For the past twenty years American dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart has brought her vivid and fractured impressions of subjectivity and narrative to the theatrical stage. Restlessly prolific, she has collaborated with numerous artists, designers, musicians and performers to evolve a singular dance language of intense emotional charge. Adam Linder talks to her about resistance, collaboration, and the importance of images.
ADAM LINDER: With over twenty years of theaterworks, multiple collaborations, solo performances, improvisation events, and performance films, has the avoidance of a singular category of artistic output been intentional?
MEG STUART: I was really surprised by the response that Disfigure Study (1991) had in Europe. It was my first piece and quite a rupture from the dance language that I had been taught back in NYC. But it was never my intention to do ongoing choreographic research solely based on movement distortion and the resistant body. It could have been much easier to make the next piece with those same investigations, but I didn’t want to. Usually my self-critique and self-questioning still lingers from a previous work and this motivates ideas for the next.
LINDER: Do you mean there was pressure on you to work serially afterwards, to carry on exploring the same ideas as a way of building on the success of this work after it was first shown in Belgium?
STUART: Well, it took me two years to make the next piece, so I was able to put a very different piece forward – No Longer Readymade (1993). In this work the notion of failure and the physicality of emotional states were introduced. So between those two pieces I was able to say, »Don’t fence me in, I’m not only going to have this or that language«. That was a critical moment where I had to search for what was next and not repeat myself. At the same time, while touring, I was getting to know many artists and presenters in festivals and there was a big desire to start working with interesting artists, to deepen our exchange beyond »Have you seen my work?« or »I’ve seen your work«. So I collaborated on creating setups for us to improvise together. These situations weren’t always easy but they certainly made the conversation more vital and honest.
LINDER: In putting a distortion on the »Release Technique« body [Trisha Brown’s dance vocabulary and the codification of an attitude toward »weightlessness«], was that something you were personally resisting, or was there more of a fundamental critique of »Release« at stake?
STUART: I felt like the language I was taught to move or dance with was inadequate. There were interior conflicts that I had to deal with in terms of working through questions about what belongs to you or is absorbed by you,or how you experience things. One important decision was the need to slow things down. At the time in 80s NYC I would see many dance pieces which had the same homogeneous notion of timing.
LINDER: A kind of harmonious sense of infinity?
STUART: Yes, there was always this sort of endless flow. It was hypnotizing! I would see a performance and I wouldn’t remember anything afterward. I wanted something to seize on my memory, I wanted to hold something, but then it was just gone! This sense of evaporation was irritating. So in my work I let singular movement proposals extend longer than was comfortable and embraced active stillness. There was an insistence to look at dance not as a continuum or whole but to notice details again and again and again – this rupture of timing just had to happen. I was against this »holistic« thing. I decided to work with stiffness, resistance, to not warm up … there was a lot of pain those first years (laughs). You took classes related to »opening up spaces in your body«, so everything was soft, embryo-like, utopian. I felt I had to invent something else. Though I had to do it with a lot of seriousness, it couldn’t just be »here are ugly forms«. There was a lot of reverence for performativity; there was nothing casual or nonchalant about the dancing.
LINDER: I remember you saying once that seeing Pina Bausch’s choreographic work back in NY had a big impact on you, and I wonder how you reflect on this now, and how it relates to your decision around a decade ago to position your productions within the institutional structure of Schauspielhaus Zürich?
STUART: I see a large part of Pina’s work as dealing with the collective wound after the war. When language and rationality didn’t work anymore she found a way to translate loss and disillusionment into images and actions. You don’t just have a shared body of dancers in costume variations, basically you have individual points of view, individual stories. People with strong faces sharing their stories with just a few words. These were all keys for me. In relation to Zürich, before going there I made a series of works (Insert Skin, 1996–1998) with visual artists. I had seen so many star collaborations in NY in which choreographers and artists worked together with a big budget but then just stayed in their disciplinary spheres, and I wanted to challenge this: I was interested in collaborations with visual artists based on shared principles of the body and movement with no particular outcome. It was an intense period. That’s when I worked with Ann Hamilton, made a piece with Gary Hill for documenta and also did something with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
LINDER: That piece with Baryshnikov [Remote (1997)] strikes me as an anomaly in your oeuvre in that it was such a reduced proposal. Here’s a dancer known for classical pirouettes and doing lots of them – and the idea for the piece is never the turn, just the preparation. This smells to me more like a conceptual gesture. Is this the most distilled and maybe analytical artistic gesture you’ve made?
