Meg Stuart makes Built to Last at the Münchner Kammerspiele
At the end of April, Meg Stuart’s new production Built to Last premiered in Munich. The piece is the first co-production between her Brussels-based dance company Damaged Goods and the Münchner Kammerspiele, led by Johan Simons since 2010-2011. This was also the first time that Meg Stuart had worked with existing classical music and with a musical dramaturge, Alain Franco. The piece was performed in early October at the Kaaitheater. Jeroen Versteele, the Kammerspiele’s dramaturge, shares his impression of the creative process.
During the first month, we’re mostly listening to music, discussing the concepts of ‘sainthood’ and ‘monumentality’ and improvising around these themes. Is it possible to design a monument both physically and emotionally? Alain Franco plays us even more famous musical pieces, taken from different eras and from a wide range of styles.
The atmosphere is tense, and rather sad: yesterday, actress Lena Lauzemis fell off a ladder, seriously injuring her knee. She’s sitting propped up against the dance studio wall, on the verge of tears, determinedly preparing the lines that she is about to deliver – sitting down – during the run-through.
‘Music is always travelling away from its point of origin towards its destination in the fleeting moment at which someone experiences it – be that during yesterday evening’s concert or during this morning’s solitary jog.’ In the introduction to his wonderful work The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century the American journalist Alex Ross reveals the connections between musical and social developments over the past century, and simultaneously explains how situation-specific, how subjective the physical experience of music actually is. ‘Since 1900, musical histories have often been presented as teleological stories, accounts with the narrator’s eye firmly trained on a final objective, which are full of great leaps forward and heroic fights with the narrow-minded bourgeoisie. (…) Whether the course of history actually has anything to do with music is the subject of fierce debate. (…) The meaning of music is vague, changeable and ultimately highly personal. But even though history cannot tell us with any certainty what music really means, music can tell us something about history.’
By coincidence, I came across a copy of Ross’ book a few days before I met Meg Stuart in Berlin to discuss Creation 2012 for the first time – it wasn’t until a year later that the working title would be changed to Built to Last. It’s March 2011. Quotes from the first few chapters of The Rest is Noise come to mind when Stuart explains that she doesn’t yet know anything about the new performance, except for the music, for which she has a suggestion to make. ‘I want to explore how I can react with my performers to an overwhelming, symphonic musical score,’ she says. ‘This is a very intuitive idea. I usually work with new compositions and live musicians. I have never worked before with existing, classical music. In September I’ll be organising a first, exploratory workshop with the performers, and if I see it’s not working, we’ll do something different.’
I can’t help noticing that Meg Stuart already seems to have made up her mind. She is struggling to put it into words, but her idea has depth. ‘In my experience, listening to one of Beethoven’s famous symphonies drains you of energy. When confronted with such a masterpiece, you feel powerless. If you try to relate to it, you soon find yourself in a zone of shame, of human failure. And that’s the zone where things can go wrong.’
Currently, Stuart is putting the finishing touches to VIOLET, a piece that is to be premiered in Essen in a few weeks’ time. ‘This performance will be an abstract trip, a kind of trance,’ she says of it. ‘A tunnel of intensity. Repetitive and totally without irony. Creation 2012 could be more about a kind of social consciousness. I want to highlight the confrontation with classical masterpieces. It’s all about vulnerability and modesty. And humour. Modern dancers and actors doing something to a Beethoven soundtrack: I reckon that could turn out to be very funny.’
May 2011, Munich. Meg Stuart and I are sitting in the canteen of the Münchner Kammerspiele, the theatre where Johan Simons works as intendant, and which will be co-producing Creation 2012 in collaboration with Damaged Goods. This will be this illustrious repertory theatre’s first ever dance production. It’s also a first for Meg Stuart: this is her first choreography in Bavaria. Stuart is well known in Berlin, Zurich and Vienna, but not yet in Munich. So to give her some exposure here, we’re performing Stuart’s Do Animals Cry, a performance from 2009. This is to be staged in the Spielhalle, where next year Creation 2012 will also be performed. The Münchner Kammerspiele is a city theatre with a repertoire system (every evening, a different piece is performed in the Schauspielhaus, taken from a pool of some twenty five in-house productions), but in the Spielhalle – a compact, flexible, ‘industrial’ hall for more experimental work – we have been using an ensuite system since the arrival of Johan Simons. Productions play here for two months, after which a new piece starts its run.
