Meg Stuart recently received the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement in the dance category at the Venice Biennale. The award is well deserved as she has been influencing contemporary dance since the 1990s with her visually powerful, physically captivating and sensually electrifying work. Although internationally successful, she has put down strong local roots. Her company Damaged Goods has been based in Brussels since 1994, while Meg Stuart herself lives in Berlin. With a performance combining design, dance, the visual arts, fashion and music, she is appearing at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer again in March. The artistic collaboration on “Sketches/Notebook” in 2013 has been resumed. Having been created during a residency at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer, it can now be seen for one last time in Berlin after guest performances elsewhere. In the “Supernova” support format, Meg Stuart and the artists involved light up and then burn out – so to speak – the material they have since accumulated. At the premiere of “Sketches/Notebook” five years ago, the journalist Astrid Kaminski wrote a portrait article on Meg Stuart. In the same way as the performance, we pick up where we left off with a new version of her article. It was originally published in the art magazine Frieze d/e (Issue 9, Apr - May 2013). Astrid Kaminski has updated it for tanzraumberlin, adding elements from a later portrait essay for Theater der Zeita (issue 6/2015).
A small, cumbersome figure wrapped in a heavy robe of layered quilts, her mouth stuck in a grimace, each foot shackled to a sack of bricks as if about to be drowned. A picture that hurts, even if there is no story to accompany it – not even a scream. Arranged into this static-looking image, the dancer and choreographer Meg Stuart drags herself across the floor in her collective performance “Sketches/Notebook” (2013). At the other end of the room, costume designer Claudia Hill, who dressed Stuart beforehand, strips her back down to her thin, naked skin.
Designers and live musicians are often seen on stage in Stuart’s productions. The entire first part of “Sketches” belongs to Hill. Again and again, she readies the dancers for a brief photo shoot before tidily hanging all the props back on the clothes racks. This act provides an insight into the rehearsal process, but also involves a bit of child-like dressing up as well as an unusual kind of catwalk flair – voguing. There is nevertheless also a hint of futility. There is no need for a dress. In “Blessed” (premiered in 2007 at the Berliner Volksbühne) it was Jean-Paul Lespagnard who dressed the dancer Francisco Camacho - soaked, like the cardboard palm tree and swan props, by the artificial cloudburst on stage – in a beach towel and a death mask. The scene may be paradise or a typhoid-infested quagmire, but at least the issue of style has been taken care of. It is not a question of dress code, but rather a counterpart or partner reading the mood.
Explosion of energy
Asked whether her tendency to turn the stage into a dressing room points to a hidden Marie Antoinette complex, Stuart answers: “So not!” Instead, she explains her need for designers by saying that “individualities are incomplete”. The artist herself is without make-up, in a brown vintage pullover, her bleached blonde hair tousled. Moving her hand over her head from behind, as she often does on stage, is probably her favourite gesture in private too. She has displayed the courage to appear dishevelled during her career too. The period after her Volksbühne residency under Frank Castorf were restless but extremely productive years. Her company Damaged Goods, which she founded in 1994, is still located in Brussels, her apartment is in Berlin, she did a project-specific residency under Johan Simons at the Münchner Kammerspielen, while she has also collaborated closely with the HAU Hebbel am Ufer since Annemie Vanackere took up her position as artistic director. After strong ties with the Schauspielhaus Zürich (2000 – 2004) and the Volksbühne (2005 – 2010), these are artistically intense but loose associations with theatres involving extensive touring.
She has created various performances, such as “VIOLET” (PACT Zollverein, Essen, 2011)â¯– a dance mania – “Built to Last” (Münchner Kammerspiele, 2012) - an exploration of the fall of classical and pop etc. – and “Sketches/Notebook” (HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin, 2013) - a choreographic self-disclosure in collective form. It is as though something has exploded over the course of these performances. They were followed by the magical piece “UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP” (Münchner Kammerspiele, 2015), which not even those who fervently detest the esoteric could resist, and “Projecting [Space[” (2017) for the Ruhr Triennial and “Celestial Sorrow” (Kaaitheater Brussels, 2018) in collaboration with the installation artist Jompet Kuswidananto. It did not come as a surprise when at the start of the year it was announced that Meg Stuart would be awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Dance Biennale in the summer.
Meg Stuartâ¯maintains vibrant yet committed relationships – few European choreographers of contemporary dance can match her record. Residencies at theatres where dance is not part of the usual programme are rarely available, except to her. To hear the choreographer, who is now in her 50s and celebrated her last big birthday with the biographical cut-up piece “Hunter” (HAU Hebbel am Ufer, 2014), tell the story, it sounds as if her own career came about more by chance than design. She is very good at understatement but part of this is genuine shyness: “Some people think I’m shy. If you get to know meâ¯â¯– the same.”
