme by, for example, ‘supporting’ Dvorák’s ‘new world’ with tautly choreographed gestures that more closely resemble semaphore than dance. The dancers perform these movements whilst lying flat on their backs on the floor, which makes them seem even more absurd. The performers’ interpretation of the first movement of Beethoven’s third symphony could hardly be more different: they totally let rip to it. If it can be compared to anything, then perhaps it’s most like the impulsive reactions made by children to exciting, loud music. Neck-breaking turns and violent landings follow in quick succession. Somewhere amongst all this, there is also ‘proper dance’, such as Maria Scaroni’s bewitching interpretation of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio in A.

As if this clash between music, movement and text isn’t enough, scenographer Doris Dziersk throws a whole cartload of images on top of it. A bizarre, often stationary planetarium hanging over the stage, a digital screen the size of a man, weird masks, hilarious costumes, pointless props like a flail or a butterfly net, and even a life-size triplex model of a dinosaur. You can invent all manner of explanations for this, but none will hold up for long due to the unpredictable march of events. Everything keeps on moving, nothing crystallises.

As a result, Built to Last is extremely irritating at times, like a joke without a punch line, or a story leading nowhere. The long duration of the piece actually turns out to be an advantage in this case: the performers’ overwhelming drive gradually unleashes a feeling of liberation within you. It’s abundantly clear that the tale being told here isn’t an unambiguous one. You’ll never understand everything the performers want to tell you either about, or with the help of, the music. In this sense, the piece is a total ‘failure’. It is not a ‘monument’ that pins down a specific moment in time. But as a spectator, you also share this failure with the performers.

In the final analysis, Built to Last is about not being able to communicate, whilst continuing to try. In this, you suddenly recognise Meg Stuart’s hand.
“For me, movement expresses the longing to make contact, but movement also inherently expresses the failure of communication”, she comments in the programme. It is this that links Built to Last to earlier works like Forgeries, Blessed or Maybe Forever. But this performance simply propels you from one surprise to another.

Translation: Helen Simpson

DE STANDAARD, The power of failure - Sarah Vankersschaever (08/10/2012)
FOCUS KNACK, Meg Stuart in Wonderland - Els Van Steenberghe (10/10/12)
ETCETERA, Music is potentially always a threat - Jeroen Versteele (09/12)
THALO MAGAZINE, Moving the viewer - Alena Giesche (06/03/2012)
THE NEW YORK TIMES, Forget about a Paper Moon: This Swan’s Cardboard - Claudia La Rocco (14/01/2012)

© Damaged Goods — — +32 (0)2.513.25.40