The dancers are warming up and Meg Stuart is telling me about hoarders, people who obsessively collect things. They try to get to grips with reality by incessantly collecting things: newspapers, plastic boxes, bicycle tyres, toys, electronic goods, frozen food, absurd archives, anything you can imagine. They can’t throw anything away, cling on to everything, and create an immense, cluttered, often dangerous chaos. Homer and Langley Collyer were famous hoarders, who in New York early in the previous century, created a gigantic collection space in their house, where they eventually died together. One of the brothers was buried beneath a heap of rubbish while trying to bring food to his other brother, who was blind and had become hemmed in between heaps of junk. The blind brother died of starvation days later.
A preparatory workshop in Berlin is coming to a close. It’s September 2011. Music dramaturge Alain Franco introduces his first contribution to the soundtrack: two movements from Beethoven’s Third Symphony, a pinnacle of classicism, better known as the Eroïca, ‘a piece in memory of a great man’. Beethoven, a passionate supporter of the French Revolution, dedicated his symphony to Napoleon, whom he likened to the demigod Prometheus. When Napoleon crowned himself emperor and began acting like a dictator, the disappointed composer added to his dedication the words that Napoleon ‘was, in the end, no more than a man like everyone else’, but in spite of this, his Eroïca still breathes the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The uncompromising idealism that resonates through this grand, sparkling, epic music is that of a bygone, more hopeful age. The dancers and actors lie on their backs and listen.
‘Beethoven is the pivotal figure in a historical fantasy in which contemporary listeners love to indulge’, Franco explains. ‘He represents the fantasy of classicism that merely represents established certainties, and conveys an unshakable belief in a future where boundaries will be challenged. He is the ultimate heir to the ‘classical’. On the other hand, Beethoven can be seen - and this is even more important - as the founder of musical philosophy, just as Hegel was the founder of historical philosophy. In this sense, it’s no surprise that I want to give his music a central role in the performance.’
After two months of rehearsals in Berlin, we’ll be spending the last four weeks in Munich. For Kristof Van Boven and Lena Lauzemis, actors at the Kammerspiele and ‘serving’ in a number of repertory performances, this means a lot of flying back and forth during this first rehearsal phase. Van Boven, especially, is regularly absent from rehearsals, which for Meg Stuart is far from ideal given her group-oriented way of working.
The first month mostly involves listening to music, as well as discussing the concepts of ‘sainthood’ and ‘monumentality’ and improvising around them. Is it possible to design a monument not only physically, but also emotionally? Alain Franco plays even more famous musical pieces taken from different eras and a wide range of styles. They all have one thing in common: they are pioneering works, cornerstones of art history. Early on, the decision is taken that the performance will begin with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1967 composition Hymnen, an electronic montage of some forty national anthems, interspersed with war and nature sound effects. Hard tones signal to the performers, who are standing stock still, to start making unpredictable hand and arm movements, prompting a new consciousness of space and location.
‘Stockhausen creates his first tension builder with the idea of Beethoven’s classical idealism,’ Franco explains. ‘He holds up a mirror to reality, by giving us the sounds of patriotic hymns in a context that could not be further removed from that of proud nationalism.’
A second tension builder is introduced not long after this, with the piece Thallein by Iannis Xenakis – who, just like Stockhausen, was scarred by the Second World War and was a co-founder of new musical notations and methods.
Franco: ‘Xenakis introduced stochastic music, which rests on formulas of playing theory and chance calculation. This demonstrates his blind faith in mathematical values as the foundation of art and communication. The laws of arithmetic ratios, stripped of values and ideology, as an answer to a world from which any sense of justice has been sucked away.’ We hear a grandiose example of Xenakis’ approach in Thallein, a naughty sounding composition that is both provocative and rhythmic.
While we are listening to this music, there’s a playful moment between the performers Davis Freeman and Kristof Van Boven: an improvisation lasting a matter of seconds where one appears to be pursuing the other. Meg Stuart notices the interaction and asks them to repeat it, only in a more exaggerated, expressionistic way. The other performers are asked to come up with variations on this hunting scene. This is the coincidental beginning of what will turn out to be a burlesque, impressive theatrical sequence.