Polyvalent, auratic construct
The “Sketches”, which are now being resumed at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer, were always conceived as a collection of ideas and as a kind of harvest rather than a completed, smoothly choreographed oeuvre. Each of the performers, musicians and (lighting) designers closely associated with Meg Stuart – Brendan Dougherty, Claudia Hill, Jorge De Hoyos, Mikko Hynninen, Vladimir Miller, Antonija Livingstone, Leyla Postalcioglu, Maria F. Scaroni and Julian Weber - contributes something from their own profession. While not intended, this ultimately produces a deeply auratic construct through which the team moves as if it were Ariadne’s Thread. Much is reminiscent of what is already familiar but, as Antonija Livingstone put it, it is polyvalent. As so often in Stuart’s productions, the lighting by Mikko Hynninen seems to be filtered through celluloid. There is a hint of a pale reflection as if the party is always already over, even when, as in “Visitors Only” (Schauspielhaus Zürich, 2003), it is still in full swing – or is somehow different depending on various layers of reality between longing and remembering and reality and fiction. There is an impulse over which an afterglow already hangs, but also a fear of pointlessness and futility.
The quilted lady mentioned before also made a previous appearance, featuring under the working title of “Blanket Lady” in the performance-exhibition “Moments” (2012) at the Karlsruher ZKM. This figure with the aura of a sad down-and-out queen, like something straight out of a Samuel Beckett play, conveys the basic mood of Stuart’s existentiality. Her company is called Damaged Goods and it does not take much imagination to extend the application of damaged goods to the body. This vehicle, which makes so much possible, on one hand, but rules out so much on the other, is loaded with both energy and pain at the same time. It is not so much Munch-like pain with a gaping mouth as a hollowed-out final form of existence but rather that of an overstretched body that is not warm which was the basis for “Disfigure Study”, Meg Stuart’s breakthrough performance in 1991. In a figurative sense, there is the pain of a self that constantly has to act and react but hardly ever has adequate means with which to do so.
“There is never exact harmony between what is going on in our minds and what is happening with our bodies,” explained Stuart in “Are we here yet?” (published in 2010/14), a book on the poetics of her work published by the author and the dramatist Jeroen Peeters. This sentence leads her to the problem of an impossible presence. She sees thought, memory and imagination as overlapping activities, entwined with one another but which take place at different levels and in various ways and each with its own logic, generating a kind of endogenous noise. Her method is to crank up the noise and then to channel it with mental and somatic techniques.
Bodies as shells and sensory apparatuses
Meg Stuart’s performers are neither themselves nor do they embody particular figures. They do not appear in the tension of the post-dramatic pose between “mask” and “person”. They are already the product of a subject forming multiple possible realities that divide back into themselves. Although there are pieces like “Maybe Forever” (Kaaitheater, Brussels, 2007) and “BLESSED” that hint at psychological figures or deal with specific relationship issues, the bodies of Stuart’s performers are more shells and sensory apparatuses than characters. They are somatically explored, psychologically corrupted bodies that shiver, articulate ticks, pull faces, get in a whirl and become entangled. Not tied to any particular soul, they are traumatic dream dancers imprisoned in a vegetative fabric of interconnected movements.
The “empty body” is an important artistic tool for Meg Stuart, as are her studies of trance-like states, providing a base from which the body can become a container and a laboratory of mixed emotions. That is also what gives her works their often contemplative, even meditative quality, in spite of the aggressive music and abrupt scene changes. But this does not mean relaxation in the conventional sense but more of a David-Lynch-like “Mulholland Drive” feeling, a perpetual nervousness that lasts and lasts until it has formed a level of its own, becoming absolute.
Stuart’s oeuvre as a whole is also a kind of container, open to influences from almost every field of the arts. The fact that she comes from a theatrical family definitely also plays a role as do the handovers from one parent to another over the famous Californian Highway 101 in her childhood. During her time in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s, she lived in SoHo, visiting several galleries a day. With hindsight, she says her sense of choreographic space was very much shaped by her studies of pictorial composition. This led to many collaborations with visual artists and filmmakers, including Gary Hill, Ann Hamilton and Pierre Coulibeuf.
Compaction to the point of eruption
In her book on Stuart, Bild in Bewegung und Choreographie (Image in Motion and Choreography, 2008), art theorist Annamira Jochim, who has spent years analysing the artist’s works, inverts this relationship, looking for aspects of an expanded definition of the performativity of pictures. Material for this approach is provided above all by the different viewing angles in spatially fragmented choreographies like Highway 101 (2000) and Visitors Only. The “Sketches” aesthetic with its partial audience mobility – during the performance a whole row of seats is periodically placed on a ramp bringing Simone Fortis’ “Dance Constructions” to mind – does not need to underline its experimental character. There is an air of nonchalance as though the audience and performers agree that they know the rules of the game but do not have to explore them.
This attitude of wanting to give something at best but not always wishing to offer it also means the audience sometimes has to bear with it. There is no compulsion. If something does not spark, it continues to smoulder. The audience must put up with this and there is not much to elevate here either. Meg Stuart is not known for letting conceptual statements limit her scope of action. Surrendering to the process is the true constant across all the variation in her works. The sense of letting things happen is perhaps not expressed as well anywhere as in “UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP” and in “Sketches/Notebook”. Sometimes like a volcanic process, where the depth of collaboration produces an eruption, and sometimes like a game marvelling at the material assembled. It is perhaps this scope for freedom that makes Meg Stuart’s performers, who usually also have their own solo careers, so munificent. Like the marbles that roll over the boards in “Sketches”, they have no particular goal, they follow their orbit and shimmer. This self-energy is not starting capital but rather the result of precise artistic work on these rather fragile and damaged goods in which we pass through life.