A Manual about Meg Stuart
For more than twenty years now, it has been impossible to imagine the international dance scene without American dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart. A manual about the artist, who lives in Brussels and Berlin, has now been published.
Her pieces have been fascinating audiences and critics alike. But what do members of the audience know about how a piece is created or about Meg Stuart’s way of working? Usually very little. While academic publications attempt to analyse her pieces primarily from the perspective of their reception, Belgian writer, dramaturg and curator Jeroen Peeters takes the opposite approach. In his book Are we here yet?, co-edited with Meg Stuart, he asks about the conditions of aesthetic production that lead to the creation of the work of this exceptional dancer and choreographer, who was born in New Orleans in 1965.
Peeters, who has known Meg Stuart’s work since the 1990s and who also cooperated as a dramaturg on Stuart’s major project Replacement at the Berlin Volksbühne in 2005, has compressed 50 hours of recorded interviews into texts of various lengths which highlight Meg Stuart’s creative processes. It is first and foremost Meg Stuart herself who speaks, and she has rarely given such clear information about her work as she does here. But many of her artistic companions also report on their experience of collaboration and describe Stuart’s working methods. The result is a kaleidoscopic picture of Meg Stuart’s creative work. As one reads it, the perspective is continually new and different, keeping our view of the working processes, decisions and pieces in constant motion. The fragmented, searching quality characteristic of all Meg Stuart’s works is also a feature of the book’s structure. Following the logic of fragmentation, Are we here yet? is not divided into capitals. The themes of the texts are merely grouped loosely around particular pieces or keywords, such as dramaturgy. The book is richly illustrated (graphic design: Kim Beirnaerts) and includes sketches and material from the archive of her group Damaged Goods, making it a kind of report on work in progress and providing an excellent insight into Meg Stuart’s artistic universe.
“From distortion to transformation” is how Meg Stuart describes the development of her thinking about the body. In her first full-length piece Disfigure Study, the young American dancer and choreographer created a stir in the European dance scene back in 1991. Twisted bodies dismembered by the hard cuts in stage lighting were to be seen, a silent dance of twitching bodies, as in later pieces such as No One is Watching and Splayed Mind Out, which also electrified the audience. Since the turn of the millennium, her works have become increasingly theatrical. Like theatre pieces, they also draw on language and on the visually powerful stages of Anna Viebrock, Barbara Ehnes and visual artist Doris Dziersk, in which the dancers are constantly changing their identity. In contrast to the dance theatre of a choreographer such as Pina Bausch, however, Meg Stuart has never been interested in her characters’ psychology in this process. Stuart remains a bodyworker who tries to read her characters’ memories, suppressions and injuries from their physical states. In her work, social developments are not reflected in human interaction or failed communication, but in the flesh of the bodies themselves. In Meg Stuart’s works, even the apparently most abstract gestures and postures have a story to tell, says Austrian dancer and choreographer Philipp Gehmacher, Stuart’s partner in her piece Maybe Forever, in the book.
Crossing frontiers: Meg Stuart’s method
Jeroen Peeters attempts to go some way towards explaining why that might be the case. His book goes along with the secret theory that in spite of all the pieces’ diversity, there is something resembling a consistent method underlying Meg Stuart’s unmistakable style. Thus, a list and description of many improvisation exercises that serve the choreographer as the starting point of her research form the heart of the book. In them, she makes repeated attempts to put her dancers into physical states that take them to the frontiers of what is conceivable and achievable, as in the exercise “Looking at your own body as if it were dead”. In asking them to do impossible things, they are forced to work with resistance, and this resistance creates tension. It is in precisely this calculated failure and overtaxing that something unexpectedly new and personal is created, leaving behind the safety zones of conventional dance idioms. Often, the idea is to withdraw from one’s own body after an extremely emotional situation, to view oneself like an object, become a ghost and give oneself up to the environment like a medium. Her dancers’ incredibly strong stage presence results from their absence in their own bodies. Through making her dancers strangers to themselves, Meg Stuart dramatises their bodies, and they are constantly exposed to the view of one another and the audience. Every little movement is a manifestation of this desire for contact and recognition. Thus, the body becomes a gateway for existential orientation within society, which is often registered only unconsciously in everyday life.
Improvisations such as Auf den Tisch! (2005–2009) and Crash Landing, which was staged at five different venues between 1996 and 1999, clearly show that Meg Stuart has never shunned risk. Artists of all genres, including many of Meg Stuart’s dancer colleagues who have had a major impact on the European dance scene over the last 15 years, were invited to take part in this open-ended experiment. It becomes clear that Are we here yet? is not only a beautiful documentation of Meg Stuart’s work, but also a contemporary document about what has influenced dance in many parts of Europe.
Dr Gerald Siegmund is Professor of Dance Studies at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen. He specialises in choreography and performance.
Translation: Eileen Flügel