STUART: I asked the eleven dancers to deconstruct the preparation of a pirouette and then I choreographed the variations, so it became an extended non-event. Certainly for Baryshnikov it was a challenge. He had to stop turning, just do the preparation and on top of that in a group and not solo! (laughs) That was the opening scene of the piece but I have to say there were other interests in it too. I guess my work has many interests, perhaps too many, but if you use a magnifying glass you can also see singular investigations, singular proposals in the works.
LINDER: Has working on singular or reduced ideas been a kind of antidote to the large-scale theatre works? And vice versa?
STUART: I don’t think there has been one or another. My work is composed of a series of questions and proposals that I suggest to my dancers or collaborators and which are usually answered through improvisation, which I record on video. Then I construct a work out of it. My works take time, even demand it; many of them last two hours. There is never just one idea or position. I don’t like work in which you know from the beginning that the same premise and conditions will continue until the end.
LINDER: Was there a particular intention to move your work into a state-run theater? In relation to theatricality and working with sensibilities that were not »on trend« in other parts of the dance landscape, did Schauspielhaus Zürich and then Volksbühne in Berlin offer an audience and a reception that you couldn’t have had elsewhere?
STUART: I stepped into the Schauspielhaus Zürich to share a house with Christoph Marthaler, Stefanie Carp, Anna Viebrock, and all these craftspeople and specialists. It was a chance to meet directors, stage designers, older actors, and performers. Of course I knew I was taking a step away from a certain side of the European dance scene but I didn’t feel so much part of that anyway. Addressing theatrical concerns was the complete opposite to what was going on in dance at that moment – everything was conceptual, everything was minimal. I often put myself in uncomfortable zones, because I have to prove something to someone. I don’t have a problem with theatricality as such. For me this is an open term, relating to events taking place in a theater. I love fiction and often I have to consider how hidden or transparent these fictions are.
LINDER: How do you navigate working with different people and, in particular, with the personal and emotional »material« of performers? You are the type of choreographer who works a lot with the subjective contributions of your performers, rather than a scenario where the performers simply follow a script.
STUART: The dancers are asked to contribute to the process in the improvisational material they offer – and to realize in the end it’s not about what they offer but about the work as a whole. That what they offer as performers will not necessarily land in the piece. I take my time looking for people who want to be in the situation of co-creating the work to a certain extent. I have huge respect for all of my dancers and their differences. I always see them as group of individuals sharing a world together, never as a troupe sharing a dance style.
LINDER: I read a 2008 interview with you where you said: »I only realized two years ago that my dancers have been performing a perverse form of slapstick all these years.« I found this intriguing because »slapstick« as a performance sensibility is more or less off-limits according to certain currents in European contemporary dance.
STUART: This thing of »my body is not mine« or »I’m propelled or moved by forces unknown« are of course notions that I’ve worked with and are related to a basis of humor – like my work with malfunction, and the virtuosity of that.
LINDER: But isn’t it also a metaphorical »slapstick«, in light of the ways in which you have insisted on theatricality, which can seem a perversion to certain accepted tastes in dance?
STUART: Or even having sidetracks that you can’t explain. Like in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut when the guy starts walking the street and explains: »I don’t know why, I just went that way.« In theatrical situations, which are temporary conditions that can’t be reversed, things are at stake. There is an urgency, and consequences while moving.
LINDER: Am I allowed to call you the godmother of psychosomatic dance (laughs)?
STUART: Do I have any godchildren, I don’t know! »Psycho- so-matic-dance« how do you define that?
LINDER: That internal processes related to psychology and emotion are externalized and expressed through the moving body.
STUART: But I think images are also very important – either becoming landscape or entering stills or frozen moments.
LINDER: But isn’t it still a memory-based relation to images?
STUART: No, not always.
LINDER: What I mean is that I see the legacy of your work and this approach to movement in the work of a number of choreographers of my generation and a generation above me; it’s interesting to reflect on how these genealogies evolve.
STUART: I don’t know. At the moment I am obsessed with the future. How will dance evolve – in what spaces and social frameworks? I have started to collaborate with [stage designer] Jozef Wouters and [dramaturge] Jeroen Peeters and invited artists to imagine a future contemporary art center. How would we rewrite expectations of funding bodies? How would we design a space, and what is the notion of a »center«? Is one specific location even appropriate? For me this is the conversation about legacy. What can we give to the next generations of choreographers? Can there be a new set of conditions for choreographers in the future that redefines our understanding for what an artist in residence is as well as the relations between artists and presenters/producers? If you get fictional, it is very easy to imagine that airports will be the art centers of the future.