In CASCADE, a dazzling dance performance by Damaged Goods, choreographer Meg Stuart shows how the world can reinvent itself: by a lot of dreaming and a lot of falling.
You made this piece last year. But one scene - hills bathed in blue light, people lying on those hills - is very similar to the flood images from Western Europe, where people waited on their roofs for help.... Do you believe, as the art historian Jürgen Wertheimer recently stated in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, that literature and art can predict reality, like the Greek seer Cassandra?
Meg Stuart: We don't just share information with each other through language. You pick up signals through what you see, feel, smell. An artist translates that into his work. That happened to me more than once. In 2001, the year of the terrorist attacks in America, I made Alibi, about the link between violence and the media. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, I made VIOLET, about how body language can imagine a change, a revolution.
During rehearsals we shared our fears and dreams with each other. Of course you talk about the state of the world. Of course the disruptive pandemic colors your image of the future. Our planet and society are yearning for a reset. We draw the audience in by showing the movement that goes with such a reset: jumping despite all the uncertainty, daring to fall without knowing where or how you will land and then standing up courageously.
Philippe Quesne's set fascinates. What did you ask him?
Stuart: Philippe's sets are wonderful landscapes that are both ominous and funny. I simply asked him for a landscape; he gave me huge beanbag-like "hills. He draped canvases over them on which, if you look closely, you can see the cosmos. By playing with light, the decor sometimes looks like a wondrous landscape, sometimes a landfill. It is an alternative world, a playground built on and with the remains of an old world. The seven people do what mankind must do: find a new balance, learn to relate to the earth differently and resist the idea that there is only linear time.
That sounds abstract. How do you dance "time"?
Stuart: Quantum mechanics teaches us that there are several parallel timelines. Even within ourselves. You can see that even in one of the dancers: Davis Freeman. He explores different body memories, from adolescence to old age. Furthermore, we translate this different relationship to time into a form of polyphony: none of the dancers moves to the same rhythm, despite the exciting, compelling live drum music by Brendan Dougherty. The dancers embody a society that reinvents itself, while playing, falling and dreaming.
"What dream do you have to give up to keep dreaming?" you asked your dancers. What dream did you give up for this life?
Stuart: I'm living my dream! Traveling around a lot on my own, daydreaming and creating dances. Damaged Goods is based in Brussels, but I live in Berlin and we travel around the world. I used to work with dancers, now I mostly reflect with them. As an audience, you can feel the energy that is released in this way. (quietly) Because of all this traveling, I will never be able to have a dog. Maybe that's the dream I lost. (laughs)
What are you still dreaming about?
Stuart: Of my next piece: a location project in Zurich. Just as the world is literally and figuratively drowning, I'm creating a dance piece in the water. That decision was made before the floods. Suddenly I feel like Cassandra.
From the open-air swimming pool Flow to a nightclub in Decoratelier: in Brussels, scenographer Jozef Wouters makes space(s) for others - literally and figuratively. 'The last thing this neighborhood needs is a white saviour.'
He is only 36, but Jozef Wouters has already built a solid career as a scenographer and theater maker. With Decoratelier he won the Ultima (Flemish Culture Prize) for performing arts in 2019, but his name first surfaced in our archives back in 2009. At that time, together with Michiel and Menno Vandevelde, he built a tower along the Leuven-Brussels railroad line, where for one month he vied for the attention of train passengers through artistic actions. In the Model District in Laken, known as a failed modernist utopia, he made models with residents based on possible and impossible desires. His piece INFINI also revolved around imagined worlds. Wouters asked thinkers and artists which images should be shown the theater, then created those together with his team in the form of enormous backdrops (infinis), as were used in traditional theaters.
But that’s not all: Wouters designed and erected stadium-like tribunes in city centers, built an extra wing for the Museum of Natural Sciences in honor of extinct species and realized 'classic' sets for performances by Benny Claessens and choreographer Meg Stuart, among others. Under the wings of the latter and her company Damaged Goods, Wouters founded Decoratelier in Brussels five years ago. It is the place from which he creates his worlds and devises scenographies, such as Underneath which rivers flow, an overwhelming performance created together with Globe Aroma, an art house for newcomers. In Decoratelier, he also invites other artists to organize concerts, ‘artivism’ and awesome parties – collaborations where he and his team shape the space. In Brussels he takes us to four locations that are meaningful to him.
FLOW - Biestebroekkaai
On the first real summer day of the holidays, FLOW in Anderlecht, which opened in the beginning of July, is pleasantly crowded. The first open-air swimming pool in Brussels in decades was designed by Wouters at the request of the action group Pool is Cool and realized together with about fifty youngsters from the neighborhood. While kids play ball in the water, veiled mothers look on and trendy couples rest with their toes in the water, we take a seat on one of the wooden bleachers. 'I wanted to build a place where people could hang out and look around before and after swimming,' says Wouters. 'The pool is a scenography for me. I construct a gaze, a suggestion of how you can look at each other or look away. Rather than with materials, I design with lines of sight.'
Wouters began designing the pool in February. Back then, Flow looked very different. 'In my original design, it was going to be a natural pool with plants purifying the water. There would also be an aloe vera factory where you could make your own eco-friendly sunscreen. In one corner of the pool there were microscopes, which allowed you to take a closer look at the organisms in the water. This seemed like a good story: after months of battling an invisible virus, we could swim in symbiosis with microorganisms. But during the first meetings with the engineers, I got strange looks when I started talking about amoebas and aloe vera. (laughs)'
It was the first time Wouters built a space on this scale. 'I now understand better the compromises architects have to make. But as a scenographer, I have trouble with the fences that close FLOW off from the street side. I get that you don't want people diving into the pool at night, but those fences are quite intense. We'll have to find a solution for that by next year (FLOW has a three-year license, ed.).'
Still, Wouters has never had more fun than at this spot in a fork of the Brussels-Charleroi canal. He is also pleased that Flow, where you can swim for free, is catching on with local residents. 'You don't only see rich people here. It exceeds my expectations. If we had placed the pool in Ter Kamerenbos, we would never have reached such a diverse audience.'
That is why, for this first year, Wouters wanted 'absolutely no guinguette', one of those trendy bars that spring up like mushrooms elsewhere in Brussels during the summer. ‘The risk was too great that this place would be monopolized by people like you and me. Don't underestimate how the image shifts when gin&tonics are sold by the pool. And before everyone starts tweeting about soumission again: don't forget that many people can’t afford to spend 8 euros on a drink, and that the manager of the bar is the first to complain when visitors bring their own drinks.'
Talking about soumission: when the pool opened there was much ado about the separate swimming hour for women (DS 5 July). Wouters: 'It says a lot about men who think they know how women should swim. Because let's be honest: this is an extreme form of toxic masculinity and paternalism. By the way, I know a lot of private pools in Uccle where only the owners are allowed in all week. That seems like a bigger problem to me.'
Courtyard Decoratelier - Manchesterstraat
We cycle for a while along the canal in Anderlecht, with old warehouses, derelict land and some new hip coworking spots on either side. Wouters elaborates on the commotion. 'Instead of attacking that women's swimming hour with our so-called Western values, we should learn to embrace the idea that not everything has to be accessible to everyone all the time. That's the hardest for white men like me, because we're used to always being able to get in everywhere.'
For Wouters, semi-public spaces, partly open to everyone and partly closed off, are at the heart of his work. 'I believe we need those very much today,' he says. ‘because they are places that allow us to create temporary exceptions to the norm.'
Decoratelier is another place like this, due to the building's hidden courtyard. 'A patio like this is neither private nor public. It is a space where the status can shift. I find spaces like this the most suitable for radical experiments with forms of togetherness.' And that is what happens in abundance during Something When It Doesn't Rain, the festival that goes on at Decoratelier throughout August, for the second year in a row. Wouters: 'It's fantastic to see what happens when people who organize an event with us can also have a say about the membrane of the space: what the door policy is, whether alcohol is served or not, what time the event starts and stops. Often you don't get to decide on that, but in Decoratelier you do.'
Festival coordinator Marie Umuhoza - whom we meet at the 4-meter-high mocha coffee pot, a set piece from Underneath which rivers flow that serves as a bar - shares that opinion. ‘Inclusiveness is not about organizing something that has to appeal to everyone, but about making everyone feel that there is something that appeals to them.’ This is clear from the program of the festival, which includes workshops on carpet weaving for children, a session on boxing meets yoga ('boga') and a performance by the young theater collective Ne Mosquito Pas. On the evening of our visit, a gnawa concert takes place by the Brussels-based group Black Koyo. 'In Europe, gnawa bands are often set up facing the audience, whereas traditionally they play in a patio,' says Wouters. 'At their request, we designed a circular structure that offers much more intimacy than a typical stage.' Inside, Wouters shows me the nightclub. I recognize FLOW's gallery structure, but with a dance floor instead of a pool. The set-up has been given a quarter turn, creating little nooks and crannies everywhere. 'The PARTS students dance in the corner where they have more space, the voguers here in the middle, and so on.' Under the title Spending the night, Decoratelier offers space to organizations that experiment with other interpretations of nightlife, Wouters explains. 'Like the DJ duo Mimi and Pippin, who end their event with a yoga session and watching the falling stars together.'
Nightclubs appeal to Wouters as a scenographer. 'I find them exciting, intense places. They often rub against the obscure and are a kind of phantasm. They are semi-public spaces that feel like a cave, because the time you spend in them becomes spatial.'
That is, if you can get in: nightclubs can also be too exclusive when there is a selection at the door. To my surprise, according to Wouters, this is sometimes necessary. ‘Take the queer community of color. If you want to give them the chance to make a space in which they feel as safe as possible, as of now this is only possible with a door that offers protection. If you are working with space today, you should also dare to build walls and select who is welcome.'
The old Decoratelier- Liverpool Street
100 meters from the current location, in the Heyvaert neighborhood across the canal, we find the former building of Decoratelier, an old factory of joints de culasse where Wouters was based from 2016 to 2019. Or, at least, the remains: the place is a construction site where a kindergarten is being built, with a public park behind it. 'I don't feel a speck of nostalgia,' says Wouters. 'You can also hardly claim that it is better that there is an artist's studio here than a crèche for fifty children. So it's not the typical story of gentrification, in which artists are driven out to make room for apartments.'
Now that Brussels wants to develop the Heyvaert district, the used car trade is in danger of disappearing further towards the outskirts of the city. Wouters regrets it. ‘Those car dealers were already involved in circular economy before it was trendy and they provide many jobs for short-educated people. By passing through here often for the rehearsals of Underneath which rivers flow, some of the participants found work in the car tradeafterwards.'
Not that that's his big purpose. 'I'm not a social worker. I will never write applications about "participation" and promise that neighborhood residents will find jobs through us. If there's anything this neighborhood needs even less than gentrification, it's the white saviour. But if you work here as an artist, it makes sense that you look fora connection with your environment. The fact that many young people from the neighborhood work with us is nice, but it was never a goal in itself.'
Roof Decoratelier- Manchesterstraat
For two years Decoratelier has been situated in the old factory buildings of Cassonade Graeffe, the famous sugar brand with a child's face on the packaging. The Brussels-Capital Region wants to turn the site in Manchesterstraat into a new cultural hub, which in addition to La Raffinerie/ Charleroi Danses now also houses concert organization De Vaartkapoen and Recyclart. 'When we had just arrived here, I wasn't concerned with the distant future of this place,' says Wouters on the rooftop, where we have a beautiful view of Brussels. 'I saw it as a temporary place for Decoratelier. But now that we are receiving a lot of signals that what we are doing is working for the neighborhood, I feel a desire to stay here a bit longer.'
In the early years, the rule was: Decoratelier = Jozef Wouters. ‘Now sometimes I feel like a tourist,' he says, laughing. 'When I see how Menno as technical director, together with Vic (Van den Bossche, ed.) and Willem(Rys, ed.), makes sure the whole operation runs smoothly, and how Marie invites one talented artist after another, I am happy that things are growing and changing. It has always been my goal not to converge with this space. People who get inextricably connected to the place they have created, that seems a bit outdated to me.’
For the next five years, Decoratelier will remain under the umbrella of Damaged Goods. 'It is too early for Decoratelier to stand on its own two feet,' Wouters thinks. 'Meg Stuart and I are also not finished with each other in terms of content. She is the most inspiring human being I know. I think it’s incredible how Meg manages to bring energies together from all over the world temporarily. I used to feel queasy when I started a project under my own name, but through her I have learned to work with my doubts and fears.'
The past five years have revolved around settling in the neighborhood; in the coming period, Wouters wants to spread his wings and explore the rest of the world. ‘Until now, most of my work has been set in Brussels, but in the coming years I want to make performances in locations in Vienna, Berlin, Tunis, etc. I want to design spaces that are also a performance. Where someone sings the song of the solar panels on the roof, for example, or where the door is not really there but is performed by someone. I need a return to fiction. Decoratelier is a lot of fun, but also very real. I realize that when I’m refilling the refrigerator over here. (laughs)'
Translated from French
Some shows are crystal clear and fluid. Despite its title, CASCADE, Meg Stuart's latest creation, is not one of them. We expected no less from the American choreographer who makes her raw material out of improvisation, chaos and a time that she imagines elastic. In a galactic universe signed by Philippe Quesne, seven dancers struggle with an unstable reality, chain reactions and failures, leaving a perpetual sense of loss and regeneration.
Constant uncertainty, chain reactions, transmission in particular: during the health crisis, we have collectively experimented with certain themes addressed by CASCADE. Has the pandemic influenced the creation of the production?
Meg Stuart: It was very difficult to create during this time of uncertainty and interruptions, even though, magically, the context reflected the original idea of the piece. We went up and down between different emotions, between pessimism and optimism. We wavered between the idea that we were going to get there, or maybe not, that everything was going to be okay, and actually not. It made the process more extreme, and we were navigating a sea of questions. What is our mission? What did we lose along the way, what did we discover? What do we want to change? How are we different? What does "we" mean in society and in the world? Though we may have felt isolated during those interruptions, the shared reality and questions of the pandemic bonded us in unexpected ways.
The question of time and our relationship to it is central to your work. How can dance and choreography make these subjects visible?
MS: I think most often the misunderstandings between humans come from the fact that they have different rhythms. Some people are slower, others very fast, some are multitasking and others not at all. Dancing can make this visible. For CASCADE, more precisely, we thought a lot about collapses, compressions, contractions or extensions of time. Quantum physics allows us to understand all of this, and the political moment we are living lets us experience it: our relationship to time, its rhythms, its flows, is distorted, and the feelings of exhaustion and regeneration are very powerful.
How does your knowledge of physics, particularly quantum physics, feed your work as a choreographer?
MS: I understand quantum physics in my own way, in a somewhat loose way. The main lesson I take from this is the idea that we live in a multidimensional reality and that space and time have a certain elasticity: therefore it is possible to have an effect on things without being in the same place or the same time as them. Events that happened two generations ago in one place can still have an impact today, and what you do today can impact not only the future, but also the past. Things do not move steadily, this is what "quantum leaps" teach us: elements can move or appear in an instant.
How did you physically translate this idea with the dancers?
MS: We have worked a lot on the idea that our world is not constant, that it can tip over, that gravity is not a given, and that different realities can coexist. Then we had to integrate these ideas into the bodies of the dancers, who communicate via impulses, pulsations, rhythms, gaps and interruptions. Jumps and swings were also important. A lot of times we jump into something but don't know how to land, and it's that space between desire and impact that we're navigating. This refers to the stunt, but also to courage and failures. What does it mean to jump into the void? and suddenly, to fall?
To imagine the scenography of CASCADE, you called on Philippe Quesne who, in his own creations, regularly stages ecosystems. What kind of universe did you create together?
MS: A cosmic kind of universe! It's a world that is a little naive, science-fiction but in a low-fi way. An alternative planet, without trauma, where the dancers are kind of dreamers. Everything seems perfectly balanced, but actually this world is not solid, it does not hold the performers, because there is a constant back and forth between appearance and disappearance and the scenography changes over time.
What importance do you give to dreams in your choreographic processes?
MS: Dreams follow their own logic and because they keep us moving, we can say that they are in a way the keepers of our soul. I think that, in dancing as in dreaming, you realize something bigger than what actually happens, and that you always achieve something other than the stated goal. This is a form of resistance, because in either case it is about not accepting the reality as it is, or the situations as they are.
In the text that accompanies the show, we read that the dancers play games in which the rules can change at any time. What are these games?
MS: My pieces might be structured, but the movements are not. In CASCADE a lot changes from one performance to another, because in so many places the dancers are put in certain situations, and they have to find a new solution. The main game in this piece, really, is trying to come together and be together. And here "being together" is not a question of relations of social issues, but a purely physical matter. Often, the dancers can't figure out how to do it: if they manage to synchronize, it is often complicated and mysterious.
One game we played while we were creating movement material is pong-ping: a revision of ping pong. It takes the rules of ping-pong, but the players are free to change them: a serve can radically suspend time, you can shift speed and repeat the same thing, as if you were pressing reset – and eventually, you continue without balls or rackets. It's kind of a "queer" ping-pong: a game without competition, playful but serious, with an openness to failure but also to a form of collaboration.
This reminds me of the name you chose to give to your company, which sounds like an insult. "Damaged goods" means « marchandise abîmé ». How did you come up with it?
“This expression was used in a review to refer to the performers of my very first creation Disfigure Study. The last sentence of the journalist Burt Supree was: "And everyone [the dancers] is shown as damaged goods." It hit me right in the face. But on second thought, it was also a means to define the way I was responding to the virtuosity of dance, which I had grown up with. It was about staging a body that has experience, but that is vulnerable. In the end, there was a lot of humor in that line, so I made it the name of my company. Today, strangely, I turn to something more virtuosic, more dancing, more savage too. With Damaged Goods we have come a long way."
Certains spectacles sont limpides et fluides. Malgré son titre, Cascade, la dernière création de Meg Stuart n’est pas de ceux-là. On n’en attendait pas moins de la chorégraphe américaine qui fait de l’improvisation, du chaos et d’un temps qu’elle imagine élastique, sa matière première. Dans un univers galactique signé Philippe Quesne, sept danseurs se débattent avec une réalité instable, des réactions en chaîne et des échecs, laissant une perpétuelle impression de faillite et de régénération.
L’incertitude constante, les réactions en chaîne, de transmission notamment : avec la crise sanitaire, nous avons expérimenté collectivement certains thèmes abordés par Cascade. La pandémie a-t-elle influencé cette nouvelle création ?
« Il a été très difficile de créer pendant cette période pleine d’incertitudes et d’interruptions, même si, magiquement, le contexte coïncidait avec le contenu initial de la pièce. Nous sommes passés par énormément de courbes affectives, entre pessimisme et optimisme. On oscillait entre l’idée qu’on allait y arriver, ou en fait peut-être pas, que tout allait bien se passer, et en fait non. Cela a rendu le processus plus extrême et nous naviguions dans un océan de questions. Quelle est notre mission ? Qu’est-ce qu’on a perdu en chemin, qu’est-ce qu’on a découvert ? Qu’est-ce qu’on veut changer ? Comment sommes-nous différents ? Qu’est-ce que « nous » veut dire, dans la société et dans le monde ? Même si on a pu se sentir isolés pendant ces interruptions, cette réalité partagée et les questions de la pandémie nous ont liés de manière inattendue.
La question du temps et de nos rapports à lui est centrale dans vos travaux. Comment la danse et la chorégraphie peuvent rendre perceptible ces sujets ?
« Je pense que le plus souvent, les incompréhensions entre les humains viennent du fait qu’ils ont des rythmes différents. Certaines personnes sont plus lentes, d’autres très rapides, certaines sont multitâches tandis que d’autres pas du tout. La danse peut rendre cela visible. Pour Cascade, plus précisément, on a beaucoup pensé aux effondrements, compressions, contractions ou extensions du temps. La physique quantique nous permet de comprendre tout cela et le moment politique que nous vivons de l’expérimenter : notre relation au temps, ses rythmes, ses flux, est distordue et les sentiments d’épuisement et de régénération sont très puissants.
Comment vos connaissances en physique, notamment quantique, nourrissent-elles votre travail de chorégraphe ?
« Je comprends la physique quantique à ma manière, de façon un peu libre. La principale leçon que j’en tire est l’idée que nous vivons dans une réalité multidimensionnelle et que l’espace et le temps ont une certaine élasticité : il est donc possible d’affecter les choses sans être dans le même lieu ni le même temps qu’elles. Des événements qui se sont passés il y a deux générations à un endroit précis peuvent encore avoir un impact aujourd’hui, et ce que tu fais aujourd’hui pourra avoir un impact non seulement sur le futur, mais aussi sur le passé. Les choses n’évoluent pas de façon stable, c’est ce que nous apprennent les « sauts quantiques » : des éléments peuvent se déplacer ou apparaître en un instant.
Comment avez-vous traduit physiquement cette idée-là avec les danseurs ?
« On a énormément travaillé sur l’idée que notre monde n’est pas constant, qu’il peut basculer, que la gravité n’est pas acquise et que différentes réalités peuvent coexister. Ensuite il a fallu intégrer ces idées dans les corps de danseurs qui communiquent via des impulsions, des pulsations, des rythmes, des écarts et des interruptions. Les sauts et élans ont aussi eu une place importante. Souvent, on saute vers quelque chose mais on ne sait pas comment atterrir et c’est cet espace entre le désir et l’impact que l’on essaie de traverser. Cela renvoie à la cascade, mais aussi au courage et aux échecs. Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire de sauter dans le vide ? et du coup, de tomber ?
Pour imaginer le décor de Cascade, vous avez fait appel à Philipe Quesne qui, dans ses propres créations, met régulièrement en scène des écosystèmes. Quel genre d’univers avez-vous créé ensemble ?
« D’un genre cosmique ! C’est un monde un peu naïf, science-fictionnel mais low-fi. Une planète alternative, sans traumatismes, où les danseurs sont des genres de rêveurs. Tout semble parfaitement équilibré, mais en réalité, ce monde n’est pas solide, il ne tient pas les interprètes, car il y a un constant va-et-vient entre apparition et disparition et que le décor change avec le temps.
Quelle importance accordez-vous aux rêves dans vos processus chorégraphiques ?
« Les rêves suivent leur propre logique et parce qu’ils nous tiennent en mouvement, on peut dire qu’ils sont en quelque sorte les garants de notre âme. Je pense que, dans la danse comme dans le rêve, on réalise quelque chose de plus grand que ce qui se passe concrètement, et qu’on atteint toujours quelque chose d’autre que l’objectif fixé. C’est une forme de résistance, parce que dans un cas comme dans l’autre, il s’agit de ne pas accepter la réalité telle qu’elle est, ni les situations telles qu’elles sont.
Dans le texte qui accompagne le spectacle, on peut lire que les danseurs jouent à des jeux dans lesquels les règles peuvent changer à tout instant. Quels sont ces jeux ?
« Mes pièces ont beau être structurées, les gestes ne le sont pas. Dans Cascade une grande part diffère, d’une représentation à l’autre, car à plein d’endroits les danseurs sont mis dans des situations et doivent inventer une nouvelle solution. Le jeu principal dans cette pièce, en réalité, c’est essayer de se réunir et être ensemble. Et ici « être ensemble » n’est pas une question relationnelle ou sociale, mais de pure physique. Souvent, les danseurs ne trouvent pas comment faire : s’ils parviennent à se synchroniser, ce sera souvent compliqué et mystérieux. Mais sinon, il y a un jeu auquel nous avons joué pendant que nous créions le matériel chorégraphique : une révision du ping-pong. Ce jeu conserve les règles originelles du ping-pong mais les joueurs sont libres de les modifier : un service peut radicalement suspendre le temps, tu peux changer de vitesse ou répéter le même geste comme si tu appuyais sur reset. En définitive, tu peux continuer de jouer sans balle ni raquettes. C’est une sorte de ping-pong « queer » : un jeu sans compétition, ludique mais sérieux, avec une ouverture à l’échec et à la collaboration.
Cela fait penser au nom que vous avez choisi de donner à votre compagnie, comme un pied de nez. « Damaged goods » signifie marchandise abîmée. Comment l’avez-vous choisi ?
« Cette expression a été utilisée par un critique pour parler des interprètes lors de ma toute première création Disfigure Study. La dernière phrase du journaliste Burt Supree était : « Et tout le monde [les danseurs] est présenté comme une marchandise endommagée ». Je me suis reçu ça en pleine face. Mais après réflexion, c’était aussi une manière nommer la réponse que j’apporte à la virtuosité de la danse, avec laquelle j’avais grandi. Il s’agissait de mettre en scène un corps qui a de l’expérience, mais qui est vulnérable. Il y avait finalement beaucoup d’humour dans cette phrase, alors j’en ai fait le nom de ma compagnie. Aujourd’hui, étrangement, je me tourne vers quelque chose de plus virtuose, de plus dansant, de plus sauvage aussi. Avec Damaged Goods on a fait un long chemin. »
U.S. choreographer Meg Stuart, 56, is represented with three works at this year's ImPulsTanz Festival. For her latest, "CASCADE", Vienna should actually have been the ninth stop, but due to the long lockdown, the world premiere is taking place here. Stuart is nonetheless relaxed and wants to continue making live art in the future. A conversation about her company Damaged Goods, about the rhythm in her work and why it depresses her to think about her home country.
Falter: Meg Stuart, you are showing the world premiere of your new piece "CASCADE" at ImPulsTanz. As a choreographer known for your innovative spirit, what is completely new about this work?
Meg Stuart: I was interested in exploring the relationship between gravity and time, which led to many variations of falling , leaning in somewhere and uneven standing. Rhythmically, the piece is very complex, which is a big difference from some of my previous works which were like a pendulum sliding in the balance between dance and theater. "CASCADE" is a dance piece that constantly walks on uneven ground. An ongoing disruption takes place, everything is unstable. This leads to a new level of corporeality.
Dancers usually try to overcome gravity. Do they accept it here?
Stuart: Reluctantly, yes. It's also about looking at what we need and what we can let go of. What structures are we holding onto, what expectations and hopes that we have are being shaken? The performers find each other in playful and irrational game structures in which they do not work against each other but together. There are also two drummers on stage who propose alternative rhythmic pathways and ruptures that the dancers meet, but also resist.
You originally wanted to premiere "CASCADE" in September, when we already had half a year of the pandemic behind us. To what extent does our new situation too flow into the piece?
Stuart: The situation has made it clear that we are strongly connected and everything affects everyone. I wanted to do another group piece for the big stage. That required intense physical practice; a football coach worked with my team. I talked a lot with them about effort, about given patterns where nothing moves on until a new approach has been found. Of course, that has a lot to do with the fact that our premiere was postponed eight times – a cascade in itself. You start over and over again and are then slowed down. Time goes on, although nothing else moves.
In the course of the eight postponements, have you planned a version in compliance with distancing rules?
Stuart: No. When we rehearsed in Essen and then in Paris, we built an artistic bubble. We rehearsed mostly in the theater where we often took tests and were allowed to take off our masks while we were on stage. We also rehearsed via zoom for a short time. But this didn't necessarily result in intensive physical work, it was just a way to stay in touch.
You commissioned the stage designer Philippe Quesne to design the set for "CASCADE”. Did you get what you had expected?
Stuart: Quesne is a creator of landscapes and habitats. I really wanted to work with him because I thought an interesting dialogue would come out. I was surprised that he didn't present us with a closed world, like "You're all on a spaceship." At times it seems like there's nothing on stage at all. The cosmic set talks more about the promise of time as much it does about space. This refusal to stick to a fixed concept is more Damaged Goods than I would have expected. We're never about putting on a virtuoso show, after all, but always about the gap, about failure, the attempt, and about whether or not you keep dreaming. He captured that beautifully. He's playful, and we play. Aino Laberenz makes the costumes.
How did you put together this completely new team?
Stuart: I wanted to work with Philippe for some years now. Aino and I worked together for the first time last year when she made costumes for a series of films I directed for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Three of the seven dancers are new in the team. With the other four, I have often worked before. Musician Brendan Dougherty, who was part of our team for the first time with “VIOLET" ten years ago, is on board too. It felt like the right moment to reconnect.
This classic work will be shown again this year. Why that particular piece as a counterpart for "CASCADE"?
Stuart: "VIOLET" is also a group work, but it has a singular urgency. The dancers were individuals sharing an energetic landscape, shaping these forces through their movements. It brings a nice contrast to "CASCADE" where the dancers meet each other at the edge of collapse. Their cooperation is more explicit. But it will also just be interesting to trace Brendan's development over the last ten years.
Some say that with its abstraction, "VIOLET" is untypical of your work. Would you otherwise describe yourself as a concrete choreographer who tells stories?
Stuart: It's true that I like to wander freely between the genres of dance and theater. I don't tell stories, but I often work with fragments of narrative layers that appear and disappear.
Together with others, you have a third project going on at ImPulsTanz, “The Matter Lab", with two late-night performances at 11 pm. Can you describe this work?
Stuart: This is a research project, a lab, at the end of which we do two showings, very informal, very relaxed. The basis is: What do we artists have to stand up for? What does it mean to stand up? How do we deal with challenging, complex issues? Initially, we wanted to do stand-up comedy, but all that's left of that is the minimalist setting with no stage design. It will possibly be a series of monologues that will be deconstructed during the evening. We may also involve the audience, but we don't know that for sure yet. It will be risky, but I think it's important to be allowed to improvise and experiment in a setting like ImPulsTanz. In any case, if you're looking for a dance party, you're in the wrong place.
Will "CASCADE" be Damaged Goods' first-ever appearance since the lockdown?
Stuart: Yes, since January 2020. I am very excited and it's going to be brilliant. My dancers were very worried about how they were going to keep fit. They've been rehearsing in their living rooms – and now we will all be dancing together again in a packed hall. My team has grown up with the ImPulsTanz Festival, for them it is fateful that the premiere is now taking place in Vienna, of all places.
