Meg Stuart
Damaged Goods
Jozef Wouters/Decoratelier
TIME OUT NEW YORK, Meg Stuart: The American choreographer presents her improvisation project - Gia Kourlas (10/2009)
THE SKINNY, Interview with Meg Stuart - Rosalind Masson (21/11/09)

Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the concept for the piece?

I started with family but not necessarily family as we know it, rather the word familiar: intimate spaces, private spaces, the attraction of people close to us. I was curious to compose a group that would change roles. They would have tendencies, one person could be mothering or childish or whatever. That evolved, they wouldn’t be fixed but shifting roles. I knew I would have a closed group but also an ‘outsider’ that would effect the group or change things.

Like a social experiment on stage?

I’ve been interested in social choreography for a long time, the unspoken rules of relationships and how that effects the body. Like when you’re going to greet people, do you kiss them or hug them? Also I found it very exciting to work with the notion of family, a close knit group, but without having to tell a set story.

What methods do you engage with in the studio in order to set your material? It seems to be highly choreographed but still retain a freshness.

For the most part I propose very open situational scores and we improvise daily, sometimes with a task and sometimes I just ask questions. Sometimes it’s more open: I can ask them to pant and see what happens…or I ask them to work on exaggerated motions and I put on music. I often improvise and then we learn segments of the material back from video. I would say to them something like, ‘I want to make a family portrait’ and I work on this concept and all variations of this. Then when I’m ready and I know how the theme will develop, I have them learn fragments of it from video. So for the most part it comes from them and I sort of encourage them along. Of course I like the real time things that are happening now, when it looks like they’re working things out and when they’re questioning themselves during the performance.

I think that integrity in performance was really clear, especially during some of the solos…I wondered how much of those particular parts are left open to the performer? Is that movement in any way improvised?

For Adam’s solo (the outsider) I identify a quality in a character, almost character traits in him: he’s young, sexually adolescent and overwhelmed with emotion. We describe a kind of portrait and then I identify movement material before deciding, ‘I think you should do a solo’. I set up a situation and then slowly it develops… he gave a lot of input but by the end it becomes fixed.

It sounds like the dancers very much play a part in the creative process and I wondered how long you have worked with that particular group?

Half of the dancers I worked with on other pieces before and half of them are new. I have preparation workshops, I try out ideas but I’m also looking for dancers. I think it’s important that there is the right balance of energies depending on what work it is, but mainly that they’re all individual so they can work together as a collective - as a whole. They should be very technical but also able to improvise, have a lot of imagination and be open for experimentation.

Who would you say your influences are?

For this particular piece we watched a lot of movies together in the studio: ‘Festen’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Teorema’ by Pasolini, ‘Happiness’ by Solondz plus a lot of other independent movies. We also looked at Caravaggio’s paintings. In the piece we have these family portraits at the table and I wanted some sort of classical element to the work. I think I draw from a lot of different sources and then I filter them through into the process.

There was a lot of sound coming from the performers in the piece either through their own voice or by creating sound, like when the ‘mother’ character is bashing on the drum kit.

I try to expand the notion of dance, dancing and choreography. So they can breath, they can sing, they can scream, they can dance. I’m not limiting it to one kind of way of presence or vocabulary. They shift a lot, their style is always changing. It’s about expanding the range.

There seemed to be a lot of space within the work, this idea of waiting for the right moment, and I wondered how deliberately you feel you are manipulating the audience’s perception of time and their awareness of place?

I mean I normally work with a flow of time, or extended time, that’s typical for me. I think this ‘everydayness’ or waiting…..It’s not always about the event, but also sticking together in hard times. It’s about the daily times, almost the boredom of things. Like meeting each other at the kitchen table. I wanted to play this out somehow. I think theatre is a place where you can take time, you have a different notion of time. I know I challenge the audience but I think it pays off in the end.

The set design by Doris Dziersk and music by Hahn Rowe seemed totally integral to the work, seamlessly fused into the body of the piece. How did you approach working with these elements?

The composer wasn’t always there because he was in NY but he was involved from the start and was making music right up till the last moment. The stage was built really early on it the process. Not at the very beginning but we started rehearsing, had a deadline and it had to be made. We wanted to make something vast, animal, cosy and bright but also something that suggested there’s no way out, that you hide secrets in this tunnel.

It looked to me like a beaver’s house. One moment that stood out was when the performers were running through the tunnel. Just seeing the different layers, the textures as the light changed. What is your approach to working with those materials?

The running is important because it addresses the stage directly, a way of trying to make sense of the space. There is a house or a safe place, but it’s a dog house and it’s way too small. There aren’t a lot of elements, but it’s enough to give it a sense of home. A home gone wrong or something.

What’s the life span of the work? Are you coming to the UK?

I would love to! You know I haven’t shown my work much there. We’re going to Canada in February and we’ll be in Belgium and Holland. We’ll be keeping it for a while.

CRITICAL CORRESPONDENCE, Meg Stuart and Trajal Harrell in conversation with Cristiane Bouger - Christiane Bouger (07/2009)

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