‘We were just mucking around', Van Boven later tells me when he’s recalling how the scene came about. ‘We let the music tell us what we had to do. Really, every scene is a new attempt to maintain form. For her choreographies, Meg never allows us to draw on existing databanks of human movements and subsequent effect they have on the spectator. Every movement is created afresh, is always motivated by a sense of longing. The music is frequently bombastic, self-assured, rich in shading and detail. The way we handle our bodies in this piece should go just as far, should have an equally complex meaning. There is no direct, readable relationship between our movements and an emotional effect on the spectator. There is only the continual, searching attempt to try and give shape and to stand firm in the face of the music. Humans are not statues. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what this performance is about.’
All the rehearsals and the run-throughs of the scenes that had taken shape are videoed, and we watch them together afterwards. The video camera proves to be a particularly useful tool for the twenty-minute scene set to Beethoven’s Eroïca. The performers have agreed on some of the broad brushstrokes that they will be sketching out in the space as a group, but their personal courses are not fully defined. ‘Thanks to the recordings, we’re managing to get a feel for the way the group communicates as a whole,’ says Anja Müller, the German dancer who previously performed in Do Animals Cry. ‘During rehearsals, you always react very subjectively, precisely because there are no fixed rules. You have no choice but to react impulsively to the music and to respond to the energy of your co-performers.’
‘As if we are all playing together in an orchestra,’ that’s how the Italian dancer Maria F. Scaroni describes the feeling she had after the rehearsal. ‘If we were all to play in exactly the same key, the piece would have no visual appeal. It’s about developing the right level of individual tension and tuning it into that of your colleagues. The most important thing that Meg asked us to do at the start of the rehearsals was to move in “a state of listening”. We often perform exercises in what she describes as “tuning”: searching for a state of relaxed concentration, in which you can react freely and impulsively to external factors.’
The Eroïca is firmly fixed at the heart of the musical dramaturgy. But it’s not only Stockhausen’s critical, almost parodic Hymnen that acts as a contrast to the romantic ideal of Beethoven. Staub, by the famous German composer Helmut Lachenmann, two sections of which finally appear in the performance, was explicitly written as a commentary on Beethoven, albeit with references to his other world-famous symphony, the Ninth. Originally, Franco planned to position Staub in amongst the Eroïca, but during the rehearsals, he finds a better place for it: just before the Eroïca, during a Maria F. Scaroni solo that up to that point had always taken place in silence.
Scaroni: ‘We performed a “tuning” exercise to Stockhausen music and out of this I created a solo based on Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Rainer’s NO Manifesto is a plea for a non-virtuoso, unspectacular dance language: no to the heroic, no to style, no to eccentricity... I linked this philosophy to the playful, uncomplicated movements of a pedestrian on the street. During one of the run-throughs, the solo happened to take place during a long silence. I found this very beautiful and fitting. Silence allows us to listen to music. It was Alain’s idea to finally bring in Staub a the end of the silent solo.’
Lontano by György Ligeti, Vespers by Sergei Rachmaninov, Antonin DvoÃƒÂ…Ã‚Â™ák’s Ninth Symphony From the New World, Perotinus’ Sederunt Principes, ‘Der kranke Mond’ from Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire cycle, … Every one of these pieces, drawn from incredibly diverse periods, has its own distinctive ideology and is connected to new technological, and often also ideological, insights. For example, DvoÃƒÂ…Ã‚Â™ák’s piece was created during his first voyage to America, from where he wrote in 1893: ‘I am now convinced that this country’s future music must be built on what are known as nigger melodies. All the great musicians have borrowed heavily from the songs of ordinary people. Beethoven’s most appealing scherzo is based on what could currently be described as an expertly applied nigger melody. (…) In America’s nigger melodies I am discovering all that is needed for a great, noble musical tradition. They are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, brutal, lively, cheerful, whatever you like.’
Set to DvoÃƒÂ…Ã‚Â™ák’s heroic music, we create an insect-esque arm ballet that reminds me of a scene from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The four women lie in a row, heads towards the audience, and perform ever-faster variations on a small number of mechanical arm movements: impressive and enthralling.
‘A time machine’ is how Meg Stuart describes the soundtrack’s relationship to the performers. ‘You are going back and forth in time, discovering new worlds that you have to deal with time and time again.’
Dramaturge Bart Van den Eynde came across an extract from Slavoj ÃƒÂ…Ã‚Â½iÃƒÂ…Ã‚Â¾eks The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema on YouTube, in which the philosopher discusses the role of music in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator: ‘The same music that served evil purposes can be redeemed to serve the Good. Or it can be read in a much more ambiguous way. With music we cannot ever be sure. In so far as it externalizes our inner passion music is potentially always a threat.’