You've said that the pandemic reinforces the importance of live art for you. Should the next lockdown come at some point, will you just wait until it's over?
Stuart: Maybe the lockdown has increased my interest in minimalist places, in non-theater places. What new rhythms emerge in public spaces? But the pandemic has also opened my eyes to the fact that it's okay to ask of a festival more than just performing in front of an audience in a theater: Let's go out! Let's go on a journey! The fact that performances were cancelled was something completely unheard of. If someone got sick, it was always clear that we would still have to play somehow. I hope that a new openness for collaboration and experimentation has arisen among cultural organizers. If a new lockdown were to happen next October, I would probably look more deeply into these possibilities.
You live in Brussels since 1994 and you are a star in Europe. Are you glad to be out of the U.S.?
Stuart: In the U.S., you always have to prove yourself as an artist, no matter how long you've been in the business. But I'm relieved not to live there for another simple reason: the gun laws scare the hell out of me. Now under Biden there is a glimmer of hope, he is trustworthy and means well. Still, it depresses me that people over there spend so much money to go to college, and yet, that these many smart people who ponder on politics fail to build a better leadership.
I'm sorry, I didn't mean to depress you. Of course, even the name of your company has something depressing about it: "Damaged Goods".
Stuart: Really? I see it the other way around: They may be damaged, but they are good!
Stuart: Yes, maybe it would be better the other way around (laughs). But at the end of the day, everyone is flawed, and that’s okay.
l’image de son éphémère piscine de plein air, cet été, à Anderlecht, décor d’une pièce du KunstenFestival mais aussi de plongeons de Bruxellois en goguette, Decoratelier pratique une scénographie du partage, au service de Bruxelles, comme un antidote à l’effet « cluster » culturel.
Du bois partout ! Des piles, de toutes les tailles, empilées dans chaque recoin de cette cour intérieure, rue de Manchester à Molenbeek, où siège Decoratelier, espace de création du scénographe Jozef Wouters que ce dernier partage avec tous ceux qui ont un projet à construire dans la ville. Du podium, qui accueillait, la veille, Tafukt, du chorégraphe Radouan Mriziga, aux espaces pour prendre un verre, tout est fabriqué en bois recyclé. En pénétrant ce jour-là dans l’enceinte de cette ancienne usine, où voisinent les bureaux de Recyclart et de Charleroi- Danse, il faut veiller à ne pas se faire écraser par un transpalette tout en esquivant de larges rambardes de bois, portées à bout de bras par une jeune fourmilière. Voilà six semaines que plusieurs équipes, à raison de deux shifts par jour, construisent les contours du Flow, une piscine éphémère qui va s’installer à Anderlecht, en juillet et août, pour accueillir non seulement les familles bruxelloises en mal de baignade de plein air, mais aussi la nouvelle création de Lina Lapelyt, artiste lituanienne programmée par le KunstenFestivaldesArts (lire ci-contre). En ce vendredi après-midi, ils sont une petite dizaine, habitants du quartier, à être venus prêter main-forte à la construction de cette piscine de 17 mètres sur sept. Mobilisés par Camille Thiry, chargée de médiation, la plupart sont des fidèles de ces workshops organisés par Decoratelier. « Je n’avais jamais fait de menuiserie avant », confesse Ismaël, la vingtaine. « Là, j’ai appris à couper du bois, faire des chanfreins, coller, visser, avant de démonter, pour les transporter, ces éléments qui formeront l’estrade de la piscine. Ça fait plaisir d’apporter sa pierre à l’édifice », poursuit le jeune homme. Derrière ce flot d’énergies positives se dessine une stratégie mûrement réfléchie par Jozef Wouters, cheville ouvrière du projet : « Quand tu coupes cent fois la même pièce, c’est comme une chorégraphie. Tu finis par devenir spécialiste de ce geste et tu peux ensuite le transmettre à un autre. C’est pour ça qu’on travaille avec du bois. Si on travaillait avec du métal, il faudrait deux mois avant de pouvoir souder. » Quel espace construire ensemble ? Scénographe et créateur de dispositifs singuliers, Jozef Wouters collabore avec les plus grandes structures artistiques (KVS, KunstenFestivaldesArts) mais il entend surtout être le scénographe de tout le monde, imaginer les décors de spectacles mais aussi de la vie de tous les jours. Son atelier se prolonge en une plateforme où d’autres peuvent bâtir leur propre projet. Ce peut être Globe Aroma qui y installe un atelier de fabrication de meubles pour des personnes s’identifiant comme femmes. Ce peut être le collectif bruxellois Leaving Living Dakota avec lequel Decoratelier a conçu une boîte de nuit. Ce peut être une salle de gym autoconstruite par les jeunes du quartier et désormais fréquentée par tout le voisinage (lire cicontre). Mais c’est aussi une façon de partager l’espace avec toutes les synergies créatives de la ville. L’été dernier, le festival « Something when it doesn’t rain » proposait une programmation radicalement inclusive, ouverte aux communautés artistiques ou militantes comme aux voisins du quartier. On pouvait y suivre des projections de films ou des ateliers de danse, voir une performance du collectif Ne Mosquito Pas ou se faire couper les cheveux chez Fars, y pratiquer de la muscu ou participer à une conversation sur le féminisme intersectionnel modérée par le collectif bruxellois ImaziReine. « Il y a tellement de talents et de structures passionnantes à Bruxelles que ce n’est pas très difficile de mettre en place tout cela », précise Marie Umuhoza, coordinatrice des activités. « Nous collaborons surtout avec des organisations à la recherche d’espaces d’autonomie, qui cherchent autre chose que les institutions plus traditionnelles où les choix sont déjà faits pour toi avant que tu n’y arrives », souligne Jozef Wouters. «Moi-même, j’ai passé beaucoup d’années dans des institutions où il était difficile d’être réellement autonome. Ici, on prête le lieu, on fournit le matériel mais ça reste leur projet. Personne ne leur dit comment faire. On demande simplement : quel espace on peut construire pour vous ? Pour la salle de gym avec les jeunes, on leur a dit : “OK, vous pouvez utiliser cet endroit mais vous allez le faire vous-mêmes. On va vous aider mais on ne va pas juste mettre trois palettes. On va le penser et le construire ensemble.” Le but n’est pas de faire de la pédagogie, de les pousser à l’emploi ou de résoudre les problèmes de Molenbeek. On se demande simplement : quel espace on va construire ensemble ? » En mode « grassroot » La philosophie de Decoratelier n’est pas de faire apparaître les énergies après la fabrication d’un espace mais pendant. Ainsi, la construction de la piscine ne se fait pas qu’avec du bois et de l’eau mais aussi avec des rencontres et des discussions. Lors d’un échange sur les violences policières, les jeunes qui participent à la fabrication de la piscine se sont souvenus de ce qu’ils avaient vécu à Blankenberge l’été dernier, quand les touristes d’un jour sont devenus indésirables sur la côte belge. « Construire un espace public de baignade a d’autant plus de sens pour eux aujourd’hui qu’ils en ont été bannis. Ils nous ont dit : “Tout le monde sera bienvenu dans notre piscine.” En espérant que cette piscine, comme l’espace public en général, ne va pas devenir un espace exclusif. L’histoire belge a montré que les travailleurs venus du Maroc par exemple pour construire des pans entiers de la ville ont fini par être illégitimes d’accès dans ces espaces construits par leur père ou leur grand-père », remarque Marie Umuhoza. Avec un fonctionnement qu’il décrit comme « grassroot » (qui surgit du terrain), et qui n’a hélas pas d’équivalent côté francophone, Decoratelier a beaucoup appris de la crise. « Certains lieux ont pu s’adapter mais d’autres pas, parce que trop grands, trop lents, trop institutionnels. C’est plus facile pour nous de réagir que pour une grande maison d’opéra. C’est incroyable l’énergie qu’ont déployée les plateformes citoyennes pendant la pandémie. Je pense qu’il faudrait valoriser cela », argumente le fondateur, avec Menno Vandevelde, de Decoratelier, qui bénéficie du soutien structurel de Damaged Goods, la compagnie de Meg Stuart. D’une souplesse exemplaire, l’espace molenbeekois abrite aussi des résidences d’artistes, qui ne se font pas par appel à projets mais par un système de références en chaîne, tel résident recommandant une autre personnalité, souvent inconnue de l’équipe, ce qui facilite encore la diversité dans cette agora scénographique. Toucher d’autres publics, sortir de l’entre-soi, il y a ceux qui en parlent (beaucoup) et ceux qui le font (sans tralala). L’équipe de Decoratelier est de ces discrets mais diablement efficaces !
Pool is Cool : les amoureux des bains publics, bains publics
Avec Pool is Cool, Dec oratelier oeuvre à exaucer le voeu de nombreux Bruxellois : installer une piscine publique en plein air, accessible à tous. Un défi logistique qui recouvre aussi une démarche politique alors que le manque d ’espaces de loisirs est devenu criant l ’été dernier face aux milliers de familles in terdites de voyage. Qui peut se rendre à la Côte ? Où se nichent les tentatives de privatisation et où se répètent les logiques de discrimination sy stémique ? Avec cette piscine éphémère, installée en juillet et août à Anderlecht, aux abords du pont Pierre Marchant, les organisateurs veulent soulever des questions démocratiques. En par allèle, le KunstenFestivaldesArts y programme la nouvelle création de Lina LapelytÄÂ (du 1 er au 8/7, www.kfda.be). Lauréate du Lion d’Or à la Biennale de Venise en 2019 avec une oeuvre qui abordait le réchauffement clima tique à travers une composition musicale située dans un décor de plage, l’artiste lituanienne crée une nouvelle performance pour des choristes locaux sur le thème du poisson, de la fragilité et de l’éternité. Une pièce qui prendra aussi la forme d’une installation aquatique, créant un espace hybride de nageurs et de spectateurs, où les récits flottent à fleur d ’eau.
Une salle de gym pour muscler les liens avec le quartier
Scénographier, c’est concevoir un espace où rencontrer l’autre. Parfois, il suffit de mettre quelques chaises. Parfois, c’est un peu plus que cela. Dans un coin de Decoratelier, il existe une salle de gym pas comme les autres. Barre des haltères ou banc de muscu : ce gymnase de plein air est fabriqué à partir de matériaux de récupération mais surtout, il est tissé de liens particuliers avec le quartier. « Quand Decoratelier s’est installé dans la rue, on a commencé à squatter devant la por te, sans forcément respecter ce qui s’y faisait », se souvient Youssef Bouchoiri, 24 ans. « En voyant qu’on glandait, l’équipe s’est dit : “Autant faire un projet avec eux.” Ils nous ont demandé ce qu’il nous manquait et on a parlé d’une salle de sport. On a fait les plans ensemble et on l’a fabriqué nousmêmes, rien qu’avec du recyclé. On leur donnait nos idées et ils nous assistaient. » Aujourd’hui, Youness vient quasiment tous les jours ouvrir la salle aux entraînements. « Certains, dans le quartier, nous ont critiqués au début, mais ce sont les mêmes qui viennent s’y entraîner aujourd’hui. Dès le début, il y avait un cadre, des règles à respecter, comme ne pas fumer par exemple. » Peu à peu, la salle de gym est devenue une sorte d’intermédiaire avec le quartier. Les jeunes qui venaient simplement ici pour soulev er de la fonte ont commencé à participer aux débats ou à animer des soirées comme « Allume tes skills ». Certains se joignent aussi aux workshops, comme celui dédié à la construction d’une piscine de plein air . « Il y a un an, aucun jeune ne sa vait utiliser les machines et main tenant on est des pros du bois. Moi, j’étais un glandeur qui avait du mal à se lever le matin et, maintenant, je suis en formation menuiserie. On participe aux débats, comme celui sur les violenc es policières. On peut s ’exprimer sans dire que tous les policiers son t des enfoirés. Si je dis que je n ’aime pas quelque chose, j’explique pourquoi. J’aime le fait que toutes les classes sociales se mélangent ici. Et le fait de pouvoir discuter, de sentir qu’il y a une écoute, un suivi. On sent qu’on existe. »
Read the article on www.e-tcetera.be (Dutch only).
Giving space is distributing power, that is the adage of Jozef Wouters. With Something when it doesn't rain, this summer his Decoratelier made the arts sector's wet dream come true: the creation of a radically inclusive public space without a fixed agenda, that could be appropriated by various artistic communities and local residents. An inspiring model for the future?
Scenographer Jozef Wouters (34) has designed many special spaces in recent years, but his Decoratelier is nevertheless unique. The old factory building in the Manchesterstraat in Molenbeek is much more than a studio where Wouters and his partner in crime Menno Vandevelde build stands and sets for fellow artists. It is also a social workshop, a residence space, a plant shelter, a nightclub and a quirky arts center all in one. This summer, the fantastic courtyard, which the offices of Recyclart, de Vaartkapoen and Charleroi Danse look out on, was transformed into a public space of and for everyone.
Under the title Something when it doesn't rain you could visit the corona-proof open air theater for film screenings, dance workshops, debates and open mics. If you felt like programming an evening, you could make a proposal. In a replica of the iconic Greenwich café, filmmaker Enzo Smits served ice creams with 'flavors from the Heyvaert neighborhood'. Fitness coach M'hamed opened a gym with self-built equipment together with local residents Youssef, Younes and Cissé. And Fars provided haircuts under the sun. Rarely did you see such a diverse audience come together in one place.
‘It was clear from the start that Decoratelier had to become a place that was bigger than what I needed for my own work,’ says Wouters. ‘Call it a form of expanded scenography. How can my scenographic work create a platform on which others also do their thing?’ As is often the case with Wouters, the Decoratelier was first a metaphor, ‘a space in language’ that was later materialized in wood and stone. ‘The seed was sown during INFINI (2015-current) at the KVS, an ongoing project for which dramaturge Jeroen Peeters and I asked sixteen artists what landscape they wanted to depict in the theater today. By consistently choosing Decoratelier as the author from the start, we were able to circumvent the desire of producers to attribute the work to one individual. The fact that the name caused some confusion at the KVS, which also has its own ‘decoratelier’ where they build sets, was a nice extra.’ (laughs)
Since then, Decoratelier has been a fundamental part of Wouters' artistic work, a fixed addition to his name. ‘The term has something subservient, it expresses a desire to be part of something. Autonomy is never a goal for me as a scenographer, at most a possible condition for collaboration.’
With the structural support of Meg Stuart's company Damaged Goods, which Wouters joined in 2017 as an autonomous artist in residence, Decoratelier became a concrete place with a continuous operation - first in an empty factory for car parts in the Liverpoolstraat, where the Bâtard festival and the theater performance Underneath which rivers flow (2019) took place. When the site was demolished to make room for a park and a daycare center, the sawing machines and models moved a hundred meters to the Manchesterstraat. In his bookMoments before the wind (2020), Wouters describes the impact of this ‘becoming an institute’ with a revealing anecdote:
After Decoratelier had been cleaned and the machines set up, Menno bought a load of wood for the first time, even before we knew what we would need it for. We used to do it the other way around, and only bought the wood after we had the plan. (...) Our wood is running ahead of our imagination. Where will it lead us?
ETC: The Decoratelier has grown into a place with a many-faceted operation. Could you sketch the total picture?
J.W.: About half of our work is financed by assignments. Just before the second lockdown we finished a scenography for Gouvernement's Night Shift in the opera house in Ghent. These are very nice spatial researches in which building is central. These projects enable us to employ a number of people who find it difficult to find work elsewhere. That's also why we've been making alcohol gel dispensers out of recycled materials over the past few months. The design is deliberately labour-intensive and the dispensers are all painted by hand in order to give as many people as possible work.
In addition, there is the residency program. Barry Ahmad Talib, one of the performers of Underneath which rivers flow, is now involved in just about everything we do as a resident. Via an open call we also selected five artists who can work here for a year on a budget.
They all had a unique vision of what kind of public space they wanted to add to Molenbeek. Activist Isabelle N'Diaye is working on a school about police violence. Amari is working on a strip club for queer and trans people of color. What does a space in this neighbourhood look like where they can take their clothes off without any problems? Choreographer Milø Slayers has a fast-growing following in the arts field and rather finds a refuge here. The residents don't owe us anything. They are not ours. Our support is unconditional.
Something when it doesn't rain came out of the desire to do something with this great courtyard. Everyone could propose something, from a capoeira workshop to a debate on Muslim feminism or a performance of the collective Ne Mosquito Pas. There's so much going on in the Brussels scene that putting together a program isn't really that difficult. Together with Marie Umuhoza, who will coordinate our operations in 2021, we only had to collect the good ideas and provide some microphones and lighting.
In addition, Decoratelier is the umbrella under which I develop my own work as an artist. Although I have to say that at the moment this mainly happens in the secret garden of my head and not so much in this place. There is already so much energy circulating here that I sometimes don't know where I can still work on my own projects.
ETC: You consciously work as decentralized as possible.
J.W.: Right. We want Decoratelier to grow into a rhizomatic network, partly out of necessity: this place must be able to go on without me, because I want to continue to make my own work. For example, instead of an open call we will work with a referral system for new residents in the future. In this way we hope to branch out deeper and deeper into the world of Brussels-based artists and activists, and to become a safe bridge for them to the institutional art circuit. A model without an artistic director, in which everyone assumes responsibility, seems to us best suited for this at the moment. It is an experiment. Curious to see if it will work.
ETC.: Decoratelier has managed to anchor itself firmly in the neighbourhood, culminating in the Allume tes skills event with the Molenbeek-based curators M’hamed, Younes, Cissé, Bilal and Youssef Bouch. How did they give you the confidence?
J.W.: Together with the Brussels art and party collective Leaving Living Dakota, we've been organizing special parties for several years now: they take care of the line-up, we provide the right setting. Thanks to them, Decoratelier has gained a name outside the art world. Interestingly, it was also the first link with the neighborhoodyouth. Some of them have been working for us as bouncers or bartenders ever since. During the lockdown new plans grew this way, like M'hamed’s outdoor gym.
Time and trust are crucial. With Camille Thiry we had a mediator working for us this summer who was exclusively dedicated to the contact with the neighborhood. Thanks to her and the many conversations we've had in recent years, we understand the diversity within such a group of young people a little better and we don't have to close the door to everyone if a single person does something wrong. Moreover, I myself am anti-authoritarian enough to understand some of their reflexes and to enter into dialogue in a vulnerable way. It was clear from the start that we are not social workers and they are not a target group in our subsidy application. If they want to make something out of this place, we can help, but they have to do it themselves in the first place.
ETC..: In a letter to architect Wim Cuyvers3 you describe how important it is to close off a public space from time to time and make it invisible, so that a safe space can be created. To what extent do you sometimes have to negotiate between the boundaries of the different groups that come together in the Decoratelier?
J.W.: Which scenography allows someone to meet the other and still feel safe? What fictional space can we share in all our diversity? That is the central question in this courtyard. Sometimes it is enough to put a chair in the right place, sometimes more is needed. I remember an evening when a film was shown about the lgbtq community in Tunis. For a number of people from the trans and queer community it was difficult at that time to share a space with the cisgender men who were training a few meters away with no shirt on. We discussed this at the time. I love that conflict. I learn a lot from it. Where in the city do you still get the chance to let a space transform itself from such diverse points of view? That's scenography for me: designing an inner courtyard in such a way that everyone can take their place and participate in a shared program on their own terms. Or not. Sometimes not everyone is allowed inside. The gate that closes us off from the street is an important part of this. The door changed its meaning every day. Together with the fantastic Youssef Bouch, who understands this neighborhood very well, we thought about an appropriate door policy for each event.
ETC: The Brussels city council has ambitious plans to upgrade the Canal Zone. How do you see the role of the Decoratelier in this?
J.W.: There is a master plan on the drawing board to turn the Manchester neighbourhood into a cultural hub. In addition to Recyclart, the Vaartkapoen, Charleroi Danse and Cinemaximilian, a number of other organizations would be added. I am curious, but I also hold my heart. Will the scale of this project enable or hinder things?
During the corona crisis we noticed how important it is to be agile as an institution. Thanks to its link with Damaged Goods, Decoratelier has all the legal and administrative advantages of an institute, but at the same time we havethe freedom to make quick decisions and to be a safe haven for people with complicated legal statutes, for example. For the artists, our spontaneous way of working is a form of relief too: a large part of our program consisted of announcements à la ‘something by someone’ and then often with ‘maybe’ added. (laughs) It seems difficult for much larger institutions to respond adequately to a rapidly changing world. I hope that the covid crisis will trigger a discussion about the desired scale of our institutions and the way in which we want to organize things in the future.
ETC..: Is there something typically ‘Brussels’ about this place, or could you set up a decor studio anywhere?
J.W.: It could be anywhere, the parameters are simple: autonomy and the right balance between professionalism and simplicity. In Brussels, it might be a little simpler because there are so many spark plugs. I feel part of a larger network here. (thinking) I lived in Antwerp for seven years, but there it was still difficult to connect with institutions such as Toneelhuis, deSingel or Monty. Perhaps that explains why I never became very active as an artist there, despite my close ties with Scheld'apen, Het Bos and especially Elsemieke Scholte at de Theatermaker. I did try, but during my first interview at the Monty I walked away because a man started to explain to me, uninvited, how I should approach my project.
It resulted in me wanting to protect Decoratelier from too much outside interference. Nobody here tells you how to do it. As a scenographer it's my job to enforce uncompromising space for our residents so that they have to account for as little as possible. Of course I can only do that because I get the same freedom from Damaged Goods. Few people know that Meg Stuart is behind this project, she has no need to claim my work. That's pretty rare.
ETC: The places you create are inherently transient. Is that a substantive or pragmatic choice?
J.W.: We haven't figured that out yet. The deal until now has always been: autonomy in exchange for a temporary place and that was fine. As I get older, however, I feel how much energy it takes to create something new every time. Sometimes I would rather walk at a single pace, instead of always changing. On the other hand, this obligation to change shape ensures that we don't think too quickly that everything we do has to be preserved. At a certain moment a space is also ‘gone’. I notice that I am already dreaming about the next temporary place: a shed in the Ardennes, a small cinema or the boiler room between Kanal - Centre Pompidou and the Kaaitheater. That seems like an interesting place, between two institutions. Space is my muse. Everything starts from the question a place poses.
ETC..: Do you think it’s important to build up a memory of the special dynamics that take place here?
J.W.: I think it's important that there will always be a place like Decoratelier, but that place doesn't need me. As a white, privileged man it is very difficult today anyway to tell yourself that you are needed. Even before I started, Rachida Aziz said that a ‘decoratelier’ in this neighborhood had better be run by someone who doesn't look like me. She is right. Thanks to such criticism, the bar remains high. I cherish the doubts and difficult questions that thisentails.
Moments before the wind is published by Varamo Press and available at www.damagedgoods.be (15 euros).
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.
Somewhere between truth and illusion, you will find the land Underneath Which Rivers Flow. As part of Performatik, Globe Aroma and Jozef Wouters’s Decoratelier are organizing guided voyages through their secret garden there. A trip through the wormholes in their built and unbuilt park.
It begins. We think. We’ve never experienced this before: the beginning of everything. And everything is mist. A few lights appear, here and there, exploring the fog-enveloped space. Slowly, quickening, curiously faltering. Two comets fly past, narrowly missing each other, while the gaseous lights seep in from the sides of this space. A bicycle creaks past in between us. A cogwheel comes our way, globes emerge. We smell coffee, as the music swells.
A young voice leads us reassuringly through the dark night, which is filled with imagination at a dizzying speed. Crossroads, a kind of giraffe, a Maserati, a smiley? It is Monday evening, 4 March and here, in an old factory in Molenbeek, the firmament appears to take shape before our very eyes. As the mist slowly rises, we ourselves are set in motion, and at the end of a winding path, we find ourselves in a swirling circle of packed bodies that laughingly try to catch the light.
It is a planet to itself, we think the next day, in one of the barely heated spaces in the enormous building on Liverpoolstraat/rue Liverpool where the Decoratelier is based. Jozef Wouters, scenographer-artist and independent artist-in-residence at Damaged Goods, Meg Stuart’s dance company, established a year-long dialogue here with an incredibly diverse group of refugees, newcomer-artists, and locals from the open arts centre Globe Aroma. “The initial question was very simple: is it possible to build something together as a group without knowing what you are going to build beforehand?” Jozef Wouters explains how the dialogue germinated. “Building out loud,” is what he calls it. “So that there is no longer a difference between building and speaking. So that the construction itself is the dialogue.”
Where is all the architecture that is not built, that is not ‘realistic’ or sustainable? I want to be able to see that other city, where projects don’t have to be real
When we walk through the space again where the night before, thick mist obscured a gigantic Bialetti espresso machine, a fragile boat, and a number of (literally) dreamed-up constructions, we understand what he means. Like the Big Bang, this project created a void. A space as a bland sheet bursting with possibility. A translation error – a space or (just) space? – allowed cosmic metaphors to creep in. “I hadn’t anticipated those, no. That is the kind of thing that happens when you open everything up and try to take every suggestion seriously. (Laughs) Apparently, when faced with an empty space, a common imagination ignites that automatically reaches to the cosmos to generate new metaphors to talk about a group and a space.”
HESITATION AND SURRENDER
These spatial peregrinations make the universe, which is being presented at Performatik, expand. It reveals and conceals, drifts between visible and invisible. And in doing so, drops anchors to the ground beneath our feet. Underneath Which Rivers Flow refers concretely to the Canal Plan which will radically overhaul the area around the canal, adding a park in the Heyvaert Quarter where the Decoratelier now stands. During Performatik, a different park will be shown, “in which memory and imagination merge.” “A secret garden”, “full of wormholes to unsuspected worlds.” “Like a sort of pre-enactment,” Jozef Wouters says. “Within six months, this building will be demolished and a park will be built here, according to the regulations enforced in this area: gated, with a superintendent living on the corner so that he can see across the whole park, lighting, not too many bushes… The architecture of the future park is based on the idea that nothing may remain unseen. I understand why you couldn’t build a labyrinth here, but this demand for total transparency is completely contrary to nineteenth-century park designs. Back then, people still thought that cities needed secrets; parks in which they could walk around visibly, but also disappear if they wanted to.”
This is very clear from the story of Idris Hassan Hardi, a newcomer who works at Globe Aroma as a volunteer and who joined the project after some preliminary exploration. “Idris stayed somewhat outside the group at the beginning of the project,” Jozef Wouters says. “You introduced yourself…” “And I said: ‘I’ll have to see if I can stay’,” Idris Hassan Hardi responds. “And yesterday evening, during rehearsals, you stood in the centre of the large circle of bodies and were completely lost in the moment,” Jozef Wouters laughs. “That shift, from hesitation to complete surrender, was brilliant.”
“I kept coming back,” Idris Hassan Hardi explains, “because I have always loved working with wood. There was a lot of available material here and there was a lot to learn.” The maths teacher from Djibouti, a small country on the Horn of Africa, has since been regularized and knows the significance of the demand for transparency. “As a newcomer you have to justify yourself constantly and prove your worth. You have to reveal everything about your past and your whole life is carefully checked and sifted. I lived at the Klein Kasteeltje/Petit-Château, in a small room without a door or sound insulation, one of twelve on my corridor. You are stripped of all your rights in centres like that: you sleep when you are told to sleep, you eat when you are told to eat… What really appealed to me about coming back to the studio was the freedom. You come in here with your own ideas, you are given the materials to implement and build them, and the meaning of whatever you make is individual. We then find mutual connections between the projects. It is that freedom that kept me coming back.”
THE RADICAL ILLUSION
A copy of his room in the Klein Kasteeltje/Petit-Château has been erected at the back of the Decoratelier. Crossroads, likewise his own work, evoke the blockading you can experience when your asylum application is processed and your life is put on standby. On the other hand, the boat that he made refers to a sculpture that he made 30 years ago when he was working as the assistant to a carpenter and decided to do something with the refuse wood.
You can write the stories of people who may no longer be here through their buildings, through their art. That’s the purpose of leaving something behind
“This project is about relinquishing control, just letting things come,” Jozef Wouters says. “Perhaps only one percent of people in the city have the right to build something. But where is all the architecture that is not built, that is not ‘realistic’, that is not economically stable or sustainable? I want to be able to see that other city, where projects don’t have to be real. The burden of being real results in gated parks, transparency, police… There are so many things in this project that aren’t even architecture, that are just there. Even when Idris is not here, the things he made are. And we call them Idris: ‘Could you just move Idris over there?’ (Laughs) It is a form of representational building. To me, the essence of scenography lies in allowing somebody’s desire to become space.”
THE ABANDONED POEM
Becoming space, leaving a trace, becoming visible. These are thoughts that recur often during our conversation. “Spoken words fly away, written words remain,” Idris Hassan Hardi says. “You can write the stories of people who may no longer be here through their buildings, through their art. That’s the purpose of leaving something behind. Perhaps something of our secret park will be allowed to stay in the future?”
Jozef Wouters: “From the very beginning of this project, the participants discussed whether there was any use or point to it. Must it influence the future to be successful? Perhaps it is my privilege to be able to say: the temporary is enough. I think that is the real work. For the year that our secret garden is here, the metaphor is the strongest. To me, the energy here, in our planetarium this year, is more important than whatever remains afterwards. The fact that for a whole year, between the two realities of this building – it used to be a factory and in the future it will be a park – a radical illusion was allowed to exist that was real. If you look at this space now, full of our constructions, it makes me want to champion the very real power of a temporary illusion.”
Yesterday evening during the rehearsal, the mist-enveloped voiceover said that in a few billion years, our Milky Way will crash into the Andromeda galaxy. The sun will shift and new constellations will emerge. The collision will pass unnoticed on Earth. If we don’t see it or feel it and can only imagine it, did it really happen? Does it affect us? Does something have to be real to be true? “As the initiator of this project, I had to accept that it is not only the actually constructed things that are part of our park,” Jozef Wouters says. “That is why the towering structure with the blue mats is in the space: The Unbuilt. That will be the name of the school that I want to found next year: The Unbuilt School of Architecture. There are people in our group who due to a lack of time, a lack of skills, or simply because they had thousands of ideas, could not complete everything that they wanted to build. This raises the question: how can this unbuilt architecture still be present in the garden?”
