Meg Stuart
Damaged Goods
Jozef Wouters/Decoratelier
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DE MORGEN, A liberating failure - Pieter T’Jonck (4/10/12)
DE STANDAARD, The power of failure - Sarah Vankersschaever (08/10/2012)

Have you ever eaten a succulent Big Mac with Beethoven playing in the background? No? You should try it. Afterwards, go and see Meg Stuart’s Built to Last. You’ll feel perfectly at home.

In her new choreography, Meg Stuart, known as the madwoman of modern dance, confronts five performers with overwhelming compositions from the classical music repertoire. Works that are landmarks in musical history. A careful selection was made by the conductor and pianist Alain Franco, as musical dramaturge: think of Ligeti’s Lontano, Schönberg’s Der Kranke Mond or Meredith Monk’s Astronaut Anthem. These are scores that music lovers would normally approach with reverence. Scores that pretty much any artist would approach with reverence. Except for Meg Stuart.

Collapsible Dinosaur
You begin to suspect something from the moment you walk in: the decor of Built to Last is rather too reminiscent of a playground for adults to stay serious for a whole performance. There’s a giant, collapsible dinosaur in the right hand corner, nine floating balls like a modest solar system suspended in mid-air, and a mobile cabin in the left hand corner. What more does a performer need to keep himself amused?

Nevertheless, and with a degree of seriousness, Built to Last starts out with the intention of succeeding in its aim: to lay bare the human condition by means of a confrontation between the choreography and the music. The three women and two men tense their muscles with rapt concentration to the sounds of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Hymnen Region 2. They then hobble across the stage like glorified robots, or nervous creatures, their arms swinging mechanically alongside their bodies. When performer Davis Freeman lets out a brutal laugh, the mood turns positively creepy. You’d almost be happy not to be sitting in the front row. But five minutes later, it becomes apparent that the suspense won’t be sustained for too long. One symphony follows another, and while a gigantic orchestra has clearly succeeded in producing piece after piece of stunning music, very little harmony is evidenced between the five performers on stage. They stumble around to the music like characters in a silent film: wordlessly, with grotesque movements and magnified emotions. Beethoven must be turning in his grave. Until, with a click of his fingers, performer Kristof Van Boven pulls out the plug and, in a split second, exposes the construction of this madness. The performers fall still, wipe away their sweat and then, from a sitting position, swell up when the violins in the next composition announce themselves. From vulnerability to inviolability, in Built to Last it is a question of pressing the shuffle button.

Middle Finger
And it carries on like this for almost two hours: with each new composition, the five begin with renewed courage on their search for the human condition, and for the possible impact of the music on human thought. They try, fail, try again, fail again, and in trying, fail.

Meg Stuart fails splendidly as a choreographer, in the theatricality of the performers (Davis Freeman and Kristof Van Boven are heavenly), in the inventiveness of the search and, above all, in so deliciously countering the gravitas that has been heaped upon the scores over the years. Wearing masks and wigs, the dancers sing along to Perotin, skip around in the stinking fumes of a smoke machine to Schönberg’s Der kranke Mond, and control the universe to the strains of Ligeti’s Atmospheres (or actually just make sure that they don’t bang their heads on the planets whirling around them). The tension between the seriousness of what we hear and the light-footedness of what we see is unpretentiously disarming.

In Built to Last, Stuart lays bare the ultimate human condition: longing and powerlessness, ambition and ignorance, the grandeur of a concept and the humility of mankind. In short, the power of failure. It is rare to see someone succeed in failing as magnificently and entertainingly as Meg Stuart does in Built to Last.

Built to Last by Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods. Seen at the Kaaitheater in Brussels.

Five stars *****

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)

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