‘The rehearsal space itself gradually becomes a growing archive, in which we’re collecting information and fascinations, like hoarders,’ muses Maria F. Scaroni during the break. ‘Alain Franco’s speeches about his take on musical history, Schönberg’s atonal music, and Xenakis’ stochastic music are also part of the space. Just like the philosophical reflections on sainthood and monumentality, written by cultural philosopher Bart Verschaffel. It goes without saying that we would never base an improvisation on stochastic musical theory - input by Meg and by us is always emotional and impulsive - but still, the knowledge-laden atmosphere that permeates the rehearsals is incredibly important.’
‘We need this sort of shared thinking space,’ confirms Anja Müller. We all have totally different personal and artistic backgrounds. We share five different native languages. It has taken a long time for us to bond together as a group: each of us has our own aesthetic sense, our own expectations. Sometimes I need something that I don’t get; sometimes I get too much of something that I have no need of at all.’
Maria F. Scaroni: ‘During the rehearsal, one individual might sometimes have the desire to go deeper into something, but the collective task demands that we stay with the idea, follow the group dynamic.’
Anja Müller: ‘The result of this sort of process, involving international artists plucked from different contexts, is always going to be enormously enriching. Each one of us is continually questioning our self.’
After the application of a certain amount of pressure by Münchner Kammerspiele’s communication department, the white smoke finally appears - just in the nick of time for their monthly calendar print deadline: Creation 2012 is rechristened Built to Last. ‘Things are made with an inbuilt obsolescence,’ Meg Stuart explains in the bar after the rehearsal. ‘The title has a provocative edge. We always want to create new things. But at the same time everyone has the feeling that the end of the world is nigh, and everyone is secretly preparing for it. Sad, but true.’
A few days later we find ourselves in the bar again, chatting over a beer about a scene that we have altered quite dramatically today. ‘Rebuilt to last’, I say. ‘That’s even better!’ says Stuart. ‘Can we still change the title?’ But it’s too late: the monthly calendar is already at the printers.
24 March 2012, the Uferstudios in Berlin. Today is the last rehearsal day in the German capital; next week the team will be moving to Munich. Tonight there will be a run-through for friends and colleagues from the Damaged Goods network. The atmosphere is tense, and rather sad: yesterday, actress Lena Lauzemis fell off a ladder, seriously injuring her knee. She’s sitting propped up against the dance studio wall, on the verge of tears, determinedly preparing the lines that she is about to deliver – sitting down – during the run-through.
After the run-through, Lauzemis decides to throw in the towel. Her knee will require an operation, which will be followed by a long recovery period. If she is extremely careful, her doctor says that the operation could be delayed until after the premiere, but she doesn’t see the point. Dancing with extreme care…?
The first rehearsal day in Munich. We notice that without Lauzemis, the group scenes take on a totally different dynamic. The twenty-minute group scene on the Eroïca feels like a Christmas dinner with a family member missing. The scene with the arm ballet is quite simply missing an extra pair of arms: four pairs are visually so much stronger than three. While we are waiting for the decision about whether Lauzemis will be replaced, Davis Freeman lies down beside his female colleagues and starts practicing the arm movements. ‘You’ll have to shave your arms, Davis’, laughs Meg Stuart.
Lena Lauzemis will not be replaced. The performance will be completed with five performers. This is not the only change that is made shortly after our arrival in Munich. A gigantic screen, which was to be set up behind the stage and lit so that it constantly changed colour, is also sacrificed: scenographer Doris Dziersk finds the Spielhalle’s natural state much more beautiful, including the artillery of old-fashioned spotlights up against the back wall – ‘a graveyard of lights’, Meg Stuart confirms. The mobile, an abstract sort of planetarium hanging from the roof that rotates mechanically, works here for the first time, and inspires some spectacular looking improvisations. To Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony, Anja Müller glides through the universe, striking leaders’ poses. Her statuesque poses are filled with a growing despair, because the turning planets sometimes launch treacherous attacks on her.
‘How powerful you are,’ reflects Stuart afterwards on stage. ‘Look how far you can go in the creation of your own reality.’
This makes me think of the hoarders that we haven’t spoken of in months but who, in their crazy attempt to order the world around them with their collections, still permeate the images we’re developing during rehearsals.
