Meg Stuart & Jompet Kuswidananto's Celestial Sorrow
We missed an opportunity to care.
The sky weeps.
In April 2019, we are invited to spend time with Meg Stuart, an acclaimed artist born in the United States and currently based in Berlin and Brussels. Stuart has established a global career in experimental performance. She’s made so many dances. This one, Ceelleleleleessttitiiaiaiaall SSoorrroow, was created as a collaboration with celebrated Jogyakarta-based visual artist Jompet Kuswidananto. The work features a spectacular, immersive light installation.
I learn things about Stuart in a brief conversation with her during the weekend of Celestial Sorrow’s premiere at the Walker, which co-commissioned the piece. Among them, that she is of New Orleans. Her parents worked in theater, and she studied at New York University. She found success as an artist in Europe and has lived there for three decades. She confirms things I already knew from having seen her work over the years: she is always concerned with vulnerabilities, upsetting expectations, and inciting challenges that shift the terms of a body in motion.
She tells me a tiny bit about this work: she was concerned with spirit presence and the ghosts we all dance with. She wondered at sadness as a topic: at loss, heartbreak, and the lingerings of social and cultural traumas. What follows us as we move through the day? Is the celestial something mysterious among us all? “After all,” she winks to me, “the celestial doesn’t belong to anyone…”
On April 12, 2019, I attend the performance at the Walker’s McGuire Theater. Like the performers, I am ready to surrender myself to the unknown.
how much are we willing to not know?
The sky is lit. It radiates with a gentle softness, enveloping and shining over us at once. We enter the performance space, and the performance has already begun. We question our roles in this already-moving—what are we to do alongside the performers? A generosity burnishes the air: we will be among each other, intimately gathered along the sides of the room but able to participate in some way. We have agency as an audience; we decide when to become quiet and when to notice that the work has begun.
utterances and mumblings
The performance emerges quietly. Guitarist Ikbal Simamora Lubys creates a drone sound, strumming with a violin bow, as the dancers—Jule Flierl, Gaëtan Rusquet, and Claire Vivianne Sobottke—revolve slowly, eyes closed, as if towards meditation. They explore sensations for themselves. Well, for ourselves too, we suppose. We experience their searching as an extension of our own, towards them. The exquisite array of lights crafted by Kuswidananto dim and recover, as a swooping human cry joins into the mix. The cry saddens—is someone choking?—and spreads into words of wanting, desire, loss, and mistakes. We are engulfed, lamenting an ineffable unknown. Some of us join the performers, holding their hands, moving across the space slowly. Are we in sorrow for the heavens? Can we somehow help each other?
Surely this is a handmade performance, one that literally takes us in hand, on a journey towards some sort of healing. If we are willing to explore together, to walk across the stage with a performer, we might wind up somewhere else in the space. In this ritual there is a risk of missing the intention, of being among each other. What will we do?
the said and the unsaid
What do we say in response to our unanticipated participation in a requiem for the universe? Cries become wails as one of the performers vocalizes something like agony, a sorrow song of sound. The performers move among their own needs, writhing and gesturing while lying on their backs. One of them dons a gold lamé rug as a shroud, walking in circles through the space, chanting intentionally about sacrifice and sacred places. Slowly and inevitably, the sound—generated both vocally by the performers and by musicians Mieko Suzuki and Lubys—intensifies, as the ceiling of lights above us brightens. Sound extends forward and backwards. We are in a room together, wondering at the shamanic gestures of the performers, who chant and move to consecrate the grounds of our meeting.
One of the performers begins a solo of gestural searching and stuttering. Nervous and jittery, he moves through small roiling motions, rarely stopping or slowing. Another performer begins chanting “yes” and “no” into a microphone; the oscillation suits the dance of looking without finding. Suddenly, the room brightens and the scene changes. The trio plays a game, weaving among each other, each passing between the other two as they skip, stamp, and straggle across the stage. The music takes on a playful, rhythmic vibration, and the room feels happier, moving towards ecstasy. We feel it approaching even if we can’t discern why it comes or what had held it back before.
opening out to pleasure
The dancers spin and twirl, hold each other, and roll on the ground, possessed by the possibilities of ecstatic dance. At times the action seems mean-spirited or abusive, as when the male dancer violently drags one of the women across the room. Yet each of the three performers finds their way into this playful and necessary opening towards movement without censure. This is the mosh pit: punk dancing against dance, against performance, against controls. The guitarist joins into the fray, hopping and twirling as he plays the rhythmic motor. The mood builds in happiness and wonder, and in time fades away, sound and light dissolving to black.
discomfort and darkness
To describe this work is to experience it all over again—its imagery, its subtleties, its frequent lack of affect, its hipsterisms. The experience of this shared sorrow lingers in its inexplicability. What was it? Why was it? What did we learn from being near it? How did it change so often, and so intently, in the course of a single hour?