“Mimouna, for example, made a construction that exists solely of words, a dream in a dream in a dream, which was created with WhatsApp. On the other hand, Bushra builds architecture with our bodies. To me, everything in this project, including the tiniest things or the things that are not even constructed, is of the same value. Some of the spaces work better when they are not built. As a result, a fictional main character gradually emerged over the course of the project: the architect who sleeps, and who does not build but dreams about her constructions. Like that line by Enrique Vila-Matas: ‘Poets don’t finish poems, they abandon them.’ That’s it! I dream of an architecture that is as fast as words, as metaphors. In which you can build something simply by saying it.”
OFF THE HINGES
Underneath Which Rivers Flow balances on precisely that pivotal point: the fiction that dreams of reality and reality that catches up to fiction. “Fiction evolves with time,” Idris Hassan Hardi says. “Only a few decades ago, the idea that you could speak to somebody who was not physically present was a fiction, absurd. Today it is a reality. Fiction is an infinite space. You cannot forbid somebody from dreaming. You can’t manipulate dreams. They are elusive and evade all control. Fiction is a dream of the future, a collection of possibilities that you cannot reach now. But perhaps a future generation will.”
“Therein lies the longevity of this project,” Jozef Wouters adds. “How can a metaphor as we have built it here contribute to this city? How can a secret garden feed the debate about public space in Brussels? Various perspectives coalesce here. Sometimes they clash, but they also expand horizons. For example, I grew up with the cliché that an open square signifies democracy. Like the agora in Athens. But if that open space is used to create transparency that is only bearable for part of the population, de facto it is an ideology. I think we must question our notion of public space and seek new forms for contemporary cities. It is important to have an honest conversation about semi-public spaces. Perhaps a first step would be that we don’t keep silent about the gates in our public parks, but that we engage in dialogue about their hinged movement. About how such gates can protect fragile spaces from the dominance of public space as we know it. Because a city still needs secret parks where you can disappear and reappear.”
Créée en 2012, Built to last semble répondre à son titre : construit pour durer. Comment percevez-vous la pièce aujourd’hui ?
Cette pièce me semble intemporelle car le dialogue entre danse et musique est infini, et que ses racines sont ancrées dans le présent. À la création, nous étions en plein mouvement Occupy Wall Street* à New York. Ce qui était brûlant autrefois semble aujourd’hui mélancolique, un peu ironique. Disons plutôt qu’on peut se permettre d’être ironique, d’être plus blasé, un peu plus réaliste aussi. On sait que la révolution collective, en tout cas celle-là, ne va pas durer.
Avec une certaine réserve, Built to last traite du temps qui passe, de notre connexion au passé et de la peur du futur.
Le temps comme l’histoire n’est qu’une perspective, il n’est pas fixe. En 2012, je disais qu’on pouvait improviser le passé ; je pense désormais que c’est faux. Si on retourne dans le passé, qu’on le recadre, c’est pour comprendre l’endroit où nous sommes aujourd’hui et celui où nous voulons être. Ce regard rétrospectif est davantage un processus de reformulation, de guérison, qu’une improvisation.
Dans cette pièce on explore beaucoup de temps et de vérités différentes : d’un long passage d’unisson qui s’étire à des passages très structurés. Tout est question d’alternatives, d’essais, on cueille quelque chose, on l’expérimente pour le lâcher et recommencer. Rien ne dure pour toujours mais il y a des boucles, des cycles, des motifs. Un dicton que j’aime dit en substance : soit conscient de la stabilité du monde car tout peut aussi s’effondrer. Aujourd’hui, même la stabilité des saisons est remise en cause.
Sur le plateau, un dinosaure en pièces détachées et un mobile de planètes cohabitent avec une salle d'exposition. Ces éléments semblent répondre à l’illusion d’éternité, nous savons que notre monde n’est pas durable et l’humanité vulnérable. Aujourd’hui, peut-on lire la pièce sous le prisme écologique ?
Nous n’avons pas du tout pensé à cette lecture en créant cette pièce sur la prétendue stabilité, mais maintenant cela semble évident. Même notre planète n’existera pas pour toujours. Nous parlions plutôt de ce qui est éteint, de ce qui ne l’est pas, de ce qui est stable. Cette boîte sur le plateau est devenue une salle d’exposition, comme dans un musée d’histoire naturelle qui peut aussi se transformer en une sorte d’espace imaginaire, de boîte à fantasmes. Mon travail essaye souvent de prendre une chose pour la transformer. Comme le dinosaure qui est démembré puis reconstruit en quelque chose d’incohérent. En le détruisant et en le reconstruisant on le libère, en quelque sorte. Toute chose a plus qu’une seule vie, plus qu’un seul sens, plus qu’un seul usage et tout cela fonctionne ensemble.
Cette création est la seule de vos pièces à être chorégraphiée avec des musiques déjà existantes, des monuments de l’histoire de l’art, assemblées avec le musicien Alain Franco. Que permettent de telles musiques ?
Habituellement je travaille mes pièces de façon très ouverte, je commence de zéro, avec le moins de choses possibles, mais cette fois la musique pré-écrite aide à contenir la chorégraphie. Au départ, je voulais travailler sur la pièce symphonique Eroica de Beethoven, mais pendant nos sessions de répétition, Alain Franco passait d’autres morceaux, il cherchait, nous partageait ses clés de lecture, puis il a tout connecté. Il est une véritable archive vivante !
L’idée était de construire une machine à voyager dans le temps. Toutefois, nous n’analysons pas la musique ni son histoire, on y répond de façon émotionnelle, sans savoir si c’est juste ou faux. Il y a un fossé entre ce que la musique promet et l’endroit où l’on est vraiment, comme lorsqu’on écoute une musique symphonique en faisant la vaisselle, par exemple. Ces décalages peuvent nous permettre d’accéder au sublime.
Vous citez le philosophe slovène Slavoj Zizek : « la même musique qui, à un moment, a servi des objectifs diaboliques, peut être délivrée et mise au service du bien. Ou elle peut être ambiguë et le rester. Avec la musique, on n’a jamais de certitudes. Puisqu’elle exprime les passions les plus fondamentales, elle constitue toujours un danger potentiel. » La musique est aussi une menace ?
Le régime nazi s’est approprié les musiques de Wagner, Beethoven et celles d’autres compositeurs Allemands. Les compositions de cette ampleur peuvent entraîner une forme de domination, elles agissent sur les corps et notre psychologie telles une force. Mais la musique n’est pas seulement une menace, c’est aussi un outil social qui peut nous réunir.
Comment l’humain, le danseur, peut-il continuer d’agir tout en étant dominé ?
Cette musique a pris le pouvoir, elle maîtrise le plateau, on ne peut pas agir contre. La musique se lance sans s’épuiser ; un humain lui, se fatigue, s’affaiblit. Sur scène, les acteurs sont là pour poser des questions sans y répondre : nous sommes là, qu’allons-nous faire, maintenant ? J’adore cette simple présence qui raconte que les humains ne sont pas des machines, qu’ils ne savent pas tout. Ce que le théâtre peut offrir, c’est de nous faire réfléchir sur notre état de vulnérabilité. »
*Occupy Wall Street ou Occupy New York est un mouvement de contestation pacifique dénonçant les abus du capitalisme financier. Le mouvement débute le 17 septembre 2011.
Yogyakarta-based visual artist, theater maker, and musician Jompet Kuswidananto creates performative installations that reflect on the ghosts of Indonesia’s sociopolitical and colonial history and its cultural transition from dictatorship to democracy in the post-Suharto era. This April 11–13, Kuswidanato visits Minneapolis for the North American premiere of the Walker-co-commissioned performance work Celestial Sorrow. A collaboration with the Brussels/Berlin-based choreographer Meg Stuart, it creates a vibrant world of light, movement, and live music by a five-member group of virtuosic dancers and musicians from across Europe, Japan, and Indonesia. Here, in conversation with curator and Walker Interdisciplinary Fellow Allie Tepper, Kuswidananto discusses his collaborative artistic practice and the influences that drove the making of Celestial Sorrow, from a government ban on sad songs to traumatic inheritances, a fear of the dark, and euphoria.
ALLIE TEPPER (AT): I wanted to ask you about your current fascination with lights as a material and signifier within your work. You just debuted two new installations, Keroncong Concordia at the Sharjah Biennial 14 and On Paradise at aA29 Project Room in Milan, both of which incorporate dimly lit, fallen chandeliers. Your collaboration with Meg Stuart, which you’re debuting at the Walker this week, also centers around a hanging light installation. What brought you on this path?
JOMPET KUSWIDANANTO (JK): I’ve been exploring the wounds of Indonesia’s colonial history and was interested in using lights, particularly in the form of chandeliers, as an image of the colonial dream and identity. At several moments in Indonesian history, during anti-colonial rebellions, chandeliers became a target of iconoclasm. On Paradise speaks about religious-indoctrinated, anti-colonial rebellions in the 19th century, while Keroncong Concordia presents the story of 20th-century colonial elite social clubs and entertainment spaces that segregated its audiences and performers by race, from Dutch, Indonesian, and Chinese to mixed communities. I’m interested in the social wounds that remain from these previous apartheid regulations.
AT: Can you speak a bit about your installation for Celestial Sorrow and where it got its inspiration?
JK: We started this project from many entry points, too many to remember now, from personal memory to social trauma, from a flood of cat pics to banned sad songs, from sound healing to trance dance. In the end theexperience felt like being in a long and random dream. I am trying to bring that feeling into the installation: dreaminess, a sense of vertigo, the celestial.
AT: Cat photos? I wasn’t expecting that.
JK: Ah, yes, well there was a flood of cat pictures that circulated on Twitter during the 2015 Paris and Brussels terror attacks. We were interested in how the photos were used to divert the consciousness of the people at the time. People starting sharing all of these cute cat photos on the internet as a distraction from what was going on. It came up randomly in the making of this piece and is related to the idea of memory and trauma that we were working through—of how you create your own illusions about what is happening, under difficult conditions.
AT: Your work often reflects on the sociopolitical landscape of Indonesia, particularly after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 and recent cultural transition into democracy. Can you explain what, if anything, of this history and region has fed into your work for Celestial Sorrow? I remember hearing that the piece was formed in part during a visit Meg had to Yogyakarta, on the island of Java.
JK: In making this work we were exploring memory through brightness and darkness, through the visibility of things, as well through sensory based therapy, like sound healing. There was this discussion about how to make the invisible trauma of political and social events somehow visible, of how to give shape to its shapelessness. We found that the trauma of dictatorship was an interesting way to start imagining the shape of these ghosts of our history. When we were in Indonesia, I gave a tour of places where specific historical events had happened, and we discussed the memory that exists of these sites. We tried to feel the space and its energy and to translate this into the performance and installation. We worked with materials of the dictatorship like anti-communist propaganda films, and we visited the university where many student movements happened and where some students were killed. Through this material, a fear of the dark emerged as a concept. At the same time there was an obsession with brightness. We tried to make this multiplication of the lights. One light was not enough; we needed hundreds.
AT: There’s also a small truck that appears in Celestial Sorrow, one that carries a speaker and a load of lights.
JK: Right, we talked a lot about that truck. It’s also related to the history of Indonesia. The truck has always been there, in different moments. During the anti-communist campaign in the ’60s the truck was used to transport communist people to prisons where they were executed. At other times the truck was used by the army to mobilize people to attack communities. Later in the democratic era the truck has been used to amplify the voice of democracy. The trucks carry speakers and anyone who has the money can mobilize people to amplify their voices. For Indonesians, there is a memory of violence in this kind of truck. We were interested in these stories that came up through it.
The truck we made for Celestial Sorrow carried lights and a recording of the song, “Hati yang luka.” I think the song is the clearest trace of the Indonesian material in the performance. It was a a song that was banned in the ’80s during a campaign by the Suharto regime, which prohibited the playing of all sad songs in the country.
AT: Why were sad songs banned?
JK: It happened for a couple years, around 1986 I think, that sad songs were banned. From my research I found that during that time, Indonesia was in good shape economically, but at the same time there was this trend of sad songs that were being produced and played in the country. The government felt offended by the threat of a sad song, like, “I’m making you happy, why are you sad?” Something like that. The government was in this spirit of developmentalism, and the sad songs became really subversive to that.
AT: They banned it from the radio? Or from concerts and performances, too?
JK: Mostly the radio and television, because these were run by the government.
AT: So the ban created this illusion of a happy state.
JK: Yes, and at the same time the government was supporting rock music. [Laughs]
AT: Really? Why?
JK: They wanted to make a switch from a sad feeling to a more energized, positive vibe. I remember it really well because there were a lot of rock competitions during that time that the government supported. One of the conditions they made was that the content of the song must be positive.
AT: Wow. So the truck in Celestial Sorrow brings back what was banned…
JK: Yes, exactly. But in the end the work is really open to personal interpretation. The references to Indonesian history in the piece are not necessary to catch. The whole project in the end is not about Indonesian history, everyone who was a part of it brought their own personal narratives to the work. These references were just my own points of departure, which I shared with everyone.
AT: Was the title of Celestial Sorrow inspired in part from these sad songs?
JK: It’s really difficult to trace. Of course, the sad songs was one of the reasons, but it’s also related to the violence and traumatic source material that we discussed. Then there’s the celestial part of it. I think of the celestial as a power that you don’t understand. You don’t know how it operates or how to deal with it. This is how I imagined the dictatorship when I experienced it, when I was young. The power of the regime was too big to understand, so it became mystified. The hanging bulbs in the installation are like stars or constellations; there is a reference to the sky and to dreams. But the bulbs are hung quite low, so you can reach them.
AT: So it’s almost like you are trying to break down the myth of the celestial? Or of the regime…
JK: Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it.
AT: Your installations such as After Voices (2016) often energetically incorporate movement and music through the use of automated objects rather than live performers, drawing attention to the absence of bodies and to ghosts. What has it been like to incorporate dancers, and the movement language generated by Meg, into you work? Has it shifted your artistic process in any way?
JK: Ah, yes, in my initial conversation with Meg, we came up with our first keyword: ghost. It was a challenge for me personally as I have been working with my own idea of a ghost for a while that is different from Meg’s. I have been well known for making these bodiless crowd installations, like in After Voices. I used these ghost figures to talk about the fluidity of Indonesian history. The country has been governed by many different regimes for different purposes, so the way you see the history and identity of Indonesia is always changing. With Meg we started to approach the idea of the ghost in more direct and personal ways, like through meeting a shaman. While Meg was in Bali she met somebody who became a medium to connect her with other worlds. While we were in Jogja [Yogyakarta] we went to see different cultural rituals like trance dance.
Working with Meg, as well as everyone in this project, I was dragged into different worlds, and I’ve learned a lot from it. To be honest, my impression of Meg before meeting her was that she was strong figure in the contemporary dance world. I thought: OK, I’m going to meet someone who has a strong formula of making work. But no, I think she really makes a new piece as a new world, one that is different from what came before it. This was a nice surprise for me, as we were able to start the whole artistic process together from the beginning. After Indonesia we came to Berlin and met with other dancers and musicians, who also have their own worlds. Everyone brought their own personal history to the piece, and had the space to test out different ideas. We spent a lot of time experimenting with each others’ material.
AT: Is this the first time you have collaborated with a choreographer?
JK: No, but I don’t do it that often. I’ve worked with the Japanese choreographer Hiroshi Koike a couple of times, and in Indonesia I’m a longtime member of a contemporary theater collective, Teater Garasi, in which we’ve tried, in an amateur way, to cross the borders between theater, dance, and music.
AT: Can you speak about your work with the collective and as a musician? Does it directly feed into the work you do as a visual artist?
JK: I started making art in the last years of Suharto’s regime through music and theater. I was obsessed with the stage and sound during the period of the dictatorship—maybe there was a relation between these two things, I don’t know. I was a student when the regime fell, and I think I was really taken by euphoria. It was like a dinner that everyone was invited to and people came with then-forbidden dishes, then-banned books, then-banned songs, then-hidden history. It became a very new taste of life. This feeling motivated me to utilize art as a way to understand this new reality, and working in a self-supported collective fit our situation well, practically.
In the collective we were very much driven by our concern to rewrite history. We did some pieces based on this idea, but we found out that it really is the work of a lifetime. In the meantime I developed my musical works into a more experimental presentation, combining it with other elements such as videos and installation, and ended up teaching myself visual art. Maybe I’m still moved by the vibration of the euphoria, in the way it keeps me working on the subject of Indonesian history.
In Venedig erhält die Choreografin Meg Stuart am Freitag einen Goldenen Löwen für ihr Lebenswerk. Anlass für ein Gespräch über Transformation.
Von ihrem Kollegen Adam Linder wurde Meg Stuart einmal Erfinderin des psychosomatischen Tanzes genannt. Sie ist für ihre hochenergetischen Stücke bekannt, in denen die Performer*innen verschiedene Bewusstseinszustände verkörpern. Ihre oftmals brutale Sehnsucht nach Präsenz trifft auf sehr unterschiedliche Innenarchitekturen zwischen Bühne, Installation und Ambiente.
2000 bis 2004 war Meg Stuart unter Christoph Marthaler am Schauspielhaus Zürich unter Vertrag, 2005 bis 2010 unter Frank Castorf an der Berliner Volksbühne. Im Moment verbindet sie eine Partnerschaft mit dem Berliner Freien-Szene-Theater HAU Hebbel am Ufer. Die gebürtige Kalifornierin hat in New York studiert, lebt mit ihrem Sohn in Berlin und betreibt in Brüssel, wo ihre Karriere begann, die Kompanie Damaged Goods.
taz: Meg Stuart, ist es in Ordnung, wenn wir über Gefühle sprechen? Sie können ja, wie in Ihrem Stück „Maybe Forever“ von 2007, in der Zukunft alles wieder zurücknehmen.
Meg Stuart (singt): „Feelings, nothing more than feeeelings.“ Okay, ich bin bereit.
Auf Ihrer Homepage gibt es jeden Tag ein anderes Motto. Heute lautet es: „Trace the present“.
Wo sind Sie heute aufgewacht und, ähm, wie haben Sie sich gefühlt?
(Lacht) In einem Hotel in Zürich, wo ich gerade „Shown and Told“ mit [dem Theatermacher und Autor] Tim Etchells gezeigt habe. Aber obwohl es früh war, fühlte ich mich recht erfrischt. Eigentlich wollte ich noch eine Runde am See spazieren, aber … Statt dessen ging ich direkt zum Flughafen, um nach Berlin zurückzufliegen, und kaufte dort ein Buch über Glücklichsein. Meine neue Liebe wurde kürzlich für einen Workshop über Glück angefragt. Um ihm näher zu sein, wollte ich mich also auch ein bisschen mit Glück befassen.
Haben Sie neue Erkenntnisse gewonnen?
Nicht wirklich neue. Dass es nicht die Erlebnisse sind, sondern es ist die Art, damit umzugehen, die uns glücklich macht. Immerhin brachte mich das auf einen Gedanken: In der Jazzmusik gibt es diese Standards, das heißt Lieder, die sehr bekannt sind, die aber immer wieder neu interpretiert werden. Als hätten sie ein schlafendes Potenzial, das von den Musiker*innen wachgeküsst wird. Sie zertrümmern es nicht, sondern erweitern es. Sie bewegen sich fortwährend in diesem Zurückschauen, und indem sie Altes neu setzen, collagieren und interpretieren, achten sie es und geben ihm gleichzeitig einen Zukunftsmoment.
In einem Wort: Worum geht es in Ihrer Kunst? Schmerz?
Ich glaube, es geht um Akzeptanz (lacht). Zu akzeptieren, dass man nichts in einem Wort sagen kann.
Sie sind für intensive Probenprozesse bekannt. Über mehrere Monate so eng mit einer Gruppe zusammenzuarbeiten, muss anspruchsvoll sein. Wie gehen Sie mit all dem, was dabei zutage gefördert wird – Gefühle zum Beispiel – um? Welche Strategien haben Sie, um den Prozess zu einer kontrollierten Explosion zu bringen?
Ich versuche, nicht zu versessen auf das Ergebnis zu sein, sondern jeden Probentag als ein Ziel für sich zu betrachten. Auch das Vokabular, das wir im gegenseitigen Austausch benutzen, spielt eine Rolle, genauso wie Raum dafür zu schaffen, dass jeder und jede für einen gewissen Zeitraum auch mal verloren gehen kann. In Situationen familienähnlicher Nähe ist es zudem wichtig, die unterschiedlichen Rhythmen der Leute zu akzeptieren. Diese polyrhythmische Situation ist Grundlage der Komposition. Und zuletzt: Ich arbeite immer mit zwei Modellen: mit dem, was ist, und dem, was sein könnte.
Das lässt mich an das „Two Story House“ aus Ihrem Stück „Visitors Only“ denken, uraufgeführt 2003 in Zürich. Das Bühnenbild von Anna Viebrock war inspiriert von den Löchern, die Gordon Matta-Clark in Gebäude schnitt. Die zwei Storys, hatten sie mit Bewusstseinsshifts zwischen äußerer Realität und Gefühl zu tun?
Das Stück machte ich direkt nach der Geburt meines Sohnes. Anna Viebrock entwarf ein sehr spielerisches Haus, das mit viel Fantasie in die Bewegungsoptionen eingriff. Es war mit seinen asymmetrischen Räumen, unvollständigen oder zerstörten Zimmern, den Löchern sowie gewisser Alice-im-Wunderland-Komponenten eine tolle Vorlage, um in verschiedene Zustände gehen zu können. Es war jedoch kein psychoanalytisches Haus, mit dem Unterbewussten unter dem Teppich etc. Es ging um die Beziehung zwischen Haus und Körper – dem Körper nicht nur als Ausdrucksmittel, sondern auch als Treffpunkt von Atmosphären und Energien, wo Dinge aufgespürt, kopiert, erinnert etc. werden, wo nicht nur ich sondern auch andere durch mich sprechen.
Für „Splayed Mind Out“, das auf der documenta X 1997 gezeigt wurde, arbeiteten Sie zusammen mit dem Video-Künstler Gary Hill. Es heißt, es sei Ihr letztes Stück mit konkret einstudiertem Bewegungsmaterial gewesen. Ersetzten nun Anweisungen zum Bewegtwerden festgeschriebenes Vokabular?
Nicht ganz. Meine Methode ist eher: Mache eine Bewegung, lass dich davon bewegen, liefere dich aus. Danach drehen wir das um. Wir eignen uns die Bewegung an und dirigieren sie, wir verantworten sie. Die Art, sich zwischen dem einen und dem anderen zu bewegen, Dinge zuzulassen und sie zu formen, gestaltet den Tanz. Der Tanz ist in den Shifts, in den Bewusstseinswechseln. Aber was bewegt uns? Gefühle, ja, sicher. Aber „Gefühl“ wird oft als ein flaches Wort verwendet. Und es sagt nichts darüber, wie wir uns bewegen. Das ist eine Frage der Technik, wie sich eine Person in Beziehung zu ihrer Bewegung setzt. Ich sage immer, dass es mich interessiert, wenn eine Bewegung ihre Bedeutung verliert.
Wenn ich es recht verstehe, wollen Sie keine Zustände schaffen, die sich auf einen Begriff reduzieren ließen, nichts mit Bedeutung belegen. Aber es geht Ihnen schon um etwas Bedeutsames. Woran merken Sie, dass es „da“ ist?
Wenn eine Bewegung ihre überlieferte Bedeutung verliert, schafft sie Platz für etwas anderes. Bedeutungsvoll ist der Vorgang, etwas aus seinen Mustern, seinem Rahmen zu befreien. Aber ich würde nicht behaupten, alles, was ich tue, ist Bewegungen von ihren Bedeutungen zu befreien. Es ist eine Frage der Wahl. Manchmal baust du Dinge vor dir auf und willst sie direkt wieder zerschlagen. Bedeutung ist kein Zustand sondern eher eine Art Zug. Es gab jedoch eine große Veränderung in meiner Arbeit der letzten Jahre. Ich spreche inzwischen weniger von Zuständen als von Energien. Hat etwas eine Eigenenergie und wenn ja, wie komme ich da ran? Wie können wir Energie leiten und in eine Form bringen? Der Körper ist kein Klavier!
Sie waren ja unter Frank Castorf von 2005 bis 2010 an der Berliner Volksbühne. Wie haben Sie die Entscheidung, Chris Dercon als dessen Nachfolger zu berufen und dann gleich wieder rauszuschmeißen, erlebt? Wie hat das aggressive Level der Diskussionen auf Sie gewirkt?
Sicher, nach Castorf wäre alles schwierig gewesen. Ich muss gestehen, dass ich mich nicht allzu intensiv mit der Frage beschäftigte, was die Volksbühne für wen repräsentiert hat und warum wer wie reagierte. Ich lebe hier auch, aber Deutsche bin ich nicht. Diese Angelegenheit ging um etwas, was offensichtlich mit sehr viel mehr als Fakten zu tun hatte. Um es kurz zu machen: Die Künstler und Künstlerinnen, die Dercon einlud, fanden meine Unterstützung. Wenn jemand mich danach fragte, sagte ich immer, dass Tanz in den Theatern natürlich unterrepräsentiert ist. Wenn jemand das ändern und ihm eine Bühne geben will: toll! Castorf dagegen interessierte sich ja in letzter Zeit eher weniger für Tanz. Aber ich will mich nicht auf eine Seite schlagen. Ich glaube nicht, dass es einen Grund dafür gibt, etwas attackieren zu müssen.
Sie haben auf unterschiedlichsten Bühnen gearbeitet, unterschiedlichste Formate und Räume bespielt. Gibt es etwas, an das Sie sich noch nicht gewagt haben?
An was habe ich mich noch nicht gewagt? Schwer zu sagen. Ich habe noch keine Oper gemacht. Aber will ich es? Was ich auf jeden Fall gerne machen würde, ist ein improvisierter Film in einem intimen Setting, etwas im Stil von John Cassavetes, mit jeder Menge brillanter Tanzkünstlerinnen darin. Vielleicht kann ich eine Sache über Wagnisse sagen: Was ich in der Kunst mag, ist der Moment, in dem Verletzlichkeit nichts Unpassendes ist, sondern geteilte Erfahrung.
Headaches and Damaged Goods: Celestial Sorrow premieres at the Kaaistudios
BRUZZ, Michaël Bellon, 01.2018
During the years of the dictatorship in Indonesia, the authorities tried to ban people from grieving, but failed. At the Kaaistudios, Indonesian visual artist Jompet Kuswidanto and choreographer Meg Stuart do the opposite, creating a space in which to express our troubles.
For Meg Stuart, who operates out of Berlin and Brussels, 2017 was a good year. She returned briefly to her home country, the US, with An evening of solo works and toured with the successful performances Hunter, UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP and Shown and Told. She also welcomed scenographer and visual artist Jozef Wouters into the Damaged Goods fold, and collaborated with various artists on a number of other projects. The most recent of these is with the established Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto, who is coming to create an installation as part of Europalia Indonesia. Lighting designer Jan Maertens is also collaborating on the project, to which sound artist Mieko Suzuki and musician Ikbal Simamora Lubys add a new dimension. From this, Stuart is creating a performance together with performers Jule Flierl, Gaëtan Rusquet and Claire Vivianne Sobottke.
“I was approached by Arco Renz (choreographer, former PARTS student, and now creator of Europalia Indonesia’s stage programme, ed.) to create a production as part of Europalia,” Meg Stuart explains. “I had visited Jakarta with Maybe Forever in 2010 , but that was more or less it. I was given carte blanche, but while we were consulting on how I might create a connection with Indonesia through my work, Arco also introduced me to Jompet. He showed me his work and also arranged a meeting in Berlin. After that, I travelled around with Jan Maertens and Mieke Suzuki for two weeks in the Indonesian region where Jompet lives – Jogjakarta on the island of Java – and to Bali to begin work. Jompet and the musician Ikbal Simamora Lubys are brilliant artists and I am delighted to be working with them.”
So what common ground did you find?
MEG STUART: There was first talk of doing something with the ritual and traditional dance from his region of Indonesia, but I was primarily interested in what I could do with Jompet’s work. His work is extremely diverse, but his installations are often about memories, about ghosts, about the presence of unfinished business from the past, about traumatic experiences, which are also to do with Indonesia and the history of the dictatorship (general Suharto’s military regime from 1966 to 1998, ed.), whilst still maintaining a degree of distance from it. These themes were in line with a number of my interests and obsessions and so this became a true meeting of minds. As a result, the performance is not actually about Indonesia, although of course it contains vestiges of our experiences there: the field recordings we made, for example, or traces of the dance that we’d witnessed.
I also wanted to create a relationship between light and voice. To look at how you can use your voice to shed light on something and can make sound and light resonate together. And how you can use the physical aspect of vocal work in a space – vocal parts, imaginary language, sound poetry, mumbling and murmuring – as a starting point for movement and dance material. This all comes together in the installation that Jompet proposed and worked out in collaboration with Jan. It is a huge installation with a great many lights and other objects that we are still working on, and that will only fully come to fruition in Brussels. Thus Celestial Sorrow is a performative installation rather than a performance or an installation. You enter into a separate world and the Kaaistudios, which I know well, are the perfect place for this. It promises to be an intimate occasion.
Can you tell us something about the title Celestial Sorrow?