We’re watching video recordings, over and over again, of new versions in Munich and old versions in Berlin: the sequence set to Beethoven’s Eroïca is dissected, discussed and compared almost daily. Meg Stuart saves all the recordings on hard drives. She knows exactly who does what at every moment of every recording. She talks to the performers about the game that they are playing with one another in the scene, about constantly re-discovering the rules, about the state of destabilisation, about the physical reconstruction of a symphony and the shameful, unavoidable failure to do it. She talks about collective rituals, about het question of how a group can share an ideology and express it. She doesn’t want to see any fixed structures, tricks or ideas, but instead to see performers making conscious choices all the time. ‘Every moment you can step out.’ Every moment you can show your free will. Not psychology, just humanity.
‘Most of my pieces examine a specific state of consciousness,’ Stuart tells me later on. ‘But this piece is more about practicing different forms and situations. The meaning of many of the scenes is all in the shades of difference, in the small gestures and looks that infuse iconographic images and great announcements with humanity. That’s the crazy thing about dance: it is all about concrete shapes and movements and at the same time it allows you to communicate more deeply, to describe inter-human connections.’
‘Let’s just say that irony is going to be one of the key flavours of the performance,’ Maria F. Scaroni tells me after a rehearsal. ‘It is often rather tongue in cheek. The parodic nature of our movements is a consequence of the grandeur of the music and a certain emotional ignorance with which we approach it. The relationship between the musical material and us is out of kilter. As if you can rehearse every day with Beethoven, Bruckner and Rachmaninov and say to them “Hi, how’s it going today?” All you can do is to try and remain honest at all times, to accept your own imperfections and to behave modestly. We are dealing with masterpieces in a playful way. We are actually taking it very seriously. Just like children can sometimes play very seriously.’
A run-through, three days before the premiere. Johan Simons comes to take a look and is delighted with the closing image, which has been a subject of fierce debate in the last few days: ‘Beautiful. The players are holding the world in their hands, or that’s how it seems to me.’
The day before the premiere. Meg Stuart sees all her players as ‘performers’ but within the context of the Münchner Kammerspiele, the collaboration between dancers and actors is an important theme. ‘Actors normally need certain tools: text, a concrete situation, attributes… explains Kristof Van Boven. ‘For dancers, on the other hand, an empty space is a highly usable thing. They use other tentacles, create movements from different impulses. I also admire dancers’ ability to trust a good discovery, and not to then endlessly mess around with it, as actors are prone to do. The added value I can bring to the performance as an actor is my distaste for a ‘loaded atmosphere’. If a situation on stage becomes falsely sentimental, I try to do something to turn the space back into just a stage instead of a shrine.’
And then: the premiere, the big eyes and careful words of the theatre staff; the storm of reviews and critiques in blogs, in newspapers and magazines; actors from the Kammerspiele who wish that more actors had taken part; actors who would have like to have been involved themselves; performances for forty people; performances for a full house of season-ticket holders with forty people walking out; the delighted reactions of people who love the idea that they can see something like this in Munich; audience members who call out to me in the street that the loud volume is a crime; the crowds who come to listen to the introduction that I give before each performance and the genuine interest I pick up on when I talk about Meg Stuart’s first production Disfigure Study in Leuven; Meg Stuart’s revitalising re-appearance in the middle of the run-through; her criticism of the way in which the ‘searching, buoyant shape of many of the scenes has been melted down into an all too well-aimed aesthetic’; Davis Freeman arguing in vain in the Theaterleitung for performances scheduled during FC Bayern München – Chelsea (Champions League final) and Germany – Portugal (deciding European Championship game) to be cancelled; our wounded pride when we played twice in a row for an audience of less than thirty; the sudden appearance of a surprising number of students from the music conservatory; the rapidly swelling audience numbers and the two last performances which, despite being on ‘open sale’ are almost completely sold out; frenzied applause with stamping in the aisles after the final performance. A real climax, just as the performance itself reaches its climax. For a moment, it feels as though the world is at out feet.
Built to Last has been performed from 4 to 6 October in Brussels (Kaaitheater), on 11 October in Leuven (Stadsschouwburg) and will be performed from 2 to 4 May in Antwerp (deSingel).
The original Dutch version was commissioned by Etcetera and appeared in Etcetera 130 (Sept 2012).
Translation : Helen Simpson.