Meg Stuart
Damaged Goods
Jozef Wouters/Decoratelier
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Interviews
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Interview by Jeroen Versteele
SPRINGDANCE MAGAZINE, Just doing Violet - Annette van Zwol (30/03/2012)
THE NEW YORK TIMES, Perseverance in a Collapsing World - Gia Kourlas (06/01/2012)

In Meg Stuart’s BLESSED a white-clad man in sandals — picture a Brazilian hippie passing a lazy day at the beach — traverses a stage that resembles a storybook island. His flattened movement gives him the two-dimensional air of Nijinsky on holiday. But there’s something not quite right about this strange scene: the set, which features a palm tree, a hut with a chair and an enormous swan, is made entirely of cardboard. Soon enough it begins to rain. There’s trouble ahead.

“You have to think about questions of fate,” Ms. Stuart said in a telephone interview from her home in Berlin. “People in spiritual decline often think, ‘Why do these things happen to me and not to someone else?’ ”

Beginning on Thursday, New York Live Arts in Chelsea presents the American premiere of BLESSED, welcoming Ms. Stuart back to the city where she lived and worked starting in the mid-1980s. This acclaimed 2007 production, with a score by Hahn Rowe, also reunites her with the Portuguese dancer and choreographer Francisco Camacho.

In 1991 Ms. Stuart, an American choreographer and improviser whose influence on the European dance and performance scene is extensive, made Disfigure Study, the work that put her on the experimental map. “The piece was very physical and concerned with movement language and choreography,” Mr. Camacho said. “But I think she was also trying to touch feelings and emotions, and that made us dig deep into the work. Like with BLESSED, it put our bodies in a different place.”

Since the premiere of Disfigure Study Ms. Stuart, who was born in New Orleans and raised in California, has lived in Europe. Berlin is her home, but her company, Damaged Goods, is based in Brussels, largely for financial reasons. While her appearances in New York have picked up in recent years, her choreography — especially the group works — is all too rarely performed in the United States. Her group, which shifts according to project, was named after a line in a review by the American critic Burt Supree: “But it’s failure that absorbs Stuart, the body’s stubborn, fumbling thickness, its sticky desires and cruel inefficacies. And everyone is shown as damaged goods.”

The man in BLESSED has surely suffered some damage, yet for Ms. Stuart, Mr. Camacho’s calm presence solidifies the spirit of the work, which has more to do with his reaction to the collapsing world — somehow he withstands the trauma — than to the collapse itself. “He’s such a sensitive dancer,” Ms. Stuart said. “He has so much poise. It’s not like if I make a solo for him, it’s all about flash.”

The work develops slowly to reveal the effects of time and is, in part, a wordless morality tale, which balances the formality and the serpentine theatricality that grace all of Ms. Stuart’s work.

Yet despite her sustained success Ms. Stuart is intrigued by new territory. In Are We Here Yet? (Presses du Reel, 2011), a book exploring her artistic practice, she writes: “I’m still learning to make dances. I don’t feel I have a formula.”

In conversation Ms. Stuart’s accent blends the cultivated sound of someone who has lived overseas for years with something a little more surfer girl. For her next dance, she said, she will work with classical music.

“Can you believe it?” she asked, before adding a whoop of laughter. “With emotions and theatricality and a Beethoven symphony — well, just some of it. What does it mean to work with a monument like that and experiment? It’s like how people occupy public spaces now in order to reclaim them. It’s somehow reclaiming this music.”

BLESSED, essentially a solo with a couple of appearances by guest artists, was a way for Ms. Stuart to revisit her New Orleans roots. The production was first shown two years after Hurricane Katrina, and the influence of the disaster is palpable, notably in the way that Doris Dziersk’s set is gradually washed away by rain.

“I lived there until I was 5,” Ms. Stuart said. “My memories are of hurricanes and big water beetles and Mardi Gras. It wasn’t about, O.K. now I have to make a piece about Hurricane Katrina. It just came out, and it connected to a lot of things I’ve been about: people dancing as if it’s the end of a relationship or the end of the world — ‘what if’ scenarios.”

As the landscape shifts onstage and the rain persists, Mr. Camacho plugs away, finding shelter with soggy cardboard and, later, transforming his body into shapes that conjure religious images. Ms. Stuart and Mr. Camacho both found the 1999 David Lynch film “The Straight Story,” which features a man driving a lawnmower across rural America, particularly inspirational. As Mr. Camacho put it, it gave him permission to be a man who’s “losing control of things around him, but he still goes on and on.”

It is that perseverance that defines Mr. Camacho’s doggedness in the work, which, as you might expect, is not easy to perform. The rain, for one, which was introduced to the rehearsal process early on, creates harsh conditions.

“It gets cold fast, so it’s very uncomfortable,” he said. “The smell of the cardboard with the water is terrible after a while. So it’s very unpleasant, but it does change the perception of your body and of what the movement can be. I like to look at the possibility of movement within different contexts, with different materials even. There’s a moment when I sit in the chair for a long time just looking at the audience and what is dancing is the set.”

BLESSED, Ms. Stuart said, explores how circumstances can change from one minute to the next. “What does it mean to survive?” she asked. “But as much as I go there, I also think of it in terms of form and what this is as an art piece. What is the theatrical experience you can have that’s not shock, that’s not just — O.K. let’s be brutal? There’s an interest in pushing things beyond their comfort zones, but there’s a lot of poetry in this piece. You don’t have to give up one for the other.”

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