STUART: The ‘sorrow’ is to do with something that Jompet told us about the time of the dictatorship, namely that certain sorrowful songs were banned in that era. The country was supposedly prospering and, as a result, people were meant to feel good. That story made me muse on how sorrow, and that fact that you express it, could potentially be dangerous. Once you realise that you are missing something, and you embrace that loss and begin to reflect that you are not happy with the situation as it is, then you are not productive and the system in which you are functioning comes under pressure. Grieving is disruptive. Mourning cannot be slotted into a rigid timescale and so you fall outside the patterns of expectation. Therefore this performance is about how we do still try to digest, transform and pass on things that are unspeakable and unpalatable. Sorrow is our birthright. When we are born, the first thing we do is cry. And that continues to be a part of our life, in which things inevitably change and ultimately die. You cannot simply brush your cares aside. The title’s heavenly qualification ‘celestial’ serves to open up this question. Instead of talking about Indonesia, Europe or America, we want to install an infinite, eternal timespan. The title also needed to position a difficult subject within a poetic framework.
Dramaturge Jeroen Versteele in conversation with Meg Stuart and Jompet Kuswidananto
Jeroen Versteele: What brought you together for this production?
Meg Stuart: I was invited to make a project for Europalia Indonesia and considered revisiting the themes of memories and ghosts. Arco Renz, the curator of Europalia, subsequently introduced me to Jompet. We spent a long day together in Berlin, saw two performances, ate dinner, we walked around. That was our beginning.
Jompet Kuswidananto: Later, we met again in my hometown of Yogyakarta which is also known as Jogja, on the island of Java. The musicians Mieko Suzuki and Ikbal Simamora Lubys also came, as did the lighting designer Jan Maertens. We visited historical places together and shared stories about personal and political traumas.
Stuart: Jompet took us on walking tours of the city and we visited the campus of his old college. Here, he re-enacted the demonstrations that took place during the student revolution of ‘98, when the dictator Suharto was overthrown, and described his memories of the events. Everything in Indonesia – the atmosphere, the mood, the way people live and how they work and create art – is still influenced by the rapidly shifting politics, as well as the various religions and traditions. We also saw exhibitions, concerts and an incredible street performance...
Kuswidananto: Jatilan, a traditional magical dance from Java in which the performers enter a trance.
Stuart: The jatilan blew me away. In one sense, it felt like a sacred ritual, but on the other hand, it also seemed very chaotic. Some of the opening movements were quite minimal but then, and totally unexpectedly, the dancers entered into a trance. Sometimes they imploded in a formal manner, at other times in a very expressive, dramatic way. They were visited by animals and deities and their ritual costumes were altered by their everyday clothes. It was impossible to tell what was real and what was fake. I couldn’t identify who was a shaman and who was helping, who was being healed, who was sick and who was cured, or if they even wanted to get to their feet again... Nothing was explained. I don’t think the performers themselves knew exactly what was going to happen. It seemed endless. And then, after two hours or so, they would loop back to the beginning and start all over again, guided by the music, which went on and on and on. The many layers of the performance, its radical physicality, and the disorientation I felt while watching it, were all extremely compelling.
Kuswidananto: We also went to a public square where traders rent out hundreds of bicycles and pedal cars decorated with blinking lights. It’s a huge attraction. The square becomes a sort of dreamland, a wonderland.
Stuart: It was a place for escape and fantasy. One of the cars had bright flashing neon lights that read: ‘I LOVE JOGJA’ ‘I LOVE JOGJA’. Which made you think: is this a statement of fact, or is it their way of cheering up the nocturnal visitors? People seemed really happy there, surrounded by bright, flashing, colourful lights. It was impressive.
Kuswidananto: There used to be ‘sound competitions’ in the east of Java: trucks laden with sound blasters would cruise the streets, music blaring. It was banned because of safety issues, so people started to make miniature versions of the trucks, on which they would install loudspeakers. Their main intention, with regard to playing the music, is to showcase the range of their sound system, from the deepest basses to the highest frequencies.
Versteele: How can you explain this fascination for the chaotic use of noise and bright lights?
Kuswidananto: During the dictatorship, not everybody was allowed to speak. People were forced to express themselves through alternative channels, just to be noticed. The tendency you describe is therefore part of a tradition. When Suharto’s regime was toppled in 1998, the people were euphoric: they could finally use their voices to express themselves. Nowadays, people are still taking to the streets and speaking out in public. Every day, they bring crates to stand on, or drive trucks full of speakers in front of the president’s palace. They want to perform. It’s what I would call a performative democracy. This has long been an important topic in my work. How do people use their voices? How do Indonesians make themselves heard? How is it possible to be louder than everyone else? How can I be as visible as possible? Metaphorically speaking, the abundance of light reflects the hope of enlightenment, the desire to emerge from the shadows. At the same time, people are obsessed with darkness. They are afraid of disappearing, of being invisible. I’m very interested in this kind of tension.
Stuart: I think that this process of articulation, of speaking up, of excavating what’s been hidden and bringing it into the light, is a movement of transformation. You burn it up. For many years, I’ve been thinking about ghosts as unfinished business, and the way in which unresolved conflicts affect both our presence and our movements. Our bodies are constantly shuttling between objects, sounds, lights, voices and unprocessed events from the past. This might awaken a dormant presence, whether we like it or not. I’ve always wanted to make a choreography about light and sound moving through the space, triggered by voices, as though part of a secret network. The voice is not something that you can hold, it’s a part of you and yet it’s not. During rehearsals, we experimented with fragments of songs, with the emotional depth of sound, with breathing, with proto-linguistic utterances, with whispering and distortion, with rhythm. Not only to create a sound concert, but to research what it might release in the body. How does it affect your emotions, and what memories does it evoke?
Versteele: Do any lingering traces of the dictatorship still move you as an artist, Jompet?
Kuswidananto: My memories of the dictatorship are very strong. As children, for example, we’d all be taken to see an anti-communist film. Every year, the teachers would take us to the cinema to see it, like shepherds herding their flock. The film shows how the communists of the 30 September Movement kidnapped and murdered six Indonesian generals during a coup in 1965. It was an early 1980s propaganda film that was trying to legitimize the events of 1965-66, when the dictator’s troops executed millions of acclaimed communist sympathizers. The images of the ruthless, merciless communists that we saw in the film are etched into our memories. Even today, the majority of Indonesians believe that the mass killings of the so-called communists and leftists was a good and just thing. The propaganda still represents the truth for many contemporary Indonesians.
Versteele: You once wrote that you hear the movie’s soundtrack in your head when you wake up too early.
Kuswidananto: Yes! Because the kidnappings and killings happened at dawn, I hear the eerie soundtrack of that scene whenever I lie awake in bed at five or six o’clock in the morning. Many of my friends, people of the same generation, have similar experiences. The national trauma is implanted in our brains.
Versteele: Suharto’s regime is not only associated with trauma but also with a ban, at one point, on sad songs. This inspired our research into melancholic music and sorrow in general.
Kuswidananto: During the economically prosperous years of the dictatorship, around 1986-87, the regime wanted to promote development. As a result, they banned sad songs. It was only permissible to play happy music. Broadcasting a sad song was an act of subversion. I was very young at the time and didn’t want to hear sad songs either. It was only after the dictatorship that I understood the absurdity of the diktat.
Versteele: Why did they consider sad songs to be a threat to prosperity?
Stuart: It’s funny, but sad songs seem so innocent and comforting, how could they possibly be dangerous? But in reality, they are the warning sign of dissatisfaction. Sad songs fuel longing, they suggest nostalgia, or a desire for an unknown future. You can’t build a city on sadness.
Versteele: Perhaps sadness can be a motivating factor? It might inspire you to change something. Can’t it be also constructive?
Stuart: If you’re sad because of a situation that you know you cannot change, or if you long for something you can’t have, at the precise moment when you dive into that feeling, sadness isn’t constructive. There’s no construction in disappointment. It doesn’t make things better. Of course, for the human soul, sadness creates a connection, it’s a step towards compassion and understanding and sympathy. Sadness is unproductive but essential. And it’s always around the corner.
Versteele: Do you have any rituals?
Stuart: I can embrace rituals, but I don’t keep them for very long. I sometimes write three pages in the morning, just after waking. Or I meditate. When I go into a new theatre, or if I feel as though I want to reinvigorate my home, I smudge the space with ashes of sage. Saging is when you burn a sort of incense to clear and cleanse the space. It gets rid of old energies. And then you need to open the windows. (laughs)
Kuswidananto: I do something similar. Like most Javanese people, when I enter a new space, I mentally greet the spirits who live there. I can’t translate the exact greeting that crosses my mind then, it’s something like “excuse me, pardon”.
Versteele: Did your parents teach you that habit?
Kuswidananto: No, it’s something that was passed on by my childhood friends. If we were playing outside and needed to pee against a tree, we’d always excuse ourselves beforehand. We thought there might be a spirit hiding in the branches. Somehow, it has become an unconscious tradition that whenever I deal with a new space, I feel as though I’m interfering with new and invisible entities. So you have to politely knock on their door. This tradition is rooted in animism, like all religious beliefs in Indonesia. If you were to remove all the religions, the animist traditions would still remain.
Stuart: When we were in Indonesia, we performed a beautiful ritual together. According to the Javanese calendar, we were there on New Year’s Eve. But it’s not a moment for parties or celebrations. Instead, people go for a walk outside and reflect, silently. We met at around midnight and, without speaking, walked through the city together, through the streets that were, as usual, full of traffic. We encountered other people doing the same thing.
Kuswidananto: Literally translated, the name of this ritual is ‘muted walk’.
Versteele: To return to the jatilan performance you witnessed in Yogyakarta: we deal with trance and possession during rehearsals. Possession, both voluntary and involuntary, is a universal phenomenon. You find it, in different forms, in every part of the world and in all religions. What does possession mean for you?
Kuswidananto: I’ve never been possessed myself, and I’m not totally convinced that it actually happens. But I can connect to the idea of it. Becoming somebody or something else can be a very good exercise in terms of empathy.
Stuart: I see possession as a fiction, as well. It’s a state that we, as dancers, strive towards when we improvise. Even if we don’t know exactly what that means, it’s something we can imagine. And for me, what we can imagine, we can dance. Possession compels you to let go of everything that holds you in its grip: your history, your expectations, your sadness. Perhaps possession can only take place if you’re ready to share your mental space, your unconscious mind, with unknown forces.
Dramaturge Jeroen Versteele in conversation with Mieko Suzuki and Ikbal Simamora Lubys
Jeroen Versteele: How did you meet Meg Stuart?
Mieko Suzuki: Three years ago, Meg invited me to participate in a project that she was working on with Maria F. Scaroni at HAU Hebbel Am Ufer in Berlin: City Lights – a continuous gathering. I’d long worked with visual artists, fashion designers and sculptors, and also performed as a DJ, but Meg said: ‘I want something else.’ So, I started breaking records. (laughs) I smashed records, taped them back together and played loops with them. I thought: other musicians play on prepared guitars or pianos, so why can’t I prepare records? This is also how I used them during the rehearsals for Celestial Sorrow: I’d take a tiny fragment of the track on the record, connect it to the effects pedals and build up the sound. I’m using the record as existing physical material. This all came about thanks to Meg pushing me and saying: ‘I want something else.’
Ikbal Simamora Lubys: I was very lucky. Six months ago, I saw Meg Stuart’s performance VIOLET in HAU Hebbel Am Ufer in Berlin. I loved it. A few months after that, I was invited to a workshop at Melati Suryodarmo’s house, an Indonesian artist who knew that Meg would be visiting Java to prepare for her Europalia project.
Suzuki: We met a lot of musicians on Java and discussed what it was like to collaborate with choreographers. Ikbal and I had an immediate connection. Afterwards, I suggested to Meg that we should work with him. I hadn’t heard any of his music, but sometimes you don’t need to.
Versteele: How do you collaborate during the rehearsals? Do you have any rules?
Lubys: Mieko is the sound director and she takes the decisions. I offer my sounds and ideas.
Suzuki: We’d discuss what possession means for us. Is it possible for an animal to invade your body? Is there a difference between trance and possession? Is repetition the most important thing for trance?
Versteele: Do you go into trance yourself when you play your music?
Suzuki: I can reach that level when I’m listening, composing or playing. I enter into a state of intense concentration.
Lubys: When I play music with Melati, I can easily go into a trance, as I can when I play with my metal band.
Versteele: What is a trance?
Suzuki: It can be a deeper or higher state of consciousness. It is elevated, but at the same time heavy. It makes us experience time differently. We know that there are only 24 hours a day, but when I’m in a trance, a minute is not a minute. Sometimes, two hours seem to pass in twenty minutes. Perhaps time ceases to exist when you’re in a trance? There is only the moment.
Lubys: When Meg asked us to make music on the theme of trance, Mieko replied: ‘trance is not about music, it is directly related to time.’
Suzuki: I’m delighted to be able to work with Meg because I’ve always been deeply fascinated by trance. The word ‘celestial’ describes my state of consciousness when I’m in a trance, concentrating intently on the sounds and frequencies. This consciousness makes me feel very tense, and I might see a horizontal line in the air, for example. There is a tension in the air. It’s almost as if this tension cleanses the air, as if a huge pressure has built up, but cannot escape. This feeling is a constant theme in my work. It is what my sound resembles.
Versteele: Apart from taped-together records, what other material do you use in the performance?
Suzuki: I made a lot of sound recordings in Indonesia, such as city noises, traffic, the buzz in restaurants, footsteps, forest sounds, the movement of air. I also recorded a choir singing a capella at a wedding ceremony and a traditional kecak dance that we witnessed. And I bought a metal spring that I also use to generate sounds.
Lubys: I built my guitar from a piece of wood cut from a 300-year-old railroad tie. It doesn’t sound like a guitar, more like a percussion instrument. And I use a stethoscope to obtain really low sounds from my mouth, teeth and throat.
Versteele: Do you draw inspiration from Indonesian musical traditions?
Lubys: Rather than play traditional pieces, I create new music. But I do like the attitude of the gamelan musicians, who play traditional ensemble music in Java and Bali. It’s not about being a superstar or even about the best band or musician. They don’t need a stage or an audience. The musicians play throughout the villages, either in halls or in the homes of people wealthy enough to possess a set of gamelan instruments. They just play, not for a project, not to earn money. They don’t just play for the audience, but also for themselves. I love that mentality, treating music as a spiritual activity.
The time we lost
A conversation with Rimah Jabr
“This morning, I received a message from my sister. There was a funeral procession in Nablus last night. The Israel Occupation Army rolled into the streets. People started throwing stones. Fifty-two people were injured, one died. Today, the army has closed the whole city down.”
Rimah Jabr sighs. Speaking from Toronto, where she has lived since 2016, the Palestinian playwright says: “That’s how it is. Every day. When you’re there, you don’t really feel it. Until you manage to travel outside and reach other places. Then you realize just how much time you have lost.”
Rimah lived in Palestine for thirty-two years. The need to regain that lost time is the driving force behind her astonishing productivity. In 2012, Rimah was invited to Brussels by the KVS (the Royal Flemish Theatre) and the Qattan Foundation for the production of Keffiyeh / Made in China. She went on to graduate from the RITS performing arts academy in Brussels and to write four theatre plays, in which she also performed, before moving to Toronto for love. There, she wrote and performed in Two Birds, One Stone, with her Jewish-Canadian friend Natasha Greenblatt, and is now creating a new production, Broken Shapes, alongside visual artist Dareen Abbas.
Infini #5 is the result of a collaboration with Decoratelier, a Brussels based collective/workplace led by Belgian scenographer Jozef Wouters and dramaturge Jeroen Peeters. After its first presentation as part of the performance Infini 1-15 at the Brussels KVS in 2016, it will now travel to Ghent (BE), Lisbon (PT), Ostend (BE) and Ramallah (PS).
“I was 30 years old when I took part in my first theatre workshop,” Rimah Jabr, now 38, says. “I had always written, but only in private. I came to theatre work very late. As a result, I don’t want to lose any more time. I still consider myself to be at the beginning of my career. That might explain my productivity. And I’m not a patient person in general. When I sit down and write, I don’t have the patience to edit. I want it to be perfect from the very first version, which is impossible, of course – so only now am I learning to calm down, to be patient and really work on the text.”
It’s hard to imagine this furious impatience when you sit down in the theatre and hear Rimah read the letter that carries Infini #5. Her voice sounds calm and introspective. Addressing Jozef Wouters, who had asked her to write to him about her reasons for choosing the theme of tunnels and endlessness, she sounds as if she is thinking out loud. Aided by time and distance, she is able to reflect upon the time she has lost, living in Nablus, a large Palestinian city on the West Bank: thirty years of life under a system designed to undermine any sense of normality.
“Personally, I prefer to think this: that nothing of what we live is real,” she says in her letter. A striking observation, to me as an outsider: Palestine seems to be the most real place in the world. “If you try to imagine the situation there,” Rimah goes on to explain, “and then one day, you actually come, you will be shocked. I saw it happen to Jozef, when he visited me in Nablus. Everything is so real, that you will feel it cannot be true. It’s too close to fiction. It’s as though you have ended up inside a movie or a novel. But if you live your daily life in a situation that’s so hard to cope with, your mind starts trying to find a way out of this reality. Because if you would really allow yourself to reflect upon the life you are living, over and over again, I don’t think your brain would be able to take it. It’s simply too much. It forces your brain to switch off. And you need to jump out of this situation, just to help you handle the impossibility of it all.”
Rimah first met Jozef Wouters at his Decoratelier in Brussels. He had invited her, together with a wide range of other writers, theatre makers, visual artists and architects (I was one of them), to respond to the question: “Which spaces must we show in the theatre today?” Each conversation resulted in an infini: painted backdrops, raised and lowered on pulleys, as a horizon for the imagination. The complete experience, named Infini 1-15 and first presented at the KVS, was so striking that it was selected for the Flemish Theatre Festival as one of the highlights of the season. And Rimah Jabr’s work might well have been the most memorable of them all.
During that first conversation, her immediate choice of landscape was: tunnels. Later, when Jozef visited the West Bank and Nablus for the first time and witnessed the wall, the checkpoints, the brightly lit and heavily guarded settlements on the hilltops, the confined life inside the Palestinian cities, he asked her again: Why tunnels? Rimah replied with a letter that speaks to us about the endlessness, the feeling that you can continue forever without seeing a light in the distance, the weight of the world that is moving around up there, somewhere above you.
For those of us living outside of Palestine, it might be hard to imagine the claustrophobia of life in a country where a simple trip from one side of the city to the other, let alone from one city to the next, will always confront you with roadblocks, where the Israeli army can allow you to pass or keep you waiting at will. “The fact that you’re not allowed to travel, of course, robs you of your dignity. Just like the fact that they make you lose time. In Belgium, when the train is ten minutes late, people get mad, because they’re late for school or work. Imagine that someone else is totally in control of your time. And on top of that, it really is a game of life and death. At the checkpoint you are standing face-to-face with a young person who is carrying a machine gun. To reach your destination, you need the permission of this young guy or girl. And although this person is stealing time from your life, you have to keep quiet and smile. A sudden move or an angry face might cost you your life. It’s this mix: they are paranoid but possess the power, you are angry but trying very hard to remain rational.”
“There are so many examples. A soldier ordering a man to dance, otherwise he wouldn’t let him pass; the man danced. A woman delivering her baby in her husband’s car at a checkpoint, because they were not allowed to cross and reach the hospital, no matter how much the husband begged. The ‘hole’, a spot at the checkpoint below street level, where men are forced to sit for hours, forbidden from talking to anyone, while their papers are being checked. Those checkpoints are not really a security check; they are part of a systematic way to humiliate people, keep them down and spread fear.”
Writing the letter for Infini #5, in response to the questions Jozef kept asking her, Rimah Jabr started to realize how these experiences have shaped her work so far. “Everything I have written is about people being stuck in a situation. Two Ladybugs is about three young people in a coma, who meet each other in that world beyond life. One of them is an Israeli soldier who shot the other two. The Prisoner is about someone who remains mentally stuck even after he is finally released from jail. My third play was about a couple holed up in an apartment that is about to be destroyed by the Israeli forces. It has everything to do with the life I have lived, growing up in Nablus, the checkpoints, the lost time, feeling lazy and helpless, unable to do anything about anything.”
“In Nablus, you feel you’re not achieving anything, because the absence of a normal system won’t allow you to do anything. It is not the lack of time – we always had a lot of time, doing literally nothing, sitting at home, eating, watching television. It’s more about the time that has been wasted for all these years. Because on any given day, the city, the shops and the school could be shut down – just like Nablus has been shut down today. As a kid, we used to cheer whenever there was another curfew. No school, just staying home for another week. Later on, this emptiness becomes almost like an addiction.”
Rimah has always given herself a physical presence in the plays that she has written and produced. In Infini #5, she is very present, too, but this time it’s only her voice. “People can hear me. My voice is there. I don’t have to appear in person. The stage is already so beautiful to watch. This is not about me or my personal story. It’s about letting people feel and experience the endlessness, while they are listening to my description. They will see a cathedral of palm trees, inspired by the Bosco di Palme (1754) by the Italian architect Giovanni Carlo Galli-Bibiena.” Jozef Wouters suggested this etching and his team at the Decoratelier went through the painstaking process of copying it thirteen times, each version slightly smaller than the one before. All they needed was paper, glue, tape – and time, hours and hours of time. The result: a scenography built just for the eye of the viewer. It leaves no space for actors. And as Galli-Bibiena was the one who pioneered a vanishing point that is slightly off-centre, the gaze of the spectator is caught in an endless perspective. “It looks open, but you cannot see where it ends,” concludes Rimah. “It’s all about following this view, trying to find the way out and forgetting that you tried, and then trying again, carried along by a feeling of perpetual hope. There is no end, you don’t arrive anywhere, but you keep on walking.”
Chris Keulemans (traveling writer and journalist based in Amsterdam, participant in Infini 1-15)
An interview with Meg Stuart
I had a chance to talk to Meg Stuart after the performance of 'BLESSED' in deSingel in Antwerp. In the presence of a cardboard house, palm tree full of attitude and a thoughtfully looking swan Meg Stuart talked about the time of the past, ideas for the future and her special attachment to 'BLESSED'. The piece, which she herself refers to as a jewel, premiered in 2006 in Ghent. 11 years later 'BLESSED' remains extremely actual, a work of and for now.
In January this year, Meg Stuart was awarded Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement by La Biennale di Venezia.
Congratulations on the award! An award on Life Time Achievement must have a different weight to it.
Thank you and yes, I think the aspect of time, it definitely does something...
The name of the award also carries something of a conclusion to it...
It surely makes me think about how to continue. It makes me reflect on the past but it also makes me very grateful... I have this dancing life and have worked with all these amazing people. And you know, you work and you make another piece and then another. The time goes by and you don’t realize that that has been your life, that this is what you do. So yep, this 'life time' part makes me look back at that time... I also love the work of Marlene Monteiro Freitas (laureate of The Silver Lion, ed.) so to be next to her is really, really great.
Many creations have been created and I am curious about the very starting moment of each new work? What is needed for you to start creating?
I think there are few different parts. There is the impulsive part which relates to what I just came from, a response to a personal experience. Then there is a more technical part, like a material I want to work on.
What do you refer to when you say material?
It is some sort of territory that I want to address but which I don’t know that well. There must be a sense of unbalance, a problem that I don’t know how to solve, something unknown...
In 'UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP' it was about lines and space. I had an image of people working in an industrial way and that intrigued me. With 'Celestial Sorrow' it was the voice I was interested in. In 'BLESSED' I wanted to make a solo on Francisco Camacho. Together with the set designer (Doris Dziersk) we were interested in rain, its feminine quality and the effects it has. A state to which I want to get to is often also another part but most important is that there is an urgency. That there is a drive to dive into somewhere, a need to figure something out.
Is making work a way a of finding answers? Do you end your process with a solved problem?
It might take a while but I hope to find a path, a way through that territory. I search for a structure, an approach within the unknown, a movement language of it. Also, for transitions, for how things will develop. Would they lead smoothly to one another or do we need more short cuts. It is only when I understand the overall structure that I can navigate within it.
Your latest works such as 'Hunter', 'UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP' or the most recent 'Celestial Sorrow' all seem to be looking at the territory of memory, ritual or trauma. A sense of healing is also present. Is that an intention behind these works?
I think dance is healing. Not healing only in a sense of making us feel better but it also allows us to move into darker places and realise that it is fine to do that. To do it together, with other people. To realise that life is not only about what is comfortable but that it is also about challenge and the uncomfortable. I realised that I am interested in both healing and in art and I was wondering about the connection between the two. I think that art physicalizes things that cannot be easily expressed. It puts questions and different issues in space and lets them talk to the subconscious. I really believe it does something..
Can it cure?
I think there are so many influences we don’t know of that come through our genetics, past relationships or through actions in space. I think things are loaded with meaning and it is only now that we are slowly starting to be aware of that. I am interested in diving into this idea. How what we do is affecting us. How do seemingly disconnected elements connect to each other? I just believe that we are in a deep connection with all sorts of things. With art, practice, people that are here or not... That fascinates me.
You say dance is healing, that doing things together is healing. But what about the viewer who experiences the ritual from a very different side, very often in his own bubble?
I am very much caring for the audience. If things get too private in between the dancers I myself don’t find it interesting. Generosity is important to me. I try to find a way to allow the audience to enter into the work and to in a way, be part of the liveliness of it. It is not only about dancers moving, they are also moving in relation to the audience and that is a practice of the work, the practice of how to be with people. I don’t tell dancers how to relate to the audience because I want them to feel in charge of this connection. Not everything is, of course, improvised but there is always a space for creating the experience which happens between the performers and the viewers.
And how about 'BLESSED' where the material is very much set? What is the practice of this work?
In 'BLESSED' Fransico Camacho has given me a beautiful gift of patience. In many other pieces, dancers kept on moving and giving ideas where Franciso would often just wait for me.
Wait for you to propose the material?
Yes, and also just wait for me to make a decision. He would improvise if I asked him to but he would not go for hours. He would propose something and then stop. I found that amazing. Comparing to the last project in which people would share tons of materials and ideas I feel that Francisco had given me an amazing gift of space, time and patience.
Did the work change at all throughout this 11 years?
I think the world has changed. Our relationship to material, to struggle, to surviving and also to softness has changed. And thus the relation to the little story of 'BLESSED' has shifted but the work itself, strangely enough, has not changed at all. .
Did you ever want to change it?
No, for me this piece is like a jewel. I don’t remember much of how it got created but it is one.
Do you treat it differently to other works?
I realized that I made it into a dance piece but it was created in a theatre context. We had a premiere in Ghent in 2007 but the creation happened in a City Theatre in Germany where there was a whole team of people always ready to help us, to try things out. This mix of contexts makes it special.
Sounds like you have still a strong attachment to the work.
To the relationship with Francisco while making it, yes.
You once said that you like movement because It does not give solutions. What else do you like movement for?
I think I have a very wide understanding of what movement is. I have also given myself a lot of allowances when working with it. And even though my body has its habits and movements it prefers over others, I am still fascinated by the whole spectrum of movement and its possibilities.
I prefer the word movement rather than dance because I am not so interested in dance styles or phrases. Though I can borrow some 'dance' here and there I don’t like having too much of it. With movement, you can put something into it, add, erase. I am interested in how movement speaks about our personalities, how through movement do we meet the world and how the world meets us. 'Celestial Sorrow' was more about voice but also about the breath, how we digest, how we take things in, how we express. For me all that is movement. I like how movement erupts from different states such as joy, discomfort or how it behaves within a controlled or uncontrolled body. I feel like there is so much unexplored vocabulary there and I am still not done with it.
What about the difficulties of working with movement, are there any?
Sometimes I feel like people are moving around and I don't know why. When I don’t know what is the reason, intention or task for it.. At times I have this desire for movement to be more exact and clear with why it is there or what it means.
There is also challenge in how to give it to the audience. I know I watch a lot of dance performances because I dance all day but if I wasn’t I would look at movement very differently. I often wonder for the people that don’t dance themselves, how they read it and if movement is the best way to connect with people...
You have premiered your first piece in Belgium in 1991 but you started to make work before that. Since then you kept on creating. I wonder if working as a choreographer is something that can be mastered throughout the years? Are there some challenges that keep on appearing along the way?
I never had a stable company, a space or a theatre to work in. Not that it was a big challenge but I never had dancers for a longer time, that we could live and work together with. That has somehow never appeared...
Did you ever want that?
I did not claim it but now I think, it would not be bad.. (laughter) but I don’t know if it was the challenge or maybe that is just the time of the past.
Thinking about challenge I often wonder which of the territories I worked with such as installation, theatre or film have been most challenging for me. I still don't know. I am also curious about some spaces l never really went to like ballet or opera, I wonder how interesting that would be.
On that level, I will now organise a dance congress in Germany in 2019 and that is for me like super new and challenging.
Will it be some sort of dance festival that you curate?
Yes, it will be 5 days long theory/dance situation but it is still very much in the making. Sort of curation but I still don’t know what it is going to be exactly (laughter). In a way, I am getting some air which is a good thing. I still have touring but, other than that, I will have some space and time to just see what is happening. I think that improvised movie would be amazing but, again that is nothing concrete.
So for now, there are no plans for a new creation?
No! Nothing planned for a year but then, of course, I would not know what else to do so something will happen. Maybe something related to a school but it would have to be with a different than usual approach to teaching. I already have some ideas, still very fresh but present.
Could you share them or are they still in a very secret stage?
I would like it to be something more mobile, something you cannot just learn in a closed studio of HZT or P.A.R.T.S. I have these ideas for more of a mystery school where you would go to, let's say, an older person to teach you his truths and experiences. Where in small groups you would be intensively handed down knowledge of the world and then have breaks. Instead of just taking things from, you will learn through being in a presence of a person. Like this, your soul and body would have physical experience rather than imagining it or watching it on YouTube. Some of it could be exotic but not only. I just believe that there must be a knowledge that can be thought but it does not exist right now. To create some sort of bank of experience where you can be in, that would be great.
That does sound very interesting...
