The historical baggage isn’t a natural fit for choreographer Meg Stuart’s aesthetic, but she finds a new approach. In Built to Last, the mood stays light, bordering on irreverent, as the dancers assume historic movement patterns reminiscent of Isadora Duncan or German expressionist dance.
Meg Stuart sets herself a challenge before creating a new dance. The American choreographer, who is based in Brussels and Berlin, claims to develop an entirely new movement language for every piece as she collaborates with directors, visual artists, musicians and designers. Rather than following well-trodden routes, these works explore the edges of what is possible.
When she decided to use Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony as a basis for her dance Built to Last, it didn’t seem like a novel departure. There is no new language emerging from sparky interactions with bolshie musicians here, just an acceptance of prewritten music from a dead composer.
But Beethoven’s masterpiece comes loaded with historical baggage that doesn’t find a natural home within Stuart’s aesthetic. Her response was not to overthink it. “I didn’t analyse the music’s structure or anything,” she says. “I just wanted to elicit a purely emotional response and discover what emerged when the music was simply listened to, rather than studied.”
The primary response was heroic. “It is said that people want to play Mozart, but want to conduct Beethoven. It’s large-scale music with an epic intensity. When you play it in your living room, your life becomes bigger.”
Composer Alain Franco joined the rehearsals as a kind of music dramaturg and suggested adding other composers, so the soundscore expanded into a rich tapestry of fragments by Dvorak, Rachmaninov, Schoenberg, Xenakis, Stockhausen and others.
“I felt that it was possible to make a very fresh human approach to these fragments of classics,” says Stuart. “There was a way to meet them in a real human way without being disrespectful.”
This openness is unusual within contemporary dance, where many choreographers have resisted the aural backdrop offered by classical music, fearful it might gentrify their incendiary aesthetic with plush sounds and a veneer of respectability.
Additionally, an association exists between classical music and ballet, whose narrative-driven choreography is antithetical to the conceptual purity pursued by many contemporary choreographers. But classical warhorses such as the Eroica can prove more than an aesthetic threat.
“Music in German history has a chequered past,” she says, referring to the appropriation of Beethoven, Wagner and other German composers by the Nazi regime. According to conductor Roger Norrington, “during the Nazi period, Beethoven’s Eroica was made to assume the mantle of the heroic German nation, either conquering, or suffering heroic defeat at Stalingrad.”
Mindful of this, Stuart quotes the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who claims: “The same music that served evil purposes can be redeemed to serve the good. Or it can be read in a much more ambiguous way. With music we cannot ever be sure. In so far as it externalises our inner passion, music is potentially always a threat.”
The threat is proportional to monumentality, a theme that quickly emerged in rehearsals for Built to Last. Unlike the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature of dance, classical music is preserved by ink on paper and, like the stone and bronze monuments within cityscapes, is a snapshot of history at a particular time.
Although approaches to interpreting Beethoven may change, dictated by performance trends, the essence of the composer’s intentions remains. Meg Stuart says: “If music can become a monument, then we need to question it and its power. History is a manner of perspective, not a question of being right or wrong.”
This questioning needs to be constant, as there is a danger of losing sight of the original meaning and intention behind a monument. During Built to Last, performer Kristof Van Boven reflects how “a monument is something you stumble upon as you go about your daily business. It imposes thoughts and memories, and makes it clear that the present has a past.”
Name that composer
Music has also constantly imposed itself on dance. Many orchestral masterpieces of the 19th and 20th century are the result of commissions from ballet and dance companies, yet most people would struggle to name the choreographers of Swan Lake, The Firebird, L’Après-Midi d’Un Faune, Seven Deadly Sins or Appalachian Spring.
In Built to Last, Stuart questions and “dances back” at this hierarchy by including a chunk of Trio A, a postmodern dance classic by the choreographer Yvonne Rainer. Performed in silence, the 1966 dance uses direct and functional movement that reflects Rainer’s infamous No Manifesto. Seeking to to divorce dance from any historical cliches, it opened with the lines: “No to spectacle; No to virtuosity; No to transformations and magic and make-believe.” Its inclusion in Built to Last is a reminder of the power of movement to assert aesthetic authority without the back-up of music.
With such a weighty subject matter, there is a danger that Built to Last could be self-involved and yawnsome, but Stuart insists the mood stays light, bordering on irreverent, as the dancers assume historic movement patterns reminiscent of Isadora Duncan or German expressionist dance. These quotations aren’t included to reward dance geeks but contrive to change the dancers into “time travellers” that embody a particular fragment of music with historical empathy and the self-knowledge of the present.
“There is a lot of humour in the piece and the dancers are constantly pushing borders and boundaries. They don’t just present this holy untouchable music, but a way to construct their own reality within it. This is true freedom.”