Meg Stuart: "Rhythm is our most fundamental form of expression"
Interview for El Mundo with Darío Prieto, 28 December, 2019
A key figure in contemporary dance, the American dancer and choreographer performed solo in Madrid. She reflects on the body and our relationship to our world.
The body, its limitations and the way we relate to it have gone from being a mere artistic pastime to being a central preoccupation in our lives. As a result, we regard the work of dancers and choreographers in a different way because; in a dehumanised and alienated world, the physical being, movement itself, are more important than ever.
The work of Meg Stuart (New Orleans, 1965) has proved itself to be fundamental in the rediscovery of our bodies. The vocation of her company, Damaged Goods, is artistic, but also educational. During her first visit to Madrid she came not to perform, but to set up workshops in which to share her experience and to reconnect with an increasingly stressed body, one that is ‘present, yet absent’.
Last November, Stuart returned to Madrid for several solo performances in the auditorium of the Reina Sofia Museum: Atari (2018), I take it back (2007), XXX for Arlene and Colleagues (1995) and All songs have been exhausted (2013). In a subdued, thoughtful voice, the artist talks about the language that these works reveal.
QUESTION. The work that you presented in Madrid contained biographical tones, as well as other elements that are inspired, for example, by the spread of AIDS. Why focus on such topics?
ANSWER. I think that we are all capable of sensitivity. Empathy is not something that we have to extract from ourselves forcibly but is an inherent part of who we are. It flows through whatever we are experiencing.
Q. How do you work with such topics?
A. Throughout my career, I have studied a great deal about concepts such as sensation, awareness and perception. It all boils down to one idea: to strip everything down to obtain the purest, most direct expression. That is why what I present to the public is not what I am capable of doing, what I have prepared for. It is actually the contrary; I like to be seen as someone who is vulnerable and open.
Q. What is your approach to the body?
A. I see the body as a kind of space in which different energies, flows or emotions converge. Some are part of the collective unconscious and that is why; I aim for the public to reconnect with their own sensitivity.
Q. In your performances, you always work with a large number of artists from other disciplines, such as filmmakers, musicians and designers. How do you perceive this collaboration?
A. Most of the time, I work with contemporary artists in order to reconnect with the stream of musical improvisation from the 90s. I like to go back to that period, in which, while musicians played, my body became absent, as if gone up in smoke, as if I had transformed into something ethereal, even though my physical being remained on stage.
Q. What do you believe is the essence of dance?
A. For me, rhythm is our most fundamental form of expression. I have experimented with many types of language, from the theatrical to the abstract. But to express emotional states that we can barely control, to portray my inner self, rhythmic language is the most important. Timing, manipulation, intensity, its dramatic potential, without altering the narrative. As dancers, it is something we can all do, and something that I learned at the Judson Church Theatre (one of the major dance centres in New York in the 1960s), especially through my work with Trisha Brown. She taught me about fluid movement and how to maintain constant dialogue. From there, I think we can incorporate suspense in order to avoid the obvious.
Q. What is it like to focus on the body at a time when relationships are greatly influenced by screen time?
A. I like to keep a positive mindset: it is amazing that we are able to exist in so many realities, to be in so many dimensions at the same time. It is as if, through screens, through different coexisting timelines, we are able to push our senses beyond their limit. And yet, I believe that such overwhelming saturation causes great fragmentation. I am living proof: I started working in New York, I live in Berlin and my company is in Brussels. It makes me think about the extreme mindfulness it takes to be present and attentive, and about our ability to say “no”, as well as “yes”.
Q. What is your view on finished artistic work?
A. It is a matter for continuous negotiation. It entails dialogue with your own body, which can be seen as a map or a sketch, if you think of it as technology. In that sense, I find the body’s memory very interesting. Or to think of, how, regardless of the fact that we have machines that help us to locate or orient ourselves, it is still up to us to design our living spaces.
Q. What should an artist’s relationship be with the reality of their world? For example, with the current political situation in your country, the United States?
A. That is always a tricky subject. Instead of thinking of dance as a reflection of what is happening, I prefer to use other metaphors. For example, a collective digestive system. Or a surface on which to portray what each of us wants. I am also interested in a form in which every stimulus can alter our perception of reality. Humans are cultural beings and we learn through dialogue. That is why interacting with each other is so important.
Q. How does a dancer/choreographer see the world? Or perhaps a better verb is “feel”; “feel the world”.
A. Look, the world is undergoing a dramatic transformation and, at least for my part, dance is a way to remind myself to take it more slowly. We have to move at our own pace. We have to refuse to go along with the mainstream if we do not feel comfortable doing so. Once again, we need to create our own spaces, to discover what is essential and what deserves to be lasting. That is what is beautiful.
Q. Do dancers/choreographers have some sort of responsibility with regard to their world?
A. We are at a point in time when it is no longer enough to point out what is not working. We need to be responsible but in a constructive manner. It is not enough to want to distance ourselves from what we do not like. We have to offer solutions, we need to be teachers, show the way. By turning our back on something and saying it does not exist, it will not go away. Reality is complex and we need to deal with it. Doing so entails finding balance, something that particularly interests me.
Q. Recently, artistic performances that only reach a smaller percentage of the public are being questioned. What is your opinion?
A. You do not necessarily give people what they want but what you think they want. That is why, again and again I come back to the idea of empathy, that dimension that exists within us all but that we need to remind ourselves that it is there.