I am so curious! I want to just do that now! (laughter) Now you have heard it as first, so it will go out into the world...
Just before you said that for a year you have no plans but after you probably won't know what to do so you will create. Is that some sort of breathing for you?
It surely not as easy as breathing. The last pieces were really challenging and made me question a lot of things. I also have to think about my life that I missed when I was in a studio. I now question a balance between all this. I never stopped so I don’t know how long it will take for me to need to create even if on a smaller scale. I honestly don’t know where the borders are.
That might be a bit personal but I don’t find myself a dance teacher or even a choreographer until the moment I enter the studio. Then a click happens. Or now when I talk to you, I feel I am in it but when you would switch the recording off, it would immediately feel different. In my mind I don’t live or feel like an artist. When I am in the studio something happens and I can guide and of course, I sometimes have to think of what I will do in the studio but that is not very often. When I am outside of the studio I am not thinking that I want to make art, I am not really busy with it. I guess If I would analyse it I would do much less.
But then it means the work really comes from the inside?
See, I really don’t know... It sounds a bit romantic but it is just, you know, it is something strange.
And has it always felt like this for you?
Yes, kind of yes..
On 22 June, the American choreographer Meg Stuart will collect her Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in dance in Venice. But before that she will stop in Brussels, the city where she founded her company, with her latest performance Blessed.
“While I’m very honoured, I do think that I’m a bit young to be receiving a lifetime achievement award,” says Meg Stuart with a laugh when I ask her about her Golden Lion from the Venice Biennale, where her show Built to Last will open the 2018 Biennale Danza. Her name thus joins a long list of luminaries, including Lucinda Childs, Maguy Marin, William Forsythe, Steve Paxton and even Anne
Teresa De Keersmaeker, who have all received this prestigious award. Meg Stuart has in common with De Keersmaeker that she works in Brussels. The American created her first evening-length performance Disfigure Study in 1991 in Belgium at the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven. And she founded her own company, Damaged Goods, also in Belgium, in Brussels to be precise, in 1984 (she was inspired for the name by the last sentence in a review of her show, namely that “everyone was seen as damaged goods”). “I was very enthusiastic about the artistic climate in Belgium at the time,” she remembers. “There were several very interesting choreographers, such as Alain Platel and Anne Teresa. And I thought that the conditions were better here, for creation in the long term. I had received quite a lot of support, allowing me to focus on my research, without having to look for a day job, like when I was in New York. But I never planned on living in Belgium.”
Nowadays, Meg Stuart lives in Berlin but she has not left the Belgian capital, as Damaged Goods is still based here and the choreographer returns time and again, among others because of her strong ties with the Kaaitheater. This is also where she premiered her most recent show, Celestial Sorrow, this past January. In the framework of Europalia Indonesia, she travelled to the country to meet the transdisciplinary artist Jompet Kuswidanto. Together they created a vivid/captivating scenography, with 1,000 light bulbs and lamps, whose intensity switches from semi-darkness to vivid light. Like a metaphor for transformation, for how things that are concealed can rise to the surface, the performance obviously refers to the decades of bloody dictatorship under President Suharto. The three dancers were dressed by Jean-Paul Lespagnard, striking a balance between kitsch and an evocation of an invisible world that we fail to notice. The intrepid Brussels designer among others chose to make the performer Gaëtan Rusquet wear shoes whose triangular sole forced him into a constant balancing act, which also impacted the way he moved and danced. “Jean-Paul’s freedom of thought is very contagious,” says Meg Stuart. “I know that I don’t have to give him instructions, he arrives with plenty of ideas. And sometimes his proposals can be quite extreme.”
Affinities and tensions
Jean-Paul Lespagnard and Meg Stuart have been collaborating since Blessed in 2007. But the choreographer has several other long-standing collaborators. Jan Maertens for lighting, Tim Etchells for the text, with whom she is still touring with Shown and Told, Chris Kondek for video… They have already created several productions with her. While Meg Stuart likes to work with a “crew”, it’s safe to say that she likes collaborations. Whether recurring or one-offs, all her collaborations require invited artists to accept to move their practice. “They must be capable of working in an unfamiliar space, to meet another audience, to share, to engage in a dialogue, to produce something unrecognisable,” the choreographer says. When collaborating with someone, you don’t want to work with someone who is exactly like you. You want someone with whom you feel a connection but who is also capable of leading you to something new, that you weren’t aware of. The result is the sum of a series of affinities and tensions. And they must also be capable of improvising during the process. Improvisation provides a space where you can test things, where you can play. You start out in an unknown space without any idea of what you will find there. You discover the work together, and this requires a certain mindset, a certain way of thinking, to experience freedom.”
Blessed, which will soon be revived at the Kaaitheater, is performed by Francisco Camacho (who already worked with Stuart on Disfigure Study). In the show, the Portuguese dancer moves among cardboard silhouettes, including a palm tree, a giant swan and a hut. They will gradually collapse and dissolve under the rain that falls from above. A slow devastation that refers to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which made hundreds of victims in New Orleans, where Meg Stuart was born. Ten years later, this remains a very topical subject. “This choreography is all about resilience, about how to move forward in difficult times,” she explains. “The title (Blessed) refers to a specific attitude in these circumstances: a rock-solid confidence in the universe, a certain faith. How do you respond when you believe one thing and the circumstances push you to believe something else?”
Meg Stuart always tries to express the unspeakable, whether her creations are extremely abstract, like Violet, or rooted in a very specific context, like Do Animals Cry (on family relations). “The invisible, vibrations, sensations, things that affect us without being articulated, that are part of the subconscious, of the world of dreams.” A quest that she is not yet ready to give up, despite her Venetian lifetime achievement award.
Le 22 juin prochain, la chorégraphe américaine Meg Stuart ira à Venise chercher le Lion d’or récompensant l’ensemble de sa carrière. Elle sera d’ici là de passage à Bruxelles, la ville où elle a fondé sa compagnie, avec son spectacle Blessed.
Je suis très honorée, mais je me trouve peut-être un peu jeune pour ça », répond en riant Meg Stuart quand on l’interroge sur l’attribution du « Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement » de la Biennale de Venise, dont elle ouvrira en juin prochain le chapitre « danse » avec Built to Last. Son nom vient ainsi s’ajouter à ceux de Lucinda Childs, Maguy Marin, William Forsythe, Steve Paxton ou encore Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker dans la liste des chorégraphes à qui a été décernée cette prestigieuse distinction. Avec la dernière citée, Meg Stuart partage Bruxelles comme port d’attache. C’est en Belgique, au Klapstuk Festival de Louvain, que l’Américaine a effectivement créé sa première « forme longue », Disfigure Study, en 1991. Et c’est en Belgique, à Bruxelles, qu’elle a fondé, en 1994, sa propre compagnie, Damaged Goods (« Biens endommagés », tiré de la dernière phrase de la toute première critique qu’elle a reçue dans la presse : « everyone was seen as damaged goods »). « J’étais très enthousiasmée par le climat artistique qu’il y avait alors en Belgique, se rappelle-t-elle. Il y avait des chorégraphes très intéressants comme Alain Platel et Anne Teresa. Et puis, je pensais que les conditions seraient meilleures ici pour créer sur le long terme. J’avais reçu pas mal de soutien et je pouvais me consacrer pleinement à mes recherches, sans devoir chercher un job alimentaire, comme c’était le cas quand je vivais à New York. Mais je n’ai jamais planifié le fait de vivre en Belgique. »
Aujourd’hui, Meg Stuart vit à Berlin, mais elle n’a pas délaissé la capitale belge pour autant, où Damaged Goods reste basée, et où la chorégraphe revient sans cesse, notamment grâce à des liens forts avec le Kaaitheater. C’est là, en janvier dernier,
qu’elle a créé sa dernière pièce en date, Celestial Sorrow. Dans le cadre d’Europalia Indonésie, elle est partie sur place rencontrer l’artiste transdisciplinaire Jompet Kuswidananto. Leur réflexion commune a abouti à une scénographie prégnante : une constellation regroupant un millier d’ampoules et des lustres, dont l’intensité voyage de la pénombre à une lumière puissante. Métaphore sur la transformation et sur la manière dont ce qui a été enfoui peut rejaillir à la surface, le spectacle faisait une allusion claire aux décennies de dictature sanglante du président Suharto. Evoluant en équilibre entre le kitsch et l’évocation d’un monde invisible qui nous dépasse, les trois danseurs y étaient vêtus par Jean-Paul Lespagnard. L’intrépide styliste bruxellois faisait, entre autres audaces, porter au performeur Gaëtan Rusquet des chaussures dont la semelle triangulaire installait les pieds dans un constant déséquilibre, impactant directement les déplacements et la danse. « La liberté de pensée de Jean-Paul est très contagieuse, affirme Meg Stuart. Je sais que je ne dois pas lui dire ce qu’il faut faire, il arrive avec beaucoup d’idées. Et ce qu’il propose peut être assez extrême, c’est sûr. »
Affinités et tensions
Jean-Paul Lespagnard et Meg Stuart travaillent ensemble depuis Blessed, en 2007. La chorégraphe a d’autres compagnons de longue date. Jan Maertens pour les lumières, Tim Etchells pour les textes, avec qui elle tourne encore dans Shown and Told, Chris Kondek pour la vidéo... n’en sont par exemple pas à leur premier spectacle avec elle. Si Meg Stuart a ses fidèles, elle aime en tout cas multiplier les collaborations. Qu’elles soient récurrentes ou ponctuelles, une constante: l’artiste invité doit accepter d’y déplacer sa pratique. « Ils doivent être capables de travailler dans un espace qui n’est pas familier, de rencontrer un autre public, de partager, d’avoir un dialogue, de produire quel que chose de non reconnaissable, déclare la chorégraphe. Dans une collaboration, vous ne voulez pas quel - qu’un qui est exactement comme vous, vous voulez quelqu’un avec qui vous avez une connexion, mais qui est capable de vous amener dans un endroit que vous ne reconnaissez pas. C’est une sorte de somme d’affinités et de tensions. Et puis, il faut qu’ils soient capables d’improvisation dans le processus. L’improvisation est un espace où essayer, où jouer. On part dans un endroit inconnu, on ne sait pas ce qu’on va y trouver. On découvre l’oeuvre ensemble et ça demande une certaine disposition d’esprit, une certaine manière de penser, pour avoir la liberté. »
Repris prochainement au Kaai, Blessed est dansé par Francisco Camacho (qui faisait déjà partie de Disfigure Study). Dans le spectacle, le danseur portugais se meut au milieu de silhouettes en carton figurant un palmier, un cygne géant et une sorte de cahute. Sous les effets d’une pluie tombant des cintres, l’ensemble va progressivement s’affaisser et se dissoudre. Une lente devastation faisant écho aux ravages provoqués par l’ouragan Katrina en 2005, qui a fait des centaines de victimes à La Nouvelle- Orléans, la ville natale de Meg Stuart. Dix ans plus tard, le propos est toujours d’une actualité brûlante. « C’est un spectacle qui parle de la résilience, de comment on va de l’avant dans des périodes difficiles, explique-t-elle. Le titre (Béni) traduit une attitude particulière dans ces circonstances : une solide confiance en cet univers, la foi. Comment réagir quand on croit en quelque chose mais que les circonstances vous poussent à croire le contraire ? »
Que ses créations soient très abstraites, comme Violet, ou ancrées dans un context bien concret, comme Do Animals Cry (sur la structure familiale), Meg Stuart tend à exprimer l’indicible. « Ce qui reste invisible, des vibrations, des sensations, les choses qui nous touchent sans être articulées, qui sont liées au subconscient, au monde des rêves. » Une quête que, malgré le prix vénitien pour « lifetime achievement », elle n’est pas prête de lâcher.
A croiser les disciplines, la chorégraphe américaine a toujours su repousser les limites de la danse contemporaine. Qu’il s’agisse de tendre le miroir là où ça fait mal, ou d’altérer les consciences de ses spectateurs, elle continue de croire au pouvoir critique de son art.
Il y a quelques années, votre travail a été qualifié de « danse du désastre et du désenchantement ». Qu’en pensez-vous aujourd’hui ?
« Je n’ai pas peur de m’attaquer à une face sombre de choses qu’il serait plus facile d’ignorer, à notre rapport au corps ou à notre condition humaine, je n’ai pas non plus peur de mettre le spectateur dans une position inconfortable. Mon travail est teinté d’urgence, mais je ne fais pas seulement le constat du chaos, et j’ai toujours été persuadée que mes pièces étaient, au fond, traversées par un désir de changement. La danse est un médium important parce que critique, un médium qui décortique les contradictions et qui résiste aux définitions simplistes. La danse ne réfute pas la complexité. Au contraire, elle en reconnait les bienfaits et nous pousse à l’épouser. Toutes les vérités portent en leur sein leur contraire.
Dans mes premiers travaux, je trouvais plus compliqué de trouver des solutions. Parfois, j’ai le sentiment qu’on est tous accros à la douleur. Accros au démantèlement des choses et au chaos. On n’espère qu’à moitié trouver des issues. Je ne dis pas qu’il faut exclusivement fuir le confort et la facilité, mais il est important de viser un but supérieur : pas uniquement la « danse du désastre », mais une sorte de responsabilisation, de désir de changement et d’espérance. Il est très important d’être force de proposition en plus d’être critique.
Vos pièces plus récentes proposent davantage de solutions ?
« Si on prend Sketches/Notebook (2013), il s’agissait d’un vrai travail collectif, une célébration de la collaboration. C’est un travail fictionnel, mais ces espaces fictionnels sont nécessaires, on a besoin de pouvoir les vivre ensemble, de modeler ensemble le corps, les objets, entre nous et avec le public. Celestial Sorrow (2018) refuse de distribuer des blâmes ou de pointer du doigt. La pièce contourne les impasses intellectuelles du débat postcolonial – elle essaie plutôt de peindre par-dessus, de rappeler que la responsabilité comme la tristesse sont partagées, et que finalement tout est question de perspective.
Qu’est-ce que la danse et le travail chorégraphique vous enseignent encore aujourd’hui ?
« On ne danse jamais en ayant l’impression de changer la perception ou le rapport au temps des gens, ou bien de leur apprendre que l’on peut exister dans des dimensions différentes. Néanmoins, à travers l’improvisation, la transe, à travers des états, ou la reproduction d’un geste, on peut se rapprocher physiquement d’états décrits par les neurosciences, la physique quantique ou la recherche sur la mémoire. La danse a un pouvoir thérapeutique, évidemment, mais danser permet aussi de transformer notre rapport au monde ou d’altérer nos consciences en réveillant l’intelligence du corps. C’est assez euphorisant, et je pense que la plupart des gens ignorent cette capacité de la danse à transformer le réel. On danse pour le même genre de raison que certains prennent des drogues. Je suis persuadée que poser les questions spatialement et physiquement et d’essayer d’y apporter des réponses à travers le corps, et dans des espaces construits, permet de changer la compréhension de ces interrogations. Je crois que cela peut nous rendre plus ouverts et compassionnels, nous apprendre à mieux écouter et mieux regarder. Mes créations artistiques gardent toujours un œil sur la transformation des rapports sociaux.
Est-ce aussi vrai des arts visuels et du cinéma, ou spécifique à la danse ?
« Je m’intéresse à comment la danse pourrait communiquer avec d’autres pratiques artistiques, et je pense que cette transcendance est nécessaire. Il est important de s’attacher à une définition large du mot danse. Le langage est sans fin, illimité. Notre compréhension de la notion de danse se doit d’être assez souple.
La danse contemporaine pourrait-elle être définie par l’intensité ou la qualité du mouvement, plutôt que par le mouvement lui-même ? Alors enfiler une robe pourrait être de la danse.
« Il y a mille façons de se déplacer, et plusieurs qualités de mouvement. La façon dont les gens exploitent le mouvement aujourd’hui me laisse un peu sceptique. Avant, c’était très traditionnel – Cunningham ou Trisha Brown, par exemple, avaient des modes très clairs, des espaces définis dans lesquels rechercher le mouvement. Évidemment, les spécialistes voudraient que la danse mimique le mouvement de la vie quotidienne. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est le langage gestuel fait d’états physiques et émotionnels, de mouvements contrôlés ou incontrôlables, le résultat d’émotions intenses.
Tout est danse ?
« Non, pas tout. Tout est mouvement, dans sa façon d’être pensé, réalisé, compris.
Il y a quelques années, l’un de vos projets était intitulé : This is the Show and the Show is Many Things. Qu’est-ce qu’un spectacle n’est jamais ? Il y a-t-il des choses que vous refusez absolument d’inclure dans vos spectacles ?
« Il serait intéressant de se demander ce qu’il reste de mes premiers spectacles dans mes dernières créations. J’ai fait ma première pièce en Europe il y a plus de 20 ans, j’avais alors 26 ans. Aujourd’hui, je m’intéresse encore à la vulnérabilité, j’essaie toujours de créer des espaces qui poussent au questionnement sans vouloir à tout prix apporter des réponses, sans fournir de résolution. Mais il y a quelque chose que je n’aime vraiment pas, c’est de voir des danseurs qui ne sont pas dans leur corps. Ses mouvements peuvent être abstraits, ou ultra esthétisés, le danseur doit respirer la vie, être sensible. Il ne doit pas être vide ou toujours en démonstration.
J’aime me mettre en danger. Mais je crois qu’il est devenu difficile de représenter la douleur sur scène, même sous couvert d’avant-garde ou avec l’accord des danseurs. Les temps ont changé. Je ne sais plus si l’art en vaut la peine. Je me souviens avoir dit à Pina Bausch, après l’un de ses derniers spectacles : « Votre travail précédent était beaucoup plus fort ; là, vos danseurs se contentent de danser ! Pourquoi ne faites-vous plus comment avant ? Je trouve ça dommage. » Elle m’a répondu : « En Inde, j’ai vu récemment des mères à la rue avec leurs enfants. J’ai vu des mendiants et des corps mutilés. Le monde va de plus en plus mal : l’artiste doit choisir s’il veut représenter le monde tel qu’il le voit ou tel qu’il voudrait qu’il soit. »
Avez-vous fait ce choix ?
« J’ai décidé de ne pas choisir. Nous sommes sur Terre pour nous élever mutuellement, spontanément. C’est notre but ultime. Il faut parfois savoir irriter son public, lui mettre un miroir là où ça fait mal. Quand d’autres fois, il faut lui proposer des alternatives. L’art a le droit de se tromper, mais il ne faut pas tomber dans le politiquement correct ou se confiner aux schémas classiques. Le résultat est parfois perturbant et le spectateur peut ne pas être d’accord.
Vous présentez ce soir au Centre Pompidou votre pièce BLESSED, montée il y a 10 ans. Il s’agit d’une pièce particulière pour vous, n’est-ce pas ?
« Cette pièce me tient particulièrement à cœur parce que je l’ai créée en réponse au cyclone Katrina de 2005. Je suis née à La Nouvelle-Orléans. À l’inverse de mes pièces habituelles qui doivent beaucoup au collage, celle-ci a une trajectoire linéaire, l’action y est extrêmement directe. Blessed a une qualité minimaliste et une sorte de sévérité singulière qui dialogue avec mes premières pièces.
Son message est toujours actuel : la pièce traite du débat éthique qui entoure notre gestion du changement climatique. Comment reconcilier l’instabilité climatique et la précarité qui en découle avec notre tendance à se croire à l’aise et en sécurité ? La nature est un facteur parmi d’autres qui peut, à tout moment, renverser cette réalité-là. Si la pièce n’abordait pas ces questions-ci, on arrêterait de m’inviter à la jouer !
On a tous l’impression de comprendre le monde autour de nous, et c’est un sentiment précieux. Mais je pense qu’il est aussi important de l’appréhender avec nos sens, notre système nerveux. Le voyage est un moyen de transcender l’esprit rationnel, l’art en est un autre. Il ne suffit pas d’analyser une performance : il faut la ressentir, la laisser dialoguer avec notre subconscient.
Qu’est-ce que vous auriez été si vous n’aviez pas été chorégraphe ?
« Je n’en sais vraiment rien ! Une photographe ? Une religieuse fanatique ? Une SDF ? Une psychotique ? (Rires) J’avais seulement deux désirs : parcourir le monde et devenir une « guérisseuse »... Mais je ne savais même pas ce que ça voulait dire ! »
To cross disciplines, the American choreographer has always pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance. Whether it is by putting her finger on the sore spot, or to alter the conscience of its spectators, she continues to believe in the critical power of her art.
A few years ago, somebody called your work a “dance of disaster and disenchantment”. What do you think of this statement today?
“I’m not afraid of tackling head on the dark side of things, which would be easier to ignore, our relationship with our body, or our human condition. I’m not afraid of making the spectator feel uncomfortable either. There is a sense of urgency in my work but I don’t just make a statement about chaos. I’ve always had the conviction that my choreographies essentially expressed a desire for change. Dance is an important medium because it’s inherently critical. It’s a medium that unravels contradictions and refuses simplistic definitions. Dance does not refute complexity, however. On the contrary even, it acknowledges its benefits and urges us to embrace them. All truth contains the opposite of truth.
In my early works, it seemed more difficult to find solutions. I sometimes think that we are all addicted to suffering. To the dismantling of things and to chaos. We sort of hope that we’ll find a way out. This doesn’t mean that I think that we should avoid comfort and facility at all costs. It is important, however, to keep a higher goal in mind: not just a “dance of disaster” but a sort of empowerment, a desire for change and hope. It is important that you come up with proposals in addition to being very critical.”
Do your most recent works propose more solutions?
“Take Sketches/Notebook (2013). This was a collective effort, a celebration of collaboration. It’s a fictional work, but these fictional spaces are crucial. We need them to be able to experience them together, to define the body, the objects together, among ourselves and with the audience. Celestial Sorrow (2018) refuses to put the blame on someone or to single someone out. This choreography sidesteps the intellectual stalemates of the post-colonial debate. Instead it attempts to paint on top of it, to remind us that responsibility and sorrow are shared, and that ultimately everything is just a matter of perspective.”
What do dance and choreography teach you today?
“I never dance thinking that it may charge people’s perception or their sense of time, or teach them that you can exist in different dimensions. Having said that, improvisation, trance, various states, or the reproduction of a gesture may allow you physically to approach those states that have been described by neuroscience, quantum physics or research about memory. Obviously dance has therapeutic powers, but it also allows us to redefine our relationship with the world or to alter our conscious by tapping into the body’s intelligence. It can be a very euphoric experience, and I think that most people have no idea that dance can transform reality like this. We dance for the same kind of reasons that people take drugs. I’m convinced that asking physical and spatial questions, and trying to answer them with your body, in spaces that are constructs, allows you to change your understanding of these questions. I think that dance can make us more open, more compassionate, can teach us to listen and look more attentively. My artistic creations always look at how social relationships are changing.”
Does this also apply to the visual arts and cinema, or just to dance?
“I’m interested in how dance can communicate with other forms of art, and I think that this transcendence is vital. It is important that you interpret dance in its widest possible sense. Language is endless, unlimited. Our interpretation of the notion of dance must also be very flexible.”
Is contemporary dance defined by the intensity or the quality of the movement, rather than by the movement itself. Because in that sense the mere act of putting on a dress could be dance.
“There are a thousand different ways to move around, and several qualities of movement. I’m a little sceptical about how people exploit movement nowadays. Before, it was all very traditional. Cunningham or Trisha Brown, for example, had very clear styles, defined spaces in which to explore movement. Obviously, specialists want dance to mimic the movements of our daily life. But I’m particularly interested in the gestures that are derived from physical and emotional states, in controlled and uncontrollable movements, that are the outcome of intense emotions.”
Everything is dance?
“No, definitely not. Everything is movement, in the way it is thought, executed and understood.”
A few years ago, you created a project called This is the Show and the Show is Many Things. What can a show never be? Are there things you absolutely refuse to include in your shows?
“It would be interesting to see what traces remain of my earliest shows in my most recent choreographies. My first choreography in Europe is over twenty years old, I was just 26 years old. Nowadays I’m still interested in vulnerability. I always try to create spaces that raise questions without wanting to provide the answers, or resolving things. But there is one thing that I really don’t like and that is to see dancers who do not inhabit their bodies. Even though movements can be abstract, or ultra-aesthetic, dancers must exude life, must be sensitive. They should not be empty vessels, or bodies that demonstrate something.
I like a sense of danger. But I think that it has become very difficult to represent suffering on stage, even under the guise of being avant-garde, or with the dancers’ consent. Times have changed. I don’t know if art is still worth it. I remember telling Pina Bausch, after one of her last shows: “Your earlier work was much more powerful. Now your dancers are just dancing! Why aren’t you doing what you used to do? I really think it’s a pity.” And she replied: “In India I recently saw women living on the streets with their children. I saw beggars and mutilated bodies. The world is going from bad to worse. Artists must choose whether they wish to represent the world as they see it or as they would like it to be.”
Did you make that choice?
“I’ve decided not to choose. We are all placed on earth for each other’s mutual and spontaneous elevation. This is our ultimate goal. So sometimes you need to irritate your audience, to hold up a mirror to them where it hurts. On other occasions, you must propose alternatives. Art has the right to get it wrong, but you cannot get caught up in what is politically correct or stick to traditional approaches. Sometimes the result can be quite perturbing and the spectator may not agree with you.”
Tonight you are presenting your choreography BLESSED, which you created ten years ago at the Centre Pompidou. This is a very special choreography for you, right?
“I’m particularly attached to this piece because I created it in the aftermath of Katrina in 2005. I was born in New Orleans. Unlike most of my choreographies, which are usually a collage, this piece has a linear structure, the action is very direct. Blessed has a very minimalist quality and a singular severity, which engages in a dialogue with my earliest choreographies.
The message is still very relevant today. This choreography deals with the ethical debate about how we approach climate change. How to reconcile climatic instability and the resulting vulnerability with our habit of thinking that life is good, that we are safe? Nature is just one of many factors that can overturn our reality. If this piece did not broach these issues, people would stop inviting me to perform!
We all think that we understand the world around us, and this is a very precious sentiment. But I think that we should also try to understand with all our senses, with our nervous system. A voyage is a way of transcending our rational mind. Art is another way of achieving this. Analysing a performance is not enough. You must feel it, let it engage in a dialogue with our subconscious.”
What would you have done if you had not become a choreographer?
“I haven’t a clue. A photographer? A religious fanatic? A homeless person? A psycho? (laughs) I only had two wishes: to travel the world and become a “healer”. But I had no idea whatsoever what this meant!”
Hans Ulrich Obrist talks to the choreographer Meg Stuart about rituals, improvisation and ecstasy
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Ecstasy, transcendence and endurance are fascinating themes because, as I see it, they evoke an image of art being a portal you have to pass through. It’s an important topic for many younger artists, and you’ve been working on it for a long time. But before we get to that, let me ask you how it all began. How did you arrive at dance and choreography – was it a kind of epiphany?
Meg Stuart: I grew up in a theatre, and I think that certainly played a big role. Both my parents are theatre directors. Having the chance to see so many plays, watch dancers and actors up close, made an impression on me. But somehow, I didn’t want to act, to play a character, I simply wanted to be myself. I didn’t know what this “self” was, or whether there were multiple “selves”, but there was always that wish. First, I got into sports, like running track; the physical aspect was important. Then I started getting more involved in dance, and at some point, I let the running go. Then I took a dance class in high school which was not about learning to imitate other people’s movements – though I did that, too – but rather choreography. I did dancer studies – standing, sitting, lying – looking carefully at each part of the body, breaking it down piece by piece. That’s when I started coming up with dances without really knowing how to dance. I didn’t have a technique that I’d eventually have to discard later on. First, I had to build a structure and technique around me in order to realise the things I imagined. When I was young, I tried out alternative techniques, but I also studied the “modern masters” – Cunningham, Graham, Limón. I don’t know if you can call that an epiphany, but that’s how I started.
Obrist: You originally come from New Orleans …
Stuart: Yes, I am from New Orleans but my first breakthrough as an artist happened at the Klapstuk festival in Belgium when I was 26 with the work Disfigure Study. Up until then I had been working years on various short studies in New York and these explorations came together in Disfigure Study (1991). It was this first evening piece that launched me into the scene in Europe.
Obrist: I asked about New Orleans because I recently spoke with the singer and musician Solange [Knowles] and the director Alan Ferguson, both of whom live in New Orleans. They told me that New Orleans is so spiritual that it radiates something transcendental and the people there relate to one another in a very special way.
Stuart: I was quite young when I left New Orleans. I can remember the hurricanes and Mardi Gras, but not much more than that. When my mother started working at CalArts, [California Institute of the Arts, Los Angeles], I would wander the halls of the institute, watch Ravi Shankar play [editor’s note: Ravi Shankar, Indian musician and composer, appointed professor of Indian Music at CalArts in 1970], see the art exhibitions held at CalArts in the seventies and the dance performances there. All these different art practices in one space – I’m sure it influenced me. My parents often took me to classical concerts. Whenever I closed my eyes and listened to the music, I’d imagine people dancing and moving. I created my own little world, a space where I could control things.
Obrist: It seems you really found your own “language” in Belgium. One of your first pieces that came to my attention was No Longer Readymade (1993) – a piece that deeply resonated with the art world. Can you tell us something about what went into No Longer Readymade?