A burning torch appears. Fire in the space concerns us—and soothes us. Time slows quite a bit here as the flame dances in its own way, creating a visual rhythm as the room stays darkened and quiet. Stories unfold in darkness: the performers describe images to us, revealing what they see and feel, what they’ve done, their families and children. In darkness, the stories feel sad, urgent, intimate. We all lean in to this portion of the work, wondering at feelings we can’t quite see. As the lighting returns to a glow, we watch the performers undressing as they speak. They continue to describe people and events that we imagine alongside them, but watching them shed their clothes, our perceptions become sensualized and odd. We giggle, expectantly.
Then the performers dress again, this time in unexpectedly vibrant, mismatched outfits. Two of them exit, as Claire Vivianne Sobottke remains onstage, sighing and singing full of sorrow, to a soundscape of droning metallic sounds. Sobottke sobs and complains in agony, describing her fears and hatreds, her mistrust of emotions. She crawls across the floor, telling us that she drowns and dies. Finally, she asks for help and we assist her: one of us from the audience tries to help move her across the space. But she rejects our help, taunting us to try again. We are wary the second time around. Whose sorrow is this? She continues to tease us and chastise us, to entreat us and deny us. We must see her and accompany her in her trauma, but we are not to help. In this aching solo, she offers a presence of pathology.
Gaëtan Rus uet returns dressed in a skirt and headwrap. Is this a reference to Javanese attire? He sings a looping, pointillistic melody against continuous drone sounds. Is he lost? Jule Flierl returns in a glamorous bodysuit and a Javanese facemask but refuses to perform traditional movements that might accompany the mask in other settings. She staggers and stumbles about the space, searching. Confusion and loss dominate; what are we to do now?
As if in release, Sobottke appears in a coat made of lights and pushes a small truck around the space. The trio sings a pop song in a language most of us don’t speak, but we know this to be a pop song, available to any who would want to listen to it. The musicians join in, walking and singing, each with some small flashing device. Glittering in many colors in the dimmed space, like revelers at the end of a nightlong rave, they circumscribe the space slowly and casually, spent.
coda of expansion
What is left to do? Rusquet comes with feather dusters to cleanse the space. Walking in impossible platform shoes, he takes his time cleaning the air around his body, above our heads, in the room. His ritual transforms the dusters at times, into antenna or horns. Striding and slinking calmly in the awkward, bespoke shoes, it seems he could care for us all—and the space that contains us—through his intentional and measured gestures. When he finishes, he leaves, and the glittering lights overhead dim to black.
turning away ego towards something like healing
In all, this work pushes us towards contemplations. Fragments and frequencies, ideas, and images collide, and we ride them together in dreamy sequences. We notice minor details—a smiling, a small glance, eyes closed—that move us towards a space of listening and receiving information. We publicly consider private pleasures.
This encounter is something like science fiction. Ghosts and spirits glide among the many overhead lights. The electronics and sonification devices on the tables in front of Lubys and Suzuki create sounds in our full view, but they don’t necessarily call for our attention in the way that the environment or the other performers do. Instead, the musicians operate as something of a bridge to this other-land, this experience-place where we relate through emotion and beyond our bodies.
Witnessing the work, we wonder: What is this elegant telepathy that seems to bind sound, light, gesture, and memory across our differences? What is the wild imagination that places Javanese signals next to experimental European dance traditions and processes? What is it to land in the here and now of the present moment, and allow for an intense experience of time slippage as well?
of guilt, shame, and things that are shut down
This work feels, and begs us to feel alongside it. We are invited, entreated, and encouraged to care across our differences, in some of the ways that Stuart and Kuswidananto have in making the piece. The creators have told us that this work was commissioned and supported by government agencies: Europalia Indonesia claims the pride of place of originating the encounter between Stuart and Kuswidananto. While the two collaborators and coauthors of this work crafted a way to work among each other and their various creative processes, the work contains a colonial echo, a colonial trace, and bears its marks as an encounter of asymmetrical differences. Javanese “mysteries” dropped into Euro-American theatrical dance. But the work also reaches towards some sort of relationship, circling towards and through without concern for the arrival. Yes, we might realize, this is a collaboration among all these artists and the worlds that they inhabit; this work develops from pleasure and our encounter. The artists, and we in the audience at the Walker, do not know each other—cannot know each other well. We know different sorts of things and care differently about our meeting. But then, Meg says to me, “the fact of our asymmetrical meeting is what matters, probably most.” Where can we meet? Where can we not? It is a minefield, this place of commissioned creativity. Where do we share?
Meg and I enjoy more moments, sharing confidences and vulnerabilities. Responses to the work surprise us both. Our time together produces a tracing of light that endures deep in the sockets, among unknowable dystopias and incalculable horrors—among people not here but here. The dictatorship in Indonesia, race riots in the USA. Here and not here, always here. There are no endings to this work, to this celestial sorrowing. There are though, maybe, some slowings-down to wonder: What if we could … care? What if?