Stuart: It was my second piece, and maybe it was born out of crisis. Creating a second work while on tour with the first, getting a lot of attention very fast, being pulled out of New York and diving into the European festival scene – that was a lot to handle at one time. The centrepiece of this work is a solo. I’m digging through the trash in my pockets, pulling out receipts, coins and whatnot, spilling the detritus of life onto the floor. Then I take off my clothes, a men’s suit, a women’s suit and my dress ... and I hang them from my arms on two hangers and then start walking on my face with my Doc Martens. And that’s when I asked myself, is this enough for you? What do you expect from this? My previous piece Disfigure Study was like a long research project on distortion and fragmenting the body and playing with physicality and light. But this was an entirely new approach to the question “Here I am, what now?” It was the first time I studied physical and emotional states. The piece opens with a dancer, Benoît Lachambre, shaking his head violently for about four and a half minutes and then gesturing feverishly. Then he starts shaking and does the whole thing in reverse. He’s completely out of control, he’s blurring like in a Bruce-Nauman-video. He’s pushing himself to the limit yet continues articulating in this frenzy. When we started rehearsing the piece, he vomited in the studio. Only after several rehearsals was he able to perform it. It was the first time I was interested in fever and sweat – could this be a “language”? How do we use these kinds of involuntary physical responses as dance material? It was then that I integrated physical and emotional states into the choreography.
Obrist: This piece seems to go beyond the rational; there are irrational forces that come into play. Andrei Tarkowski once said that we need to re-introduce rituals because they have disappeared from the modern world. It’s interesting that ecstasy is regarded as something positive in indigenous cultures and in ritualistic contexts. But in capitalism and in our globalised world, it’s somehow taken on a negative connotation. In your work it clearly has a positive connotation. I was wondering about when the subject of ecstasy entered your work. When you started, it must have been quite unusual, right?
Stuart: From a Western perspective, I think rituals are things we do out of habit, if not by choice. But we’re constantly occupied with such rituals. We create them for ourselves, we’re forced to participate in those of others, rituals are all around us. So, it’s about acknowledging them, and also reinventing them. Rituals are a series of intention-driven actions, just like with magic. Your actions have a certain intention, and you expect a certain outcome. Going to the theatre is a ritual as well. I don’t know how I came to introduce that. I think I’m receptive to energies or streams of energy that are not only my own. We know that everything is influencing our nervous system and our electromagnetic field. Every day we’re influenced by what we see, our consciousness is inundated with information. The question is, how do we deal with it, how do we purge ourselves of it, what thoughts are our own and which are not, and how do we work with these forces?
Obrist: You talked about rituals, but I’m curious about the notion of ecstasy. To a certain degree, improvisation is present in all your works. As you mentioned about your second piece, No Longer Readymade, improvisation was a gateway to all these different states and sometimes ecstatic states ...
Stuart: Exactly …
Obrist: Then let’s talk about improvisation and ecstasy.
Stuart: One inspiration for my last piece Celestial Sorrow (2018) was the very repetitive music of a Jathilan ritual I saw in Indonesia. It was a remarkable performance on the outskirts of Yogyakarta. The dancers performed very simple, 20-minute ritualised movements with their arms. Suddenly they seemed possessed and fell into a trance ... and it wasn’t clear if it was real or not, or self-induced. Some things happened in front of you, and other things backstage. The dancers would take off their costumes and come back in something more pedestrian. There was such absolute chaos that no one knew what was part of the performance and what wasn’t. Was it all just preparation for that moment of release, the freeing of these dark energies? I found it all very contemporary and very complex. So we started crafting our own version together with two musicians. The dancers also go through a kind of trance. I think we all want to escape the reality of our daily lives. We all want to feel that we merge with something else, that we overcome the borders between us and the others. We can take drugs or get high on music and repetition, or lock ourselves in a room and concentrate on our own breathing... I think we all have that wish to work on higher realms, to have a more singular focus, to be less absent-minded and distracted.
Obrist: When I was London I saw your piece Until Our Hearts Stop (2015), which I thought was very impressive. It also had to do with this very different state. As in your earlier pieces, you often focus on the notion of exhaustion and how exhaustion can lead to a transcendental state ...
Stuart: ... or to a nervous breakdown (laughs). Actually, I think we sometimes like being exhausted. I think exhaustion gives us the feeling of being in the here and now, it’s our neoliberal mode, this idea that we’re always working. It’s also about working through the exhaustion in order to achieve a higher state of consciousness where more subtle frequencies resonate. Exhaustion is either a wish or a problem, but it can also be a strategy – a strategy of art-making. You tell someone: look at this, now look at it again, and again ... no, this image is not finished yet. This intensity, this obsession, to over-stretch time, to force people to be hyper-present – that’s what I see as the responsibility of art right now. Insisting on being accountable for where we are.
Obrist: Improvisation was a theme we both explored in Laboratorium – our first collaboration in 1999. It’s a work that is seldom discussed anymore. I’d be interested in hearing your recollection of it.
Stuart: Laboratorium was an incredibly imprecise study that examined the relationship of performance and research, science and research, and art and research. It was the basis for an improvisation, the last piece of a longer project titled Crash Landing, which I put on in Moscow in 1999. We were lots of artists, many of whom were Russians, and the space we chose was way too small for all of us – it was rather uncomfortable. The work was about the future, about the body of the future, and how we see ourselves in the future. Each performer could suggest things. There was nobody saying, “but this is my project”. We were not concerned with individual authorship, but rather a collective working method where everything was mixed, alliances were formed and questions were jointly investigated ... Looking back, I can see it as quite radical in its haphazard methodology of insisting on collaborative encounter through improvisational performance, considering the invitation and the context.
Obrist: It was also about demarcation – between the stage and the world, if you will... It wasn’t very clear where the stage began and where it stopped, of even if there was a stage ... The young Tino Sehgal was also there as a student – that was when he was still dancing and working with Xavier [editor’s note: French choreographer Xavier Le Roy]. I told him that I’d be doing an interview with you and he sent me a question to ask you this morning: Where do you see a demarcation between dance which is meant to be performed, and ritualistic practices like those of the shamans or Shakers which occur off stage?
Stuart: Dance that is meant to be performed is about a set of principles or proposals that is shared with an audience. Shamanistic practice and rituals are grounded on service and intention. Shamans with spirit guides dive into other worlds to heal members of society. This is a service for the community. People go clubbing every weekend, an improvised dance ritual, in search of connection and release and ecstatic shared moments. It is clear that the codes of behaviour are very narrow even in places like Berghain and I can imagine there will be more and more hybrid undefined open spaces in the future for sharing, voicing, releasing and dancing as strategies of survival and healing.
I am hoping that the Tanzkongress in Dresden can be such a lively, unconventional space for collective action and shared intention. We are going to create a five-day gathering, somehow intricately and magically composed, that functions as a social choreography for meeting, exchange, conflict and transformation. A rave deconstructed and other variations of social dancing and encounter are essential to this meeting concept. The rave format in the Tanzkongress would commence early in the morning in that massive hall of Hellerau. A charged political space in the daytime with the removal of the trope of nightlife. It would be a space where people could express themselves freely thanks to a different kind of receptivity. So, in this huge cavern of space, I want to create something fluid that shifts the pace so that eventually the music slows down, breaks down and another space of listening and presence emerges.
Obrist: Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, who came up with the Fun Palace in the 1960s, also described this idea of having moments of noise and silence. Suddenly the rave would fall silent – a rupture from fast to slow. So I love your idea. In 2002, Hortensia Völckers got me involved while they were mapping the future of the Federal Cultural Foundation. It was a utopian undertaking which she worked to make come true. And to this day, the Foundation still possesses this utopian vein. The Tanzkongress is also a kind of utopian undertaking. There weren’t many congresses of this scope and magnitude – in the Weimar Republic in 1927, 1928 and 1930. What kind of rituals are you planning for the Tanzkongress?
Stuart: I’m quite interested in the Monte Verità gathering in Switzerland in 1917 where spiritualists, anarchists and artists came together on the mountain to discuss and share alternative ways of living. In the first Tanzkongress (1927) the dance artists were passionately arguing and looking for definitions that would be unthinkable nowadays like what is dance, what a dancer should be, what is the purpose of dance now? They also describe a legendary party where the whole congress came together at the end. I would have loved to witness that. I’m very interested in the social dimension of dance, dance history, sacred dances, contemplative scores and visualizations, martial arts. What’s important to me is that dance isn’t merely the warm-up for the discourse part, but that both are integrated into the same format. As a curator, what advice would you give me?
Obrist: In 2005 when I was working on the “Theater der Welt” festival in Stuttgart, I had initially planned to do an interview project for the stage, a kind of marathon. In the beginning, it was just me interviewing people for 24 hours, but that got lonely after a while, so I invited Rem Koolhaas to join me. Little by little, it became more of a hybrid format with performances, talks, etc. The interesting thing about your idea, of course, is that people would come to listen to a neuroscientist talk and then see a contemporary artist. Or they come to see the artist but would also hear what an architect had to say. This can help break down professional ghettos and avoid having only dance professionals attend. Right now I’m exploring the phenomenon of dance manias, also known as choreomania or St. Vitus’s Dance which occurred in Europe in the 14th and 15th century. It was a social phenomenon when ordinary people in cities – not professional dancers – would dance and dance until they collapsed from exhaustion. There was an outbreak in 1374 in Aachen. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a dancing mania broke out in Dresden?
Stuart: … Or debate mania! When I shift into different states of consciousness very quickly or turn my attention from the moment, I feel I’m bending the laws of time and space, I’m moving through dimensions. I feel there’s a solid truth you can arrive at through physical practice. Dancers know this, but it needs to be acknowledged in other areas – how certain movements can impact our consciousness. In Hellerau, there’s this big garden in the back, and I hope we can use it to create some common rituals, cook together, engage in other forms of exchange.
Obrist: Well, it appeals to all the senses. Margaret Mead once said that we need rituals that appeal to all the senses. I recently read a text by Dorothea von Hantelmann where she asked: What form of ritual corresponds to the life, the social structure of the early 21st century? How collective, how individualised, how rigid, how open, how liberal should such a structure be? That seems to have some relevance for Dresden.
Stuart: There will definitely be various forms of coming together and celebrating, but also coming together and mourning. Dresden won’t be a five-day party. The congress has a dramaturgy that covers a wide range of aspects and provides space for meditation and movement, but also discussions about non-violent communication, or social justice or the power of intention.
Obrist: There’s so much violence and xenophobia in Dresden right now. It has made me think of your work Alibi (2001) which explores themes of fanaticism and violence. In an interview you described how shocked you were, moving from New York to Brussels and suddenly being in a place where people don’t speak English as their native language. What’s especially interesting is that the Dance Congress has the potential to connect with the population. Brecht talked about creating an “epic” theatre for the masses. Perhaps one could extend Brecht’s theories to dance and see whether it could change the city. Maybe you could change Dresden.
Stuart: Maybe. I just heard about this German-Syrian artist Manaf Halbouni who erected three buses in front of the Dresden Frauenkirche. I would very much like to have a dialogue with the Dresden scene. I’ll also be teaching a workshop at the Palucca University of Dance and the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden (HfBK).
Obrist: Would you say your works are political?
Stuart: When you’re working with policymakers to put on the Tanzkongress, it’s a very different type of collaboration, and a different type of visibility. I often talk about ethics and responsibility. Violet (2011) is a completely abstract piece that explores energetic patterns in nature. It features five dancers with five platonic bodies. It was made at the time of the Arab Spring and the tsunami in Japan, and I asked myself: What causes change? At what moment is there a radical shift in thinking and how do we handle it? Frankly it was a response to exhaustion: I don’t have enough energy for this ... Normally you have all the time in the world for abstraction, it is something cold and detached. You work with lines, forces, geometries, but here we were working with abstract movements under stress in a charged heated atmosphere. There was an urgency and a call. That is why it felt extremely political. For many years and in different contexts I have created and held space for artists, musicians and dancers to exchange and meet. In Sketches/Notebook (2013) the dancers were on equal ground with the visual artists and musician. Questions and ideas were exchanged through shared actions and simply by sharing a working space together. I aim to create a dynamic working space of encounter for the extended dance community at the Tanzkongress.
Obrist: Sketches/Notebook leads me to my last question. I started a project on Instagram which has to do with sketches and notebooks. Personally, I find it appalling that handwriting and doodling is disappearing. So I decided to ask every artist at the end of an interview to write or sketch something that I can post on Instagram – a sentence, motto, a quote. So now, if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to ask you for a doodle …
An interview with Meg Stuart
As one of the most influential dance and choreography artists since the 1990s, she is best known for her highly energetic pieces in which performers embody the boisterous longing for presence in relationship to specific surroundings. For example, in the jazzy Until Our Hearts Stop (2015), which was created in a kind of extended living room ambience, she departed from the discovery of a hidden trove of artworks in Cornelius Gurlitt’s Munich apartment (many which were believed to have been looted and lost during the Nazi era) and then continued to question what we call love, what kind of magic we are searching for, and how this is connected to the freak inside us.
Meg Stuart grew up in California, studied in New York, lives with her son in Berlin and has her company Damaged Goods in Brussels, where her career began. Having previously been an associated artist of the Schauspielhaus Zürich (2000 to 2004) and Volksbühne in Berlin (2005 to 2010), in more recent years Stuart has entered a new work period, amongst others in collaboration with HAU Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin’s theatre for the independent scene. Works like Sketches/Notebook (2013/2018) create intense temporary artistic communities and visualise the energetic networks developing in between the different aesthetic practices of the members. In this interview, we dig into the history of some works that are no longer on the stage and try to find ways to speak about feelings.
Astrid Kaminski: Is it okay if we speak about feelings? We could frame it within your 2007 piece, Maybe Forever, in which you can undo everything in the future.
Meg Stuart: [singing] “Feelings, nothing more than feeeelings.” Okay, I’m ready.
Where did you wake up today and – hmm – how did you feel?
[laughs]I woke up very early in a hotel in Zurich, where I just performed Shown and Told with [theatre director and writer] Tim Etchells. But despite being early I felt quite rested and fresh. I thought about going for a walk on the lake and then I didn’t, so I went to catch my plane to Berlin and bought a book on being happy. My new love was invited to teach a workshop on happiness, so I wanted to feel connected by doing some research on happiness.
Did you gain new insights?
Nothing very new. But you can rewrite the experiences of your life, and shifting perspectives about any narrative – not the facts – make people happy. That made me think about jazz music that riffs on standards. You have these standards, these songs, that are very familiar, but the musicians keep looking for their potential – something that you would not see, that is dormant. They are not smashing the songs, but in a way expanding them. They are always rewriting, re-scripting, and collaging and in this way honouring the music, giving it a future momentum.
In one word, what is your art about?
I think it is about acceptance. [laughs] Acceptance that there is never one word to describe anything.
I want to dig into the past for a while. After your first European piece, Disfigure Study, in 1991, you immediately earned a name in dance. This piece is always cited, but I want to look at the one which came right after, in 1993, and was maybe more emotional. It’s called “No Longer Readymade”. It reminded me of Tino Seghal’s early quote about being interested in the Duchamp-tradition in the arts, of something that can change itself and simultaneously remain identical. What was your relation to Duchamp?
The title Disfigure Study says what it was – deconstructing the figure – and somehow this continued. There is a moment in No Longer Readymade which proposes that I don’t give the audience what they expect. I can’t dance for you anymore and there was a necessity to break this kind of contract of expectations, to say: Look at the trash in my pockets. This also is dance.
Turning the loo the other way around?
Yes, but also turning presence into absence by articulating gestures that trace the absence. Like holding a hand that is no longer there.
For one of the following pieces, No One is Watching, you wrote: “She always thought of her life as a movie no one is watching.” How would you put it today?
You are such a trickster! [pauses] I don’t know if I want to speak about being seen.
I think the long silence you just gave is also an answer. Yet you will be receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale Danza 2018, which means someone is watching you.
I would have to go into what it means to be on a screen.
For Manifesta7 you made this film with the Agamben title “The Only Possible City” in which you are crying… But Okay, let’s speak about something nicer: What did you feel when you got to learned about the Golden Lion?
A female interviewer asking a woman about her feelings! Please ask Tino Sehgal about his feelings!
I cried. It was announced the day before my premiere of Celestial Sorrow [at Kaaitheater, 2018], which I made in collaboration with the visual artist Jompet Kuswidananto. Through an installation of hundreds of lights, the work looks intensively at interior darkness and trauma, processed by voice performances by Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Gaëtan Rusquet, and Jule Flierl. So crying was not that inappropriate. Later we all took a yoga class and I continued crying. After this I made a drastic cut in the piece. It brought the whole thing together.
You are known for very intense rehearsal processes. You even formulated that making a piece is like living through a fiction together. To be in such intense contact with a group of people for several months must be very difficult. How do you deal with everything that comes up? What strategies help you bring the process to a controlled explosion?
I try not to obsess on the outcome too much and to take each rehearsal day as an aim in itself. The vocabulary we use in order to speak to each other and giving everyone space to get lost for a while are also quite important. What is particular about family-like proximity is that everybody has their own rhythm. You have to compose out of this polyrhythmic situation. The process also seems to have an identity or aura of its own, so people come with the idea that they are entering an intensive work; they bring it with them. And one more thing: I always work with the situation as such but also with a utopia. So there are always the questions of “What is there?” as well as “What could be?”
I like one of the fundamental statements in Are we here yet? (2010), a book that reflects on your practice. You wrote: “In any given situation, what is going on in your head and what is going on in your body never exactly coincides.” This, you reason, confronts us with the impossibility of being totally present. But is it a wish to be fully present?
Being really present is now more problematic than when this book was made. I am not that fascinated with the distractions, blockages, and irritations of not arriving. I’m really interested in being present. But it demands an extreme trust that you don’t have to watch over your shoulder, that you are safe where you are. It demands being with your body, being with what is already there. Maybe it is more about being-with than about being-there.
This makes me think about the asymmetrical two stories house from your 2003 piece Visitors Only. Stage designer Anna Viebrock constructed it based on inspirations from Gordon Matta-Clark. Were the two-stories stores connected to altered states in between external realities and internal feelings?
The house was very playful with a lot of fantasy inferring with the movement. The architecture made it very clear that you went from one state into another. The asymmetric spaces and incomplete and destroyed rooms supported these shifts. The house also had some aspects of Alice in Wonderland with tiny doors and slanting walls. But anyway, it was not a psycho-analytical house with the subconscious under the floor and so forth. There was more about the relationship between the house and the body – the body not only as a means of expression, but also as a meeting point of atmospheres and energies, where things are copied, traced, remembered etc., where not only I speak but also others can speak through me.
Another influence and also collaborator was the video artist Gary Hill, with whom you worked for Splayed Mind Out (1997). This is said to be your first piece without concrete movement material. Does this mean that being moved replaces movement-instructions?
Not totally. I teach: Do a movement, let yourself be moved, and then imagine surrendering to your movement. Now be the agent of your movement, own it, and direct it. The way you shift your perception or consciousness between these two is what creates the dance, the way you allow things to happen and the way you shape them. The dance is in the shift, but what makes you move? I think it can be about feelings, yet “feeling” seems to be a very flat word, and it doesn’t say how we move. This is a question of how the person relates to the movement. I always used to say, “I’m interested when movement loses its meaning.”
As Gary Hill writes, “And for everything, which is visible, there is a copy, of that which is hidden.” You don’t create meaning or states that can be named, but you nevertheless try to reach something meaningful. How do you know or feel when it is there?
If a movement loses its known meaning, then it creates space for something else to appear. It is the action of taking something out of its pattern that holds the meaning. But it’s not that I can say all I do is empty the gesture of its meaning. Sometimes it’s a matter of attention and choices, or you set something up and you want to knock it down again. Being meaningful is not a state to be reached; it is like a train. There was also a big shift in my work in recent years. I became less focussed on states and rather started to speak about energy. Does something have energy in itself or not? How can you trace energetic streams or vibrations, and how do you put that into form? The body is not a piano, you know?
In the last couple of years, some big names from the field of choreography moved into the museum with their work, and you also explored different spaces. For example, with the surveillance and heterotopia Highway 101 project from 2000, you went to visual art spaces, like a gallery in Rotterdam and the Centre Pompidou. However, you did not really keep going in this direction. Is, for you, stage still the place?
There were other things. [The choreographer and director of Musée de la Dance] Boris Charmatz invited me to perform solo works in MoMA and I also created Blanket Lady as part of the live exhibition Moments at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. But hard floors and little facilities for lighting are not really the ideal conditions for theatre work and often dancers are asked to perform under these conditions. Yet I am interested in observing how the museum context changes the choreography. So I went to see Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Vortex Temorum two months ago at Volksbühne on the stage – I loved it completely – and then I went two days later and saw the same material as a performance installation.
Under Castorf you have been an associated artist of Volksbühne from 2005 to 2010. What did you feel about what was going wrong with choosing Chris Dercon for director and kicking him out again? Did all these aggressions bother you?
Of course everything after Castorf would have been very difficult. I have to say I did not go fully into what Volksbühne represents for whom and why they reacted the way they did. I’m also here, but I am not a German and this topic was obviously growing much bigger than the facts. Simply spoken I supported the artists that Dercon had invited. And if somebody asked me I’ve always said that dance has a hard enough time being as underrepresented in the theatres as it is and if somebody wants to program it and put it on a big stage: great. Meanwhile Castorf was not that interested in dance anymore. But I don’t want to take sides. I don’t think there is a need for attacking anything.
Since you like poetry I’m thinking of a verse by one of my favourite poets, Tracy K. Smith. It says: “One day I’ll touch the world with my bare hands, even if it burns.” Is there something you would not yet dare to touch?
This is hard to say. I have not touched opera yet, but do I want to? I don’t know. For sure I would love to make an improvised film in an intimate setting, inspired by John Cassavetes, with many brilliant dance artists in it. Maybe I can also say one thing about daring: What I like is the moment in art when vulnerability is not something uncomfortable but something shared.
For his first interview in the series ‘Talk to Me’, writer Frederik Willem Daem decided to visit the brand-new Decoratelier belonging to scenographer Jozef Wouters, in whose words he recognises himself. There, where everything remains to be done, they wandered together through what exists, what is longed for and what might yet materialise.
On the Brussels-Charleroi canal, by the Ninoofsepoort, there is a small lifting bridge. That she lifts, I notice for the first time, as I stand behind her closed barrier, now that the road has disappeared and, in its place, I’m looking at water. It reminds me of something that the scenographer Jozef Wouters once wrote in the second issue of Oogst magazine. He talked about how each structure expresses a desire, and about a brightly coloured concrete weight that, at one and the same time, wants to be both light and heavy. This lifting bridge possesses the longing to be both present and yet absent.
To be honest, I don’t usually have a reason to be in this part of town. The Brussels canal zone is very industrialised and although I’m compelled to cross it, I rarely stop and linger. Most of the old factory buildings on the Molenbeek and Anderlecht side seem to be occupied by car dealers. Last month, Jozef Wouters turned one of them, an old cylinder head plant in the Liverpoolstraat, into his Decoratelier. It is situated opposite a steel depot, above which the name ‘Jean Wauters’ is emblazoned in large letters. Jozef laughs when I say it was meant to be, as the very same thought must have occasionally crossed his own mind.
“There isn’t actually very much to see”, he warns me before beginning the tour. “But that might make it the best time to talk about my work. The space is in a formative state. I love that point where everything is yet to be determined.”
Taking the time to clean
Admittedly, the interior of the vast property yields very few clues that Jozef has taken up residence. There is a carpentry workshop on the ground floor and, further on, two remnants of the old factory: soothing mint-green walls and an old time-clock.
“You might not notice it, but we’ve been working here non-stop since Christmas. Day after day, I’ve been in here sweeping. It’s no exaggeration to say that the floor was covered with a centimetre of dust. Cleaning is always a good start. You’re forced to take your time and, metre by metre, you get to know the space inside out and back to front. Gradually, the desires that you project onto that space are laid bare.”
It’s as cold inside as it is outside. One or two degrees. The top priority was to create the small heated office (it resembles a container from a building site), where we warm ourselves with a cup of coffee. I look at the walls, each one of which contains the elaborations of a different project. From left to right, I read: Bellinck – Atelier III – Ruhr. Meanwhile, I hear Jozef in the background asking Menno Vandevelde, his long-standing engineer, whether style exists when it comes to workwear and how best to heat the rest of the studio. One subject is clearly more pressing than the other.
“Atelier III will premiere here in late March, a performance that I’m working on with choreographer Meg Stuart and writer Jeroen Peeters. I’ve therefore been given carte blanche to construct the space while the company is rehearsing in the dance studio. The dancers will come over a couple of weeks before the premiere and we’ll make the show together.”
This is largely how he plans to operate in the foreseeable future. For the next five years, Jozef and his Decoratelier will be artist in residence at Damaged Goods, Stuart’s dance company. As an autonomous scenographer, he will collaborate with different artists in various contexts. When he shows me the project he is currently working on, I’m forced to use my imagination. Six black columns suggest walls, and a ground plan is taped out on the concrete floor. In its current state, it resembles something out of a Dogma film by Lars von Trier.
“It’s in the process of becoming a café. Our starting point is the American Bar in Vienna. Designed in the early twentieth century by the architect Adolf Loos, this thirty-square-metre café was a meeting point for the cultural elite of the day. As someone who constructs, I try to understand why we are building it. After all, such a café is totally out of place in this neighbourhood. And that might, in fact, be the very reason. With Meg, I often talk about scenography in terms of the collective imagination. A shared fiction in which spectators and performers can collectively believe. If you think about it, a café is no different. Cafés are shared fictions. Cafés are scenography.”
When Jozef proffers such statements, he does so rather tentatively. He turns his words over in his mind and seems to be constantly searching for elusive truths. “Speaking is not unlike building. As the three little pigs from the fairy tale successively build houses out of straw, wood and stone, I’m looking for words that, step by step, bring stability to thought. I speak in the same way that I design spaces. You put a proposal or maquette in the middle of a group so that it can be discussed. Maquettes are both dream and reality. They are the bridges that make the imagination visible. Good scenography always manages to remain a model. That is… good scenography is both dream and reality, and this café is a prime example: it hovers between plan and reality.”
How it will ultimately look does not just depend upon Jozef, but on all those who contribute: “I cherish the fact that collaboration is essential to my work. These are good times in which to need each other. In addition to the project with Meg, I’m also working with Thomas Bellinck, Freek Vielen and Benny Claessens. I’m endlessly curious about the way in which my hands move under the influence of others. That’s also why I’ve called this place the Decoratelier rather than my studio.”
Jozef Wouters picks up a piece of brick and puts it in his pocket.
“Perhaps the beauty of this empty space lies in its capacity to accommodate the vague desires of all those people who will pass through."
Meg Stuart and Jozef Wouters dream of new art spaces
Scenographer Jozef Wouters has opened a new studio in the heart of Molenbeek, which has room for artists and residents as well as artisans. Choreographer Meg Stuart and her dancers are the first to occupy the space as part of Performatik. The results can be seen in Atelier III.
Liverpoolstraat 24, Molenbeek. It must be one of the only places in the Heyvaert district of Brussels that isn’t a car dealership. In an old factory building sandwiched between the many garages, Jozef Wouters has found a new base for ‘his’ Decoratelier. For the next two years, the visual artist will make sets here for Thomas Bellinck, amongst others, but also wants to provide a place for other artists and local initiatives. The traces are already visible as you enter the vast space. A parachute lies abandoned on the wooden seating, racks of brightly coloured costumes are strewn around, the sound of singing filters down from above while technicians saw wood amidst clouds of dust. This slightly eccentric chaos belongs to choreographer Meg Stuart who, together with her dancers, has been using the building for the past two weeks. This evening, in collaboration with Wouters and dramaturge Jeroen Peeters, she presents Atelier III: a preliminary study of their new show Projecting [Space[ for the Ruhrtriennale.
‘In Atelier III we don’t feel the need or the pressure to show a finished performance. We want to share the material and the questions that arose during the creative process in a laid-back manner,’ says Stuart. ‘That creates a whole other range of possibilities. Both Jozef and I are interested in how one can choreograph the gaze of the audience. Atelier III is a fluid meeting space in which various practices are intertwined and the classic conventions of the theatre, where events happen one at a time and people only look at things in isolation, are challenged.’ Stuart previously explored this transdisciplinary approach in the magical Sketches/Notebook.
‘This space will shape the artists who work here and vice versa,’ Wouters continues. ‘Things that are taken for granted in the theatre are questioned anew here: do we need a special floor and theatre curtains? How do we guide people through the space? How can we make an old building such as this more energy efficient? Many contemporary artists are searching for temporary workplaces. Meg and I did not so much want to turn away from the theatre, but we were looking for a specific type of location: a place where we could work for several months and where the scenography and dance could develop in tandem. In the theatre, such a rehearsal schedule is impossible. Structures in stone are necessary, but we also need those in wood and straw.’
‘We are kitting out the Decoratelier so that it can be moved to another location in a couple of years. There’s a great beauty in having to constantly adapt to a building, a neighbourhood and the entire surrounding economy. Awareness of the context in which you work does not, in this case, depend on how many residents will attend the premiere. You can participate in the social eco-system in various ways: last week, the local children came to play here with the dancers. And we add a different energy to a place that primarily functions as a commercial transit zone. People can freely experiment in these pop-up studios and I’m working on the assumption that more and more of them will emerge. The major institutions will have to follow suit.’
Wouters’s generation, who are used to small budgets and project work, are not the only ones interested in this kind of flexibility. ‘Continuity is important, but I don’t want to become an institute,’ says Stuart. ‘I would never want to walk into a studio where my dancers already know what I expect from them. I feel good in the theatre, but I have a growing interest in working outside the known infrastructures and in questioning my routines.’ It is precisely one of the reasons why Stuart invited Wouters to become an independent artist in residence at her company Damaged Goods. The classic company-thinking, built around one artist, seems to have waned. ‘It is no coincidence that Meg’s company does not have its own building,’ says Wouters. ‘It’s a dynamic web of relationships. I’m not invited to simply create a stage design for a show: we are building a collective vision. I become a better scenographer by spending time in the studio with Meg. She teaches me that a proposal may fail, as might the improvisations of the dancers.’
Quel est l’idée directrice de Shown and Told?
Tim Etchells: Le point de départ c’est la relation entre le langage et les images, le texte et le mouvement. Mais pas de façon binaire. Ce qui nous intéresse c’est comment le discours et le corps, les image et le texte se traversent, fusionnent, échangent. Parler n’est pas uniquement de l’ordre du texte, c’est aussi un mouvement ; parler nécessite un corps, du souffle, un muscle, un geste — c’est un acte physique. De la même manière, le mouvement peut être une façon d’écrire ou de parler.
Dans la première scène, Meg Stuart se déplace et on pourrait penser que je tente de décrire ce qu’elle fait. Mais plus on avance dans la scène, plus cela semble incertain. Parfois on dirait qu’elle essaye de danser ce que je dis, mais pas toujours. À d’autres moments c’est comme si nous étions chacun, dans le même espace temps, mais occupés à des programmes très différents, l’un parlant, l’autre dansant.
Meg Stuart: C’est une rencontre intime entre deux langages et sur la façon dont chacun perçoit le monde de l’autre, comment nous y pénétrons et ce que nous mettons en œuvre pour le comprendre. C’est un échange. C’est aussi l’occasion pour le public de voir de près d’où vient la danse, non pas d’un point de vue conceptuel mais en terme d’énergie. Qu’est-ce qui nous passe par la tête lorsque nous dansons? Quelles images, quelles associations, quelles sensations nous viennent ? Idem pour la façon dont Tim Etchells écrit. C’est vraiment sur la dimension poétique, sur l’imaginaire, c’est aussi sur la façon dont nous partageons l’espace. Et il y a des moments très drôles, un peu comme une charade où chacun essaye de deviner ce que fait l’autre…
C’est un de ces projets très spéciaux que je n’aurai pas pu faire dans une configuration de compagnie, c’est plus direct, plus intime. C’est moi sans traduction. C’est vraiment mon langage, mon monde, ma façon d’exprimer les contradictions, les questions, les doutes dans mon corps. Quand je danse, je travaille avec le poids, les déséquilibres, la géométrie, mais aussi en m’imaginant dans différentes situations, en réagissant à différentes fréquences, différentes énergies et à ce qui se passe autour de nous dans le monde. Tim s’en empare. Ça révèle autant de choses sur lui que sur moi, comme si, à travers les mots ou les mouvements d’autrui, on s’approchait plus profondément de soi …
A propos de la matière que vous utilisez quelles sont vos sources ? Vos inspirations?
T.E.: Ce projet fait écho à deux autres sur lesquels j’ai travaillé récemment — le solo A Broadcast/Looping Pieces et la collaboration en cours intitulée Seeping through, avec la violoniste Aisha Orazbayeva — en lien avec le langage et l’improvisation. Plus largement, depuis une vingtaine d’années, j’ai entrepris une collection de matériaux textuels qui comprend aussi bien des phrases griffonnées sur des coupures de presse, des bouts de conversations attrapées au vol, des éléments qui viennent de films, de livres, d’internet… C’est un matériau brut que je peux activer de toutes sortes de façons. La source d’inspiration a aussi été le travail en studio avec Meg.
M.S.: Il n’y a ni références, ni citations d’aucune sorte. C’est une succession de fragments qui se complètent les uns les autres, avec des coupes franches entre chaque expérience. Parfois, c’est juste comme quand on fait les cents pas chez soi pour occuper le temps sans savoir ce qui vient ensuite… passer d’un état à un autre, se sentir bien ou mal dans son corps, être dans ses sensations. C’est très simple, j’essaye de plonger dans mon propre langage. Je n’essaye pas de créer des images, c’est du mouvement au sens littéral du terme.
Echangez-vous vos moyens d’expression? Est-ce une joute? Une rencontre?
T.E.: Une rencontre. Nous arrivons ensemble sur scène avec toutes les informations, le potentiel et les idées que nous avons accumulé chacun de notre côté durant toutes ces années de pratique. La mise en scène et la scénographie sont très simples, les déplacements et les règles implicites apparaissent clairement. Il y a une certaine transparence du travail, vous pouvez voir de façon assez claire comment chacun œuvre à la rencontre de l’autre. Une grande part de la pièce traite de l’écoute et du regard.
M.S.: Il y a des moments où Tim danse — oui, il danse vraiment — et moi je parle. Nous avons un réel échange, avec beaucoup de plaisir, chacun avec son propre langage entre dans le monde de l’autre. C’est une vraie rencontre, c’est tellement simple et c’est tellement bien.
Qu’est-ce qui différencie cette pièce de vos précédentes collaborations?
T.E.: Cette fois, nous sommes tous les deux sur le plateau, interagissant comme artistes et performeurs. J’ai contribué en tant qu’auteur à des pièces de Meg, à la fin des années 1990 et au début des années 2000, et nous avons aussi conçu ensemble une soirée de solos, mais les prestations étaient clairement séparées. Là, nous nous sommes rapprochés.
M.S.: Nous travaillons ensemble de l’intérieur. Il n’y en a pas un à l’extérieur qui dirige, nous sommes ensemble dedans, en dialogue l’un avec l’autre de manière très ouverte, c’est similaire au fait de préparer à manger ensemble ou de partager une promenade, ça se situe à un niveau essentiel. Nous sommes des artistes mûrs, chacun déjà avec un certain parcours, nous avançons en toute confiance vers des zones inexplorées. Ça parle aussi des limites, de ce que ça aurait pu être, des manques, des regrets et de comment on fait avec, de ce qu’on n’a pas pu faire, de nos rêves non réalisés. C’est aussi en relation avec l’âge, c’est lié à un moment de la vie. Ce spectacle n’est pas seulement ce que l’on peut voir mais aussi ce que ça aurait pu être.
Quels sont vos points communs?
T.E.: Meg possède une écoute profonde de ce qu’elle est et de ce qui la constitue. Cela se voit quand elle bouge et quand elle élabore une pièce. C’est un engagement à comprendre le monde de manière complexe et individuelle. J’ai collaboré à deux de ses pièces et j’ai vraiment aimé la façon dont elle mène ses recherches. La salle de répétition était remplie d’apports de toutes sortes émanant de personnes extérieures. À la longue, j’ai réalisé qu’elle piochait avec beaucoup d’attention dans toute cette diversité de matériaux pour composer à partir de tout cela. C’est toujours très instructif de voir quelqu’un d’autre travailler. Particulièrement la façon dont Meg organise le chaos.
Notre principal point commun est la façon dont nous voyons l’être humain comme étant à la convergence de voix, de présences et d’impulsions multiples. Cela s’entend physiquement mais aussi linguistiquement. Ce qui m’a toujours relié au travail de Meg c’est la question des changements de formes, l’instabilité du sujet humain, sa présence. À tout moment, de nombreuses forces, narrations et possibilités très diverses nous traversent. À notre manière, nous travaillons l’un et l’autre sur ces questions.
M.S.: L’intérêt pour le fragment, le goût de la forme et l’envie de construire des événements. Nous avons certainement un rythme différent mais nous avons la même compréhension de ces choses-là. Nous avions tous les deux envie d’œuvrer à une vraie rencontre. Nous partageons aussi une façon d’expérimenter en art, à des endroits très divers.
Que retirez vous du fait de partager la scène avec un autre artiste?
T.E.: Avec Forced Entertainment, je me sens comme chez moi. Mener d’autres collaborations me fait sortir de ce terrain familier et c’est très appréciable. Avec Meg, je suis capable d’articuler à peu près 30 à 40 % de ce que nous faisons mais pour le reste je n’ai pas de mots. Nous sommes en quelques sorte déplacés, avançant sans savoir ce que nous faisons dans un projet qui se situe au-delà de ma capacité à le décrire. Et ça me plaît!
M.S.: J’ai toujours aimé créer un dialogue avec une autre personne, ne pas rester seule dans mon univers. Là il y a eu une vraie relation de confiance, aucun rapport de pouvoir, une acceptation de nos différences. L’autre c’est aussi quelqu’un qui a des qualités, une sensibilité et un potentiel que tu n’as pas forcément, quelqu’un qui sait faire des choses que tu ne pourrais pas faire seul, c’est quelqu’un dont tu as besoin.
Quelle expérience avez-vous de l’improvisation? Quelle différence avec la façon dont vous l’utilisez ensemble?
T.E.: Au début, avec la compagnie, tout était fixé. Puis, nous en sommes venus à improviser davantage pour trouver une énergie plus ludique, quelque chose de moins prévisible avec une dynamique différente. En répétition, pas en public. À un moment a émergé l’envie de générer des structures pouvant permettre l’improvisation sur scène. Là encore, la première partie avec Meg est intéressante: elle danse d’après un canevas imaginé pour la pièce et ce que je dis a aussi été préparé en amont mais nous créons en temps réel, elle improvise et j’improvise. Nous nous déplaçons autour d’éléments prévus à l’avance mais en cherchant dans de nouvelles directions, en nous trouvant l’un l’autre, en nous perdant.
M.S.: Il ne s’agit pas vraiment d’impro ici, nous avons des repères, une structure mais à l’intérieur de ça il y a des moments où on créé vraiment en live. On ne sait pas forcément dans quel ordre viendra tel texte ou tel mouvement mais on a plus ou moins toutes les cartes en main. Ce n’est pas comme lorsque tu effectues des mouvements en direct sans projet préalable, c’est très différent. Cela requiert néanmoins d’être absolument présent à ce qui est en train de se dérouler, d’être complètement dans l’écoute, vraiment connecté.
Comment parvenez-vous à maintenir cet esprit d’impro durant la performance?
T. E.: Avec ces façons très différentes que nous avons de nous surprendre en scène. Le pari c’est de réussir quelque chose qui ait l’air d’émerger en temps réel à chaque fois.
M.S.: Chaque soir a une couleur différente, la façon dont Tim dit le texte ou dont je danse varie d’une fois à l’autre. La qualité de présence, l’énergie, tout cela est très mouvant; pour le public, cela peut sembler proche de l’improvisation, c’est néanmoins très construit.
Le langage est-il une action à l’égal du mouvement?
T.E.: Le langage peut s’avérer un moyen de contrôle, une façon de fixer les choses très forte, par rapport à l’image ou à l’action où c’est souvent plus ambigü, moins défini. J’ai toujours été tiraillé dans mon travail entre le fait d’être dans une relation d’amour avec le langage mais aussi de ne pas le laisser prendre totalement le contrôle de la forme.
Je crois que c’est très important de permettre au langage d’exister en tant que texture, musicalité ou énergie plutôt que sur le plan sémantique. Une grande part de mon travail d’impro ces dernières années réside dans cet espace entre le langage en tant que puissance conceptuelle et le langage comme puissance musicale et poétique. Cette œuvre improvisée en collaboration avec Meg constitue pour moi un nouveau chemin autour de ces questions.
M.S. : J’aime le langage au sens poétique. Il me vient beaucoup d’images quand je danse, — des gens que j’ai croisés, des choses vues durant mes voyages… —, la connection avec le langage est particulièrement opérante dans le cas de ma danse car je passe sans arrêt d’une forme à une autre, parfois je me déplace dans un paysage, parfois je suis le paysage. Ma place n’est jamais fixe. J’aime la poésie, agencer les mots ensemble procure un vrai plaisir, lire de la poésie m’inspire dans ma danse.
Ten years after the premiere of BLESSED – a solo created especially for its Portuguese dancer Francisco Camacho – Meg Stuart is bringing the show back to Porto and Lisbon. The piece has aged well, she says; the world not so much.
When Meg Stuart first saw the rain fall on the pocket-sized model that scenographer Doris Dziersk showed her, which immediately became the most auspicious beginnings of a new piece, it did not carry the cataclysmic violence of the environmental apocalypse that it is now impossible to miss in BLESSED. But even that rain falling in droplets from a small sprinkler was enough to destroy an entire world in minutes, Doris assured her. Doris had the idea of working with cardboard and water after spending time in Latin America, with its eternally precarious, eternally temporary cities, which we all believe to be unreal until we actually go there.
Meg Stuart believed in her. At first, the apocalyptic devastation that Hurricane Katrina caused in New Orleans, where the American choreographer and dancer was born and raised, and which she thought should have been the most solid and indestructible city of all, had also seemed like a hallucination. It was 2006 (BLESSED had its debut in Ghent in March the following year) and it was impossible not to associate the proposed installation on the table in front of her with the shock of that disaster, seen in real life, during those unimaginable days in late August 2005.
‘At that time, I kept thinking about how absurd it was that all the assistance in the days after Katrina failed – the whole structure failed – and about the extreme experience of losing everything from one moment to the next. You have your wonderful world, or at least your world, and then suddenly that falls apart... How do you react? How do you live with that? How do you keep your faith? What do you believe in? I couldn’t get those questions out of my head,’ she tells PÚBLICO from Berlin, days before bringing the solo performance back to Portugal.
But at the same time, she goes on, other things were coming into her head: ‘The favelas in Brazil; the homeless people on the streets in our cities; the disaster tourism that leads people to want to visit the most devastated places in Haiti; or… Most of all, I was intrigued by people’s resistance. I wanted to understand how we keep going in spite of everything; what it is that keeps us going.’
During those days, there was something else she couldn’t get out of her head: the body of Francisco Camacho – one of the most exceptional she had encountered in the late 80s, just before she became a choreographer. In fact, she has seen few like it to this day. She couldn’t imagine the rain, which she wanted to cascade down on stage, falling on anyone in the world as well as it would fall on him; there was no one capable of inhabiting, with such mystery and authenticity – holding on as though there were no tomorrow – the little cardboard paradise (a hut, a swan and a palm tree) that we see collapsing before our eyes like something out of a disaster movie, over the course of 70 minutes.
‘That was a long time ago… But I still remember being in New York in those early years, to dance and teach, and someone – I don’t know who – telling me that there was a very special, strong dancer that I had to meet. He did a few things with me in the studio and then, when I went to Leuven to do my first piece, Disfigure Study (1991), I wanted him to be one of the performers. The way he moved was exceptionally intelligent, very precise and very well crafted; he moved with incredible presence, and he still does,’ the choreographer tells PÚBLICO. Since then, they have been in constant contact (Camacho was her assistant on UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP, which premiered in 2015), but it wasn’t until 2006 that Meg Stuart finally got her hands on the perfect setting for a solo by Francisco Camacho. BLESSED was the piece that she created especially for him and it is, perhaps, even more enjoyable seeing him perform it now than it was ten years ago.
To recap: a man, a hut, a swan, a palm tree and the unrelenting rain that still falls on them ten years on. A hurricane named Katrina and a president called Donald Trump (who would have this to say on Twitter about the Paris Agreement: ‘Covfefe’). ‘The world is worse than ever; we are not doing well at all. In 2007, the phenomenon of global warming was still just beginning. Suddenly, it seems that everything has got alarmingly more precarious,’ says Meg Stuart. But she didn’t want to put the weight of that on BLESSED, which actually has a heartening and overtly religious title (if we see a god moving out there, it is not a hallucination). It seems to say: fear not, water is a saviour; it washes away the sins of the world.
Before salvation, however, an entire little universe will undergo harsh punishment: the hut, the swan, the palm tree and the only inhabitant of this lost paradise. ‘I wanted to see how Francisco would handle the heavy adversity of that rain over time. The piece was being written as we were looking at how he danced before and after the water, and how much time it would all last – his resistance, and the resistance of the materials,’ Meg Stuart tells us. Francisco Camacho’s body endured – we all endure. ‘As a performer, Francisco doesn’t allow much of himself to be seen. On stage, he has a very strong presence, but one that does not seem to be associated with an ego. That is why it is easy for us to project ourselves onto him but difficult to grasp him completely. He doesn’t throw his distinctiveness out to the public. Quite the opposite: he lets the public step into that world; into that fantasy.’
He was the ideal soloist for a choreographer with a preference for ‘multifocal’ group pieces in which a lot happens to a lot of people at the same time, or, indeed, for her own solo performances. ‘With Francisco you can work with small, subtle, precise movements; he essentially lets the movement move through him.’ None of that has been lost ten years on. ‘It’s all still there and it’s still just as strong… I think seeing him do this piece now that he is ten years older makes it more real and emotive; more poignant. For me, it’s lovely to watch a mature performer in action and witness a life experience play out on stage. Politically, I think it is important for dance not to be a place just for twenty-somethings. It is important for me to be able to continue dancing too.’
At the age of 52, something keeps her going.
Choreografin Meg Stuart, Bühnenbildner Jozef Wouters und Dramaturg Jeroen Peeters proben „Projecting [Space[“ in der Zentralwerkstatt der Zeche Lohberg in Dinslaken
„Heavy lifting! Ja. Heavy lifting, moaaaah.“ Ein kurzes Stöhnen grollt aus Meg Stuarts Kehle. Es ist der Sound des Mitfühlens, denn so klingt, was die Tänzer in diesem Augenblick tun: Sie drücken sich wieder und wieder vom Boden weg, springen, aber mit Körpern, die aussehen wie tropfnass-vollgesogene Säcke. Sinnloser Versuch, mit einer Bewegung die Materialität des Körpers zu überwinden. Kalkuliertes Scheitern. Kampf. Gegenläufig-konfliktreiche Energien. Klar: Wir sind auf einer Probe von Meg Stuart – und gleich ein bisschen im ewigen Inferno. Das liegt heute allerdings nicht so sehr an der Choreografin, die mit leuchtend blondem Kurzhaar eher so etwas wie ein Sonnenpunkt im Dunkel ist, als am Setting: Eine dämmrige Halle der Zeche Lohberg in Dinslaken. Bauprobe für das neue Stück „Projecting [Space[“, eine Auftragsarbeit für die Ruhrtriennale. Es herrscht ein Höllenlärm. Hammerschläge und pfeifende Soundchecks. Hubsteiger kurven mit lautem Summen herum. Irgendwann schallt „All you need is love“ von den Beatles durch die Halle – Motivationsmusik für die Techniker. Wo man sich bei anderen Choreografen während einer Probe kaum die Nase putzen darf – Geräuschbelästigung! -, ficht Meg Stuart der Krach um sie herum nicht an. Sie blickt konzentriert auf ihre Tänzer, die gerade im unisono auf den Zehenspitzen auf- und abwippen, kantig die Arme schwingen und starren Blicks langsam auf uns zukommen. „Like you are dancing an old ritual“, ruft Stuart ihnen von vielleicht zehn Metern Entfernung zu und wedelt mit den Händen einen Tänzer in die richtige Position.
„Training“, antwortet sie später knapp auf die Frage, wie man in so einer Kulisse choreografieren kann. Auch ihre letzte Arbeit fand in einem alten Fabrikgebäude statt, im Brüsseler Stadtteil Molenbeek, seit den Terroranschlägen 2016 in Paris und Brüssel berüchtigt als Brutstätte des Islamismus. Hier eröffnete Jozef Wouters - Bühnenbildner, Künstler, jüngster Neuzugang von Stuarts Kompanie „Damaged Goods“ - 2017 sein „Decoratelier“ und inszenierte mit Stuart und Dramaturg Jeroen Peeters quasi zum Einstand das Kooperations-Projekt „Atelier III“. Eine zweistündige Bespielung der Werkstatt inklusive Tanz mit Druckluftpistole und Gabelstapler. Geleitet von den Bewegungen der Performer zog das Publikum durch Stationen der Werkstatt und besetzte mit gemeinsamen Kunstaktionen den Raum. Schon in dieser Produktion ging es um die Frage, wie sich in Zeiten globaler Migrationsbewegungen und digitaler Ortlosigkeit reale Begegnungs- und Lebensräume neu imaginieren lassen. Das aktuelle Stück „Projecting [Space[“ baut darauf auf. „Jeder Raum, der kreiert wird, beginnt als Projektion, sei es als bloße Fantasie, sei es als maßstabsgetreues Modell“, sagt Jozef Wouters über den Titel. Und Meg Stuart - immer ein bisschen geheimnisvoll, immer mehr fragend als sagend - ergänzt: „Die Identität von jemandem, der sich durch Zeit und Raum bewegt, von Tänzern ist nicht stabil, sondern fluide, 'morphing'. Eine werdende Form, eine sich auflösende Form in einer Landschaft, vielleicht eine Störung? Hier, bei den Proben in der alten Zeche, sind wir außerdem in Dialog mit den sichtbaren und unsichtbaren Energien des Gebäudes, seiner Geschichte, auch den Wünschen, die die Menschen auf das Gebäude projizieren. Diese verborgenen Frequenzen und Vibrationen legen die Tänzer mit ihren Körpern und Bewegungen offen.“
Klingt ein bisschen esoterisch, ist es vielleicht auch, aber egal: Selbst als Spiritualitätsskeptikerin liebt man Meg Stuart gerade dafür, dass man bei ihr nie so genau weiß, wo der ernstgemeinte Schamanismus aufhört und die ironische Scharlatanerie beginnt. Großartig, wie sie etwa in ihrem Solo „Hunter“ die eigene Vergangenheit behexte oder in ihren letzten Ensemble-Produktion „Until Our Hearts Stop“ und „Sketches/Notebook“ der urmenschlichen Sehnsucht nach der Illusion huldigte. Fantasie, Spiel, Zauberei, Theater, auch Aberglaube und Glaube – all das ist eben immer auch Daseinstrost und Überlebenshilfe. Aber wehe dem, der glaubt, Meg Stuart erliege der alten Hoffnung „Heilung durch Tanz“. „Das weckt diese Vorstellung, dass Dinge kaputt gehen, dann auf magische Weise geheilt werden und das war's.“, sagt sie kühl, während sie auf ihrem Stuhl in die größtmögliche Entfernung rutscht und jetzt so schief und abgewandt dasitzt als wolle sie gleich davonlaufen. „Sie werden wieder zerbrechen, vielleicht an anderer Stelle, vielleicht auf andere Weise. Es ist ein fortwährender Prozess und erfordert eine Art künstlerische Praxis, bei der man nie dieselben Methoden anwenden kann.“
Nicht Therapie, sondern Transformation lautet seit jeher die Stuart-Devise. Mit ihrer rabiat-erschütternden, radikal-enthemmten Körper-Ästhetik pumpt sie seit 1995 Situationen, Menschen, Dinge, Phänomene mit neuer Energie auf, die sie verändern soll und im besten Fall auf ein höheres, schöneres, besseres Niveau bringt. Getanzte Rites de Passage. Und auch wenn heute, mit über 50 Jahren, der Blick aufs geplagte Menschenseelchen zärtlicher zu sein scheint, auch wenn nicht mehr zerdehnte, verzerrte Fleischlichkeit ihre Bühne beherrscht – Stuarts unglaubliche Sensibilität für psychosomatische Zusammenhänge, für die im Körper stofflich werdende Alchemie der Gefühle ist unverändert.
Aktuell aber: Raumträume, Raumfiktionen, Raumvisionen - „Projecting [Space[“ in der Zentralwerkstatt der stillgelegten Kohlezeche Lohberg. Eine 2.000 Quadratmeter große Halle wie ein langgestreckter Höhlengang. Steht man im hellen Eingangsbereich, liegt das Ende völlig im rätselhaften Dunkel. Hier schlägt Bühnenbildner Jozef Wouters an diesem Bauprobentag mit meterlangen Metallgerüsten in abgewetztem Grün Schneisen in den Raum. Er baut ein Regalsystem aus sehr hellen, weichen Holzbrettern. „Holz ist der Werkstoff, den wir am liebsten berühren. Der Körper mag es, auf Holz zu stehen, zu sitzen. Trotz seiner Härte schmerzt es nicht und es ist wärmer. Wenn ich also diesen Raum mit anderen Räumen durchschneide, ist Holz das erste Material, das mir in den Sinn kommt.“ Wouters verlängert das Regalsystem auch nach draußen in die einsame Mondlandschaft aus Kies und dürrem Gras und grübelt über eine Art theaterhaft fünf-aktige Unterteilung der schlundartigen Halle. Früher wurden in der Zentralwerkstatt die kaputten Kohlewagen und Bohrstangen für die Zechenarbeit repariert. Heute kauern hier die Tänzer der „Damaged Goods“ auf dem staubigen Boden wie reparaturbedürftiges Körper- und Seelenmaterial. „In den ersten Stunden dieser Probe“, erzählt Meg Stuart, „hatte ich das Bedürfnis, mit der Fragilität und Verletzlichkeit, dem wirklich Menschlichen zu arbeiten und eine Art Mikro-Landschaft zu kreieren.“
Ganz dicht drängen sich die Tänzer aneinander. Eine Frau bebt wie von einem Schluchzen gepackt. Die anderen beugen sich über sie als wollten sie sie besänftigen – oder erdrücken? Dann beginnen sich die Körper ineinander zu schlingen zum ununterscheidbaren Leiberklumpen. Ein Winden, Schlängeln, Ringeln – wie Gewürm unter einem Stein, das Schutz vor dem plötzlichen Licht sucht. „Wir stehen hier auf einem Boden, unter dem die Kohleminen bis in 1,2 Kilometer Tiefe reichen“, sagt Dramaturg Jeroen Peeters. „Das provoziert natürlich Vorstellungen von ganzen Welten unter unseren Füssen.“ Vor allem aber inspiriert Peeters der große Umbruch des Ruhrgebiets, das Transitorische. Welche Ruinen werden künftige Generationen wohl vorfinden von den auf den alten Zechen gerade entstehenden Kultur- und Eventtempeln, Start-up-Firmen und künstlichen Landschaften? „Ich finde es faszinierend, dass im Ruhrgebiet erstmals in Europa die Idee einer industriellen Archäologie umgesetzt wird: Also die jüngere Industriegeschichte als wertvolles kulturelles Erbe betrachtet wird. Für mich ist das wie ein riesiger Probenraum. Große Hallen, wo man auch über die Bestimmung zukünftiger Ruinen in 20, 50 oder 100 Jahren nachdenken kann.“
Wo Peeters, der Dramaturg, seine Sci-Fi-Visionen fantasieren darf, muss sich der Bühnenbildner derzeit mit ganz handfesten Problemen herumschlagen: Sicherheitsvorschriften. Einen Tag zuvor war Jozef Wouters bei der Stadtverwaltung, musste Fragen beantworten, Feuerschutzkonzepte, Notfallpläne vorlegen. „Ein sehr sensibler Punkt hier“, sagt Wouters. Denn nicht weit von der Zeche entfernt ereignete 2010 ein entsetzliches Unglück: die Massenpanik der Duisburger Love-Parade mit 21 Toten. „Ich weiß nicht, ob das in der Performance thematisiert wird, aber es gibt ein Trauma in dieser Region, dessen bin ich mir sehr bewusst.“
Zwischen Wouters Traumatherapie und Peeters Zukunftsvision – was will Meg Stuart? „Let's do the solos.“ Sie setzt sich auf eine halbrunde Holzstellage, die ein bisschen an ein griechisches Theatron erinnert und erwartet nun von jedem Tänzer eine Improvisation über seine persönlichen Gefühle und Eindrücke in der Halle. Eine Frau pflückt eine Glasscherbe vom Boden und blickt in ihre Spiegelung wie in eine Zauberkugel. Ein Mann presst sein Ohr auf den Boden als belausche er unterirdisches Leben. Dann reiht der eher kompakt-kleine Tänzer sportliche Hochsprünge und Siegerposen aneinander – Selbstvergrößerungen wie eine Kampfansage an die gewaltigen Dimensionen des Raumes. Wieder eine andere Tänzerin greift sich ein Mikrofon, rennt in den Hallenschlund hinein, während sie immerzu ruft „standing forbidden, space forbidden.“ Bald ist sie kaum noch sichtbar, aber ihre Stimme echot durch den Raum. „Wir bauen vorläufige Schutzräume mit Körpern,“ sagt Meg Stuart später über ihren choreografischen Ansatz. „Wir suchen nach Momenten der Verbundenheit, aber nicht in bloßer Harmonie. Die Dinge kippen aus der Balance, und die Tänzer sind wie eine Gemeinschaft, die versucht, instabile, unsichere Strukturen von Hilfe und Unterstützung aufzubauen.“ Also eine utopische Energie? „Das hoffe ich doch!“ Sie lacht laut auf, „We are dreamers, you know? We are!“ Dann wieder ganz vorsichtig, tastend: „Ich würde das nicht 'Utopie' nennen, sondern vielleicht 'Vorschläge'? Für mich gilt: Kein Problem ohne eine kleine Spekulation über eine Lösung. Nicht nur einen Zustand abbilden, sondern auch eine Möglichkeit zeigen, ein „Es-könnte-sein“. Das ist unsere Verantwortung als Künstler.“
The young scenographer Jozef Wouters has been selected not once, but three times for the Theaterfestival, at which key pieces from the past season are performed at multiple locations around Brussels. “I create better work when I keep my ego under control”, he asserts.
The description ‘scenographer’ is somewhat narrow for the man whose pieces INFINI 1-15, alleen and Niets were all selected for ‘het TheaterFestival’. Jozef Wouters (b. 1986) does more than simply create sets. He responds to site-specific questions. For example, Wouters felt that the small patch of grass within deSingel was crying out for a football stadium (Stadium/Stadion, 2011) and that Brussels’ Museum of Natural Sciences was simply begging for an extra wing devoted to ecology (Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species, 2013).
Wouters: “I love the idea that the space has a will of its own. Not so very long ago, I found myself in Tunis, in a palace where three elderly craftsmen each had a studio that gave out onto a shared inner courtyard. The fourth studio was unoccupied. (smiles) I hope I don’t sound too esoteric when I say that I felt the space was asking me a question. I’ll be going there in a fortnight to see what craft I can develop alongside that of the carpenter, the potter and the shoemaker.”
In this sense, all of Wouters’ designs forge a dialogue with the space or a negotiation with the users of that space. In 2012, for example, he worked for six months in one of the council flats in Brussels’ Modelwijk. Not everyone was wildly enthusiastic about his plans for an installation on the central square.
This conflict led to a new project, in which residents’ complaints were expressed in an exhibition (All problems can never be solved, 2012). Wouters: “As a scenographer, you have the chance to experiment with the public space, a concept that is heavily under fire today. I therefore try to design spaces in such a way that they are both specific and open, like the Viennese coffee houses: a defined architecture that nevertheless offers freedom, if only because the waiters will let you sit there all day, nursing a single coffee and lost in thought.”
Freedom thanks to transience
The fact that Wouters’ name is less widely known is also partly down to his dialogic way of working. Under the banner ‘Decoratelier’ he gathers a network of associates around him. Wouters: “In both my practice and that of many of my colleagues, the concept of authorship is changing. Makers who build up their body of work individually are becoming increasingly rare. Indeed, my name sometimes doesn’t come through strongly in the creations that I build, but this is not really about modesty. I have simply discovered that I make better work when I keep my ego under control, just like a caving enthusiast needs to get rid of any excess weight.” (laughs)
At the same time, scenography’s transience forces you into humility, which is the antithesis to the ‘eternal value’ of its brother, architecture. For Wouters, ephemerality is an asset – the conversation between the space, its users and the scenographer must be ongoing. Wouters: “During the preparations for INFINI 1-15, I took lessons with Thierry Bosquet, a retired scenographer who spent his entire career at La Monnaie opera house. When I asked him if any of his sets are still in existence, he shrugged. ‘Scenography is all about accepting that things are transient’, he said. Thanks to this transience, scenography has the potential to be more than architecture. During a set’s construction, everything can still change.”
Moreover, Wouters’ Decoratelier (which as well as being a group of people is also a place in Molenbeek under the auspices of Damaged Goods) is situated in a neighbourhood in flux. Wouters: “We work in an old factory that in two years’ time will become part crèche, part park. Here, in between the band saws and welding machines, there’s no difference between working with your head and working with your hands. I need that.”
Lack of engagement from the houses
Wouters also invites colleagues to join him in his Decoratelier, often freelancers with no affiliation to a house. Wouters: “More and more artists are eking out an existence by moving from once residency to another. This is partly through choice, and partly due to a lack of engagement from the houses. The aim of the Decoratelier is to be a place for these makers. At times, the energy that is concentrated here would be enough to start up a small theatre!” (laughs)
Mêlant souvenirs, archives et fiction, Hunter trace l’archéologie d’une vie de danse.
«Tant d’ histoires sont inscrites dans mon corps», remarque Meg Stuart qui, à 51 ans, renoue avec la forme du solo après plus de vingt ans. Lauréate en 2014 des Prix de la Danse de Montréal, elle amorce un retour fort attendu sur la scène de l’ Usine C. Depuis le début des années 1990, la chorégraphe, avec sa compagnie Damaged Goods, se démarque par son travail innovateur et ses scénographies entremêlant les disciplines artistiques. Dans Hunter (2014), la danseuse continue d’instiller dans le coeur de son travail une subtile théâtralité.
En vidéoconférence depuis le Japon, la sérénité de l’artiste chevronnée perce l’écran. Alors qu’elle détaille sa manière d’ aborder le thème de la mémoire sur scène, elle interrompt le fil de sa réflexion pour mieux évoquer le souvenir d’un solo de Robert Lepage l’ayant marquée plus jeune. Impressionnée par le réalisateur et metteur en scène incarnant les multiples facettes de son identité personnelle et artistique sur scène, elle s’est alors posée un défi: «Je l’ ai trouvé brillant! Je me suis dit que s’il pouvait porter et transposer ainsi l’ensemble de son travail dans son corps, alors moi aussi, je devrais essayer ça. »
Prenant part dans les années 1980 à l’effervescente scène new-yorkaise, berceau des méthodes modernes et contemporaines de la danse, la richesse du bagage de l’Américaine, aujourd’hui expatriée en Belgique, est incontestable. Dans Hunter, cette histoire d’une vie consacrée à la danse se fond avec son histoire familiale et ses fantômes du passé. Le tout s’agrémentant d’une part de fiction. Une oeuvre où la question du corps dans l’exercice du temps est sous-jacente.
«J’ai ressenti une urgence d’effectuer ce travail, affirme-t-elle. Je n’ai jamais arrêté de danser. Cette constante recherche du mouvement prend une place centrale dans ma vie. Aujourd’hui, mon ego s’inscrit plus subtilement dans une approche devenue très intime. Avec le temps, en représentation, je deviens de plus en plus la Meg que je suis hors scène. J’aborde la manière dont ce travail physique influence mon développement, ma façon de voir le monde et de me mouvoir à travers celui-ci. »
Mémoire, songe et mensonge
Choisissant d’intervertir sensations physiques et émotives, l’artiste a recours à de multiples outils pour illustrer les mécanismes de la mémoire. «Quand on plonge dans les souvenirs, on ne peut jamais obtenir une image complète, explique l’artiste. On expérimente des flashs d’images, des sensations physiques, on se souvient de certains discours, c’est en fait une pluralité de choses qui nous arrivent simultanément. C’est pourquoi il était très important pour cette pièce de travailler avec la vidéo, l’art visuel, la sculpture sonore. Les sons amènent une profondeur, parfois circulent autour de moi, on joue sur leurs fréquences et leurs effets.»
Meg Stuart aime imaginer son corps comme un récepteur radio, un instrument de mesure où résonnent des voix et des sons, dont celles d’héroïnes telles que Louise Bourgeois, Laurie Anderson ou Patti Smith, qui continuent de l’influencer. Sur scène, elle se plaît à flouter la réalité en juxtaposant des films super 8 de sa famille et des saynètes tournées avec ses danseurs, entrelaçant des expériences passées réelles et fictives.
Ne racontant pas une unique histoire, l’atypique autobiographie se compose de multiples couches qui, progressivement, se défont et illustrent le flot de la conscience, cette mémoire qui glisse constamment, ne cessant d’échapper à notre prise, instable et en perpétuelle transformation.
Porter le poids des ancêtres
«J’ai souvent la sensation de danser des souvenirs de personnes que je ne connais pas, » affirme l’artiste. À travers sa démarche, elle avoue avoir cherché à mesurer à quel point les expériences des générations passées ont pu l’affecter. Pour elle, il s’agit de fouiller et d’extraire des questions à même le corps pour tenter de reconnecter avec son histoire ancestrale, persuadée que chaque partie du corps comporte sa propre mémoire.
«J’ai eu une enfance relative ment heureuse, je n’ai pas vécu d’épreuves de vie qui m’ont complètement chamboulée, mais j’ai le sentiment que je traîne tout de même un poids. Je me suis question née à sa voir d’où venaient ces mouvements de distorsion et de dissociation caractérisant mon esthétique au fil de ma carrière. J’ai alors commencé à chercher à travers l’histoire de ma famille, des générations passées et j’y ai découvert de sombres histoires. Je me de mande si je ne suis pas, d’une certaine manière, en dialogue avec celles-ci», continue-t-elle.
Processus développé sur plusieurs années, la chorégraphe pense que son travail, au départ obscur, a pris un pli léger et ludique au fil du temps. Inspirée par le chamanisme, en résulte l’idée que le temps n’est pas une ligne constante, et qu’on peut guérir et réarranger le passé, réparer des événements même si ceux-ci sont pour tant révolus.
Voyage initiatique ou exercice d’excavation physique, Hunter confère à la danse le pouvoir de se recréer, de se réinventer. Une oeuvre qui cherche avant tout à véhiculer une expérience intime et sensorielle, dans la quelle on pour rare connaître nos propres mécanismes et où la mémoire qui nous construit et, par fois, nous déconstruit s’illustre sous des formes multiples.
Over the course of three evenings, the American choreographer Meg Stuart and the British theatre maker, writer and artist Tim Etchells will be improvising together on stage at Kaaitheater. He will chiefly be expressing himself in words, and she with movements. ‘Shown and Told’ is a leap into uncharted waters, with the audience serving as an invaluable witness.
In any case, Stuart and Etchells are old acquaintances. They have already worked together on Stuart’s performances ‘Alibi’ (2001) and ‘It’s not funny’ (2006) for example, and recently toured together with their own solo performances. However, the idea for the collective improvisation ‘Shown and Told’ only came about when they were in Berlin together taking part in ‘Expo Zero’, an exhibition/performance staged by the French choreographer Boris Charmatz at a series of different locations (including in Brussels).
DM: What induced you to improvise together?
TE: In Berlin we discovered a way of doing this that struck us as promising and exciting. I improvised texts based on Meg’s movements and vice-versa. We do this without one or other of us taking the lead.
MS: The way we work together could almost be described as symbiotic. We don’t adhere strictly to our respective roles. Sometimes, Tim might start dancing while I come up with words to accompany him. However there is a certain degree of development in this: we often move from highly specific and often personal things to actions that are more open and indefinite.
DM: Do you start out with some kind of basic concept, a text or a dance, which you can then build upon?
TE: We are both interested in fragmentation; in pieces of text or movement that have never been given a definitive place. Over the years, I have written many of these stand-alone fragments of text. They have a certain energy, an unrealised potential. By removing them from the context in which they were created and by playing them off against something else, they suddenly gain resonance. This is the kind of material that we are starting out with here.
DM: To what extent is this really ‘improvised’?
MS: Over time, we develop more or less fixed arrangements. We also know roughly which forms we wish to explore, as well as having an idea of the moments at which each of us will ‘peak’. The performance’s duration – around an hour – is also predetermined, so the evening is quite structured. In any case, there’s only so much uncertainty that you can handle.
TE: But this rough structure still allows plenty of room for surprises. We have nowhere near exhausted the possibilities of the material yet. There are elements of it that are still mysterious to us.
MS: We are challenging ourselves. There is no music and no scenery. We are not presenting a single, coherent story. For me, this is unfamiliar ground. I have had enough experience of improvising with dancers to usually be able to discern rapidly which direction things are going in, and what kind of situation is emerging. But that doesn’t always work here.
TE: It’s the same for me. I mostly determine the framework for a performance myself, but the confrontation with Meg brings me into uncharted waters. I have to figure out how I can deploy my skills and knowledge for this. It’s not that we don’t trust each other, but it throws you off balance more often than you’d think. You no longer fully understand yourself, which means that you have to reinvent some things from the beginning.
DM: Can you give an example of that?
TE: I’ve discovered that I only truly understand things if I can do them in a number of different ways. I often create neon artworks, and sometimes execute the texts I use for these as drawings, or send them as tweets. It is astonishing how the impact and meaning of the same words can differ so greatly if you present them in a different medium. That’s also the case here: we use things that we created ourselves and are therefore familiar with, but here we discover them in a different way because the context is different.
DM: Is it important to do this in front of an audience?
TE: Definitely. The preparation and the rehearsals feel like you’re putting together the ingredients for a chemical experiment. But not the experiment itself.
MS: When I dance, Tim is my first spectator in a certain sense. You can never be exactly sure how people will participate in a dance performance, but Tim being there creates a kind of triangular relationship. He mediates between the audience and me, and the opposite is also true. That is irreplaceable. Without an audience you are just messing around.
Entre Sketches/Notebook et UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP, les matériaux semblent se faire écho et se développer. Entre les deux vous avez aussi créé Hunter, un solo dans lequel vous travaillez sur vos archives personnelles. Pouvez-vous nous parler des dynamiques à l’origine d’un spectacle collectif?
Meg Stuart: Après Hunter, je voulais à nouveau être dans le contact, être au sein d'une communauté. UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP a été élaboré à partir du toucher et du contact. L'une des dernières séquences de Sketches/Notebook intégrait des structures instables qui formaient une sorte de communauté, mais UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP se concentre sur l'intimité et les sens: on se hume, on se goûte les uns les autres. Il est question de la façon dont on perçoit l'autre, de la proximité à autrui, de là où se situe la frontière, de là où se situent les limites de l'autre, de la façon dont on peut partager un espace et partager le monde.
Dans Sketches/Notebook, les danseurs proposaient des choses à toucher au public: il ne s'agit donc pas que de la vue, d'autres sens sont aussi mobilisés.
Meg Stuart: Sketches/Notebook est un travail très généreux et inclusif qui contient un aspect assez utopiste: nous ne faisons qu'un et nous pouvons partager cet espace sans empiéter les uns sur les autres. UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP a quelque chose de plus souterrain, comme dans une boîte de nuit ou un lieu privé. Les danseurs explorent avec plus de profondeur ce dont ils ont besoin, ce qu'ils veulent, exigent ou désirent. Cette œuvre aborde davantage la sexualité et la question des frontières de l'intimité. Par rapport à l'ouverture douce et généreuse proposée par Sketches/Notebook, UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP va plus loin et soulève certaines questions: de quoi sommes-nous responsables? Que pouvons-nous faire et que sommes-nous prêts à faire pour les autres? Les performeurs de UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP donnent tout ce qu'ils ont, bien qu'ils n'aient pas grand-chose, et posent à la fin cette question: quelqu'un veut-il rentrer avec nous ce soir, être avec nous, prendre soin de nous? La question de savoir comment nous partageons nos ressources confère un autre poids au spectacle.
Comment avez-vous imaginé cet espace indéterminé de UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP, entre l'arène et la boîte de nuit?
Meg Stuart: Cela évoque sans aucun doute un sous-sol, ou quelque chose de souterrain. Il pourrait s'agir d'une boîte miteuse ou privée - un lieu éloigné des préoccupations et des certitudes du quotidien, avec ses propres règles et codes sociaux. Bien entendu, l'œuvre ne présente pas des personnages déterminés, elle navigue entre ce que ces gens sont et leur transformation à mesure qu'ils glissent dans ce monde magique. Elle explore la peau et le contact, le toucher et l'intimité, mais aussi la magie et l'illusion. Je voulais combiner des choses qui ne s'accordent pas forcément. J'étais dans une étrange forme de compensation. L'œuvre se bat pour le corps et la physicalité avant de glisser dans un rapport plus magique et direct. On passe de la danse et du mouvement à quelque chose de plus théâtral, l'œuvre prend des virages assez étranges et le moment décisif survient lorsque les danseurs brisent le quatrième mur, le public devenant partie intégrante de l'expérience. À partir de ce moment, le monde ne peut plus être le même qu'auparavant, les gens doivent s'en aller vers d'autres espaces. Il est question d'ouvertures, de strates et de glissements.
Comment avez-vous travaillé la dramaturgie? Recherchiez-vous ces virages dès le départ?
Meg Stuart: Cette œuvre est construite sur une série de surprises, une série d'ouvertures. Je ne savais pas comment la matière évoluerait. Nous avons créé un processus dans lequel nous faisions beaucoup d'expériences physiques, nous étudions le Tantra, les techniques somatiques, l'hypnose... C'était un peu comme passer du temps ensemble, même si je savais que le travail serait cadré par une véritable salle de théâtre. Nous sommes devenus un anti-théâtre: un processus pouvant affecter les gens en masquant sa théâtralité forcée. Je savais qu'on glisserait dans un espace sans temps, un espace de la magie qui nous permettrait d'aborder des questions plus vastes : les frontières et les limites, l'inclusion - entre deux peaux. Nous sommes des animaux sociaux, nous gérons nos états et nos peurs, nos désirs de sécurité et de protection mais, par ailleurs, nous devons être de plus en plus ouverts et aptes à nous faire confiance. Je crois que ces limites ne sont pas évidentes à négocier.
Parlez-nous de l'importance de la peau dans votre travail. Qu'est-ce qui est en jeu dans cette forme de contact?
Meg Stuart: J'ai toute une histoire avec le contact. C'est par-là que j'ai commencé la danse et c'est incroyable de voir les gens s'engager dans du contact improvisation. C'est une très belle façon de rencontrer un inconnu et de partager sa forme corporelle. Pourtant, je ne souhaitais pas faire de l'improvisation chorégraphique classique, alors j'ai ralenti le rythme pour construire plus de formes et de figures, afin d'en extraire des images. La peau respire, elle fait partie de l'identité, elle fait partie de ce que nous partageons. C'est ce qu'il y a de plus intime — partager l'espace de sa peau avec autrui. C'est une façon d'insister sur le fait que nous sommes tous reliés, nous ne faisons qu'un : nous remontons jusqu'au premier moment chaotique du sans-forme, avant les séparations entre les êtres, avant les égos, les exigences et la manipulation.
Qu'en est-il de la gradation dans l'usage des sens, depuis le toucher jusqu'à l'odorat?
Meg Stuart: La danse ne concerne pas uniquement le champ visuel. C'est aussi une expérience totale, elle peut glisser vers un espace d'écoute. Les danseurs se sont exercés à devenir des êtres plus sensibles. C'est une œuvre sur l'expansion et l'acceptation. L'odeur crée un espace très intime. Les sens sont très importants et il se peut que j'insiste davantage dans cette direction à l'avenir.
Pouvez-vous nous en dire plus sur ce sentiment d'appartenance aux autres? Explorez- vous une certaine idée de la communauté?
Meg Stuart: Je ne sais pas si l'on peut parler de communauté. On peut dire des danseurs que ce sont des initiés fous [crazy insiders] souhaitant partager une zone de liberté, mais ils ont aussi le sentiment de ne pas appartenir au monde réel. Ce sont des rêveurs, entièrement libres au sein d'un espace intime dans lequel ils peuvent créer des habitudes, des rituels et des idées, mais ils doivent ensuite retourner au monde réel, qui ne fonctionne pas de la meme manière. UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP est aussi une performance: le spectacle commence de manière très formelle, il propose des figures et des formes avant d'affirmer le besoin d'être en relation. On ne peut pas nier la structure: le rythme, les actions minimales, l'odeur... Je structure le son, la lumière et le temps et je crée une performance chorégraphique, mais ce qui sous-tend l'ensemble est un intérêt pour l'ouverture : créer des espaces d'imagination. C'est une légère suggestion sur comment être plus empathique. Les danseurs traversent un processus et nous en sommes les témoins.
Comment définir la relation que les danseurs nouent avec le public dans cette œuvre?
Meg Stuart: Dans Sketches/Notebook, les danseurs projetaient ce qu'ils pourraient être sur le public, créant un écosystème, une imagination collective. Cette œuvre cherche à établir une autre forme de relation, à conduire le public jusqu'à un espace de partage et de compréhension. Dans UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP, le public regarde les expériences des danseurs et, tout à coup, ceux-ci franchissent le mur pour s'adresser directement aux spectateurs, partageant leur odeur, leurs objets et leurs pratiques. Les performeurs comblent le public de leur gentillesse — ils ne possèdent pas grand-chose, mais ce qu'ils ont, ils veulent le donner, ce qui n'est pas si commun. Puis ils retournent dans leur monde. L'une des lignes dramaturgiques suit ce développement, qui déborde la pièce.
Le rituel et la magie sont tous les deux présents dans cette oeuvre. Opèrent-ils sur le même plan de l'expérience?
Meg Stuart: Nous jouons sur les deux: la magie comme spectacle, d'un genre un peu kitsch - les tours de magie proposant une innocence enfantine qui est une source d'inspiration, une nouvelle manière d'éprouver le monde - et la vraie magie, la magie noire. Ces recherches ont commencé à partir de l'histoire de Cornelius Gurlitt (1). Il vivait isolé dans son appartement, entouré de tableaux volés, construisant son propre monde de représentations. J'étais curieuse de savoir comment on peut ainsi glisser hors des mailles de la société. Au bout d'un moment, je me suis mise à voir en Gurlitt une sorte de magicien à l'origine de sa propre disparition, en plus de celle d'oeuvres importantes. Performer, improviser, c'est déjà être dans un état de conscience modifiée: tout dépend de là où l'on place son attention. La transe n'en est pas si éloignée, c'est une question d'attention: on peut percevoir d'autres réalités au moyen d'une certaine concentration, en y étant réceptifs. Il s'agit de combiner une certaine forme d'attention avec une certaine physicalité. Dans UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP, ces états sont stimulés par l'odorat, le toucher, la morsure, la consommation; mais également par une sorte d'absence. Ces actions et ces états ont un impact lorsqu'ils sont accomplis avec une certaine intention. Peut-être la magie constitue-t-elle un appel désespéré, parce que les gens estiment que les choses n'évoluent pas assez rapidement dans leur vie : c'est une manière de secouer cette apathie. On peut créer un événement magique, mais cela rappelle en même temps le monde louche du show-business — l'illusion magique et la magie du théâtre. Je ne pense pas qu'on puisse aborder le théâtre sans être d'une manière ou d'une autre en lien avec la magie, car c'est bien cela que le théâtre exige — de la lumière, de la vidéo, de la fumée et du son. Les performeurs deviennent des variations d'eux-mêmes, ils se transforment à travers l'attention du public.
C'est un jeu d'exploration sans fin. Je crée le champ et les paramètres et puis, comme j'ai des échéances, j'en fais un spectacle, mais le champ importe tout autant que le processus et que l'expérience des matériaux.
Pensez-vous que cette oeuvre puisse avoir un autre niveau de réception, global ou social?
Meg Stuart: Nous employons des métaphores et des images. Nous ne hurlons pas : « Ça parle de limites, de frontières et d'ouverture! », mais nous faisons en sorte que les gens en fassent l'expérience. Cette expérience est protégée et le public a un aperçu de ce que l'on ressent à partager un espace avec les autres, à être ouvert. Je crois que les gens sont prêts pour cela, ils sont prêts pour des choses que nous n'imaginons même pas, prêt à dépasser leur zone de confort et leurs attentes. Le spectacle intègre cette dimension. Traduction Armelle Chrétien (1) Cornelius Gurlitt, fils de Hildebrand Gurlitt, historien de l'art et marchand, dont le nom est lié au pillage d'oeuvres d'art en Europe par les nazis durant la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Une fabuleuse collection de quelques 1500 tableaux a été découverte par hasard dans son appartement à Munich en 2010.
A transcription of an interview with Meg Stuart by Rosslyn Hyams, on the occasion of the French premiere of Hunter at Les Spectacles Vivants du Centre Pompidou.
Rosslyn Hyams: Why did you choose to name the performance ‘Hunter’?
Meg Stuart: “I like one word titles. Hunting has a certain urgency about it. It’s not just searching but actively looking. For a large part of the piece, I am looking into my own personal archive, my movement archive and family history, searching for connections and clues. How do they all link? How did I get to where I am now?”
How much more would you say this is a research into yourself, your own personal history and previous works?
“Making a solo means that I don’t need to explain and translate my ideas to performers. Usually, I shape movement material based on their proposals or the way they move. Here I’m relying on myself. Of course, every person is influenced, is a myriad of others and all the other things that have crossed their path, wanted or unwanted. In Hunter, I’m diving into the wreck, positively seeing what has changed and what has remained since I started dancing. How and what does my body want to express? I always say the body is a container for memory. In Hunter, I am really putting it to the test.”
“You mentioned the word myriad - myriad on stage - with not only your movements and the style of movements but also with the decor, the scenography and sound. Is this very multi-layered, multi-facetted appearance, Meg Stuart?”
“It’s a solo made with others. I invited a handful of collaborators to share the process with me. I gave Chis Kondek, the video artist, some old super 8 movies my father had made in the seventies and we created some original material as well. We even did some reenactments of Yoko Ono’s cut piece and a tribute to Cindy Sherman. The result is a mix between real memory, fictional meetings and reenactments. Vincent Malstaf did the sound design. I asked him to work with sound effects, which creates some almost ‘cartoonesque’ moments but is also quite strong because I’m moving to the sound of keys and doors slamming. I wanted to dance to voices of others as well. When you’re alone in a private space or on stage, you often put on the radio or have unfinished dialogs with other people. So it made sense to not just dance to music but to have other people’s presence through their words in it as well.”
“Towards the end of the piece, two speakers are swinging and creating a sort of Doppler effect. As I am screaming, the speakers are reflecting the sound and bringing it back to me. So Hunter begins with an installation – I’m creating a collage, live on stage – and it ends with a sound installation.“
Dance has evolved as well as where you’ve evolved. Do you feel that contemporary dance is very different today from when you were starting out? Are the challenges the same?
“In the beginning I was searching for a language that related to a resistant body, looking at it in fragments. It was a lot about ‘no’, as opposed to ‘yes’ - a kind of anti-virtuosity. I wouldn’t say it had a punk-aesthetic but it certainly had a big mode of resistance. Over the years, I’ve opened up on all levels. Experimenting with many different styles and approaches. The speaking, conscious dancer, expressing the state of things is something very present in performance - especially as dance has moved into the contemporary art world. Maybe it’s a reflection of that. It’s not enough just to criticize and to show an air of resistance on stage, it’s also to imagine possible outcomes or solutions, or at least to dream together on how things might be.”
On the occasion of the three week festival ‘The Winter Laboratory’ (WinLab) at Independent Dance (London), curator Frank Bock talked with choreographer Meg Stuart. This is a transcription of the talk the two of them had.
Bock: Before the interview we spoke briefly about the fact that you are not showing work here. To be invited here to talk about you’re work, without actually showing work, feels somewhat strange, doesn’t it?
Stuart: Normally when there is a talk, people have come to see a performance. There’s always an experience or reference point to start from. To be here, talking without that, is something new for me.
Bock: I imagine you’ve already given a lot of talks about your work, presenting yourself in a certain way and I was curious to have a conversation with you about what moves you and what kind of material you are interested in. The way you work with identity for example, who we are, what we can inhabit, what or who through our bodies we can inhabit.
Stuart: In terms of movement, I very often work with the idea of a fluid identity. Are we capable of completely changing who we are or do we change only what we pay attention to? In a series of movement, I sometimes think more anatomically, other times I focus more on the thoughts inside my head, the images I produce or the gap between what is there and what I put out. For example, in one of my solo pieces Software, I’m constantly morphing from one identity or image to the next. It can start of on the surface, very classic and poppy but then it changes and becomes more about the distorted vision people can have about themselves. It becomes a fluid operation where there is a tempt to go into something but there is always a moment of detour where you reach for something that is recognizable but then it curves, becomes something else. It’s this searching for the curve between things that interests me.
Bock: Can you say a bit more about the abstract? Earlier you told me that the body can never really be abstract, that it is always full with something or someone.
Stuart: During the workshop we talked about the difference between abstraction and reality. I think they are quite close to each other. They seem very different at first glance but once you’ve unpeeled the layers, you see the connection quite clearly. I work a lot with imagination and exteriorizing my potent inner world. You can dissolve into your imagination. You can become something else. You can dance with invisible forces, traces and presences and even become them, dissolve into what you see and experience in the world. It doesn’t always have to be produced, it can simply come to you as well. It’s not just about being there and marking the world but allowing things to move and transform through your actions.
Bock: You work a lot with authentic fiction, the idea of concretizing states and living them in a certain way…
Stuart: Yes, it’s about living inside a certain circumstance. Realities and truths can change rapidly. For instance, I know something to be true right now but it is possible that in a few moments the set of rules will have completely changed. I talk a lot about micro narratives, partly because when I first started dancing, I thought of partnering in terms of equality: I lift you, you lift me and we lift each other. Later on, I decided to introduce a set of conditions, as you might do in a more theatrical scenario. This creates a different perspective on the concept of time. You create a different kind of urgency. One move matters because there is a next one coming. The past has meaning because it influences the now. As a choreographer, working with this set of conditions is very important to me, because it adds weight and meaning to the work and makes it harder to resolve.
Bock: So you work with accumulation rather than with narrative? Through accumulation, you create histories on stage?
Stuart: It’s hard to say. With every new piece I ask myself the same questions: “Who are these people? How do they move? What is in the melody of their movement? How stylized are they? Are they people or are they energies?” The conditions of who is moving aren’t clear right away. There goes a lot of work into that and once that is established, other things appear. The word narrative has a bad connotation and anything that gets close to it, seems dangerous. I’ve always been attracted to things that are ‘not done’ in a way. So I’ll say that it’s narrative, just for the fun of it (laughs). But I think it really is micro-narrative, which means that when it happens, it could be just for a spot in time, it could last for over an hour but it can also collapse. I made this piece, called BLESSED, where the performer, Francisco Camacho, moves around in a cardboard set. After 20 minutes it starts to rain. The set begins to dissolve and turns into trash. This is probably the most narrative piece I have ever made. You just couldn’t go back, recut and set up. This is what’s happening and this is how it will end. So the piece was more about how to respond to this inevitable course. How does the performer respond to what is happening to him? It was very interesting to be working with this set condition that works almost as a text. I usually don’t work with text and I enjoy playing with forms and structures and mix them up but this piece was a nice break. And in the end Francisco doesn’t freak out. There are moments where he almost lets go and questions his faith but ultimately he adapts and becomes completely part of what is happening around him.
Bock: In a way, the set is writing and I remember you talked about dance-writing as well…
Stuart: Yes. What I mean is that the body has its own intelligence. There are certain things we don’t understand but we have the capacity to translate them physically. And it isn’t always clear where this information comes from. Do these words or moves come from within me or do they come from somewhere else? This interests me.
Stuart: You brought this book called The ontology of the accident by Catherine Malabou. It talks about destructive plasticity. In the book, there is this woman, who ages in an instant. The aging here isn’t something that happens continuously, but in the blink of an eye. I always thought of plasticity as something positive: We can reinvent ourselves. We can shape shift. We can change and channel and move. We have the freedom – or pressure even – to reinvent ourselves at any time. But then there is this destructive plasticity: You get Alzheimers or someone dies and things change irrevocably. You become a new person.
Bock: We have touched on the idea of trauma and this negative plasticity seems to refer to the idea of being so old that you can’t relate to your old self anymore. You become the other to yourself. This is a counterpoint to the self-development we spoke of earlier and I’m curious what your response might be.
Stuart: I think she says there will always be a limit to the incense of reinvention. At one point it stops. At first, this idea made me sad but then I thought: “Ok, it stops. Now what?” At one point she says:
Life can be defined as a harmonious agreement of the movement of the body. This is the definition of the health of the organism, assuming an accordance between its parts. On the other hand death occurs when the parts have their own autonomous movements, thereby disorganizing the life of the whole and breaking up its unity.
I find this funny, because when I started out, I was quite certain I was working with trauma. Esthetically I thought it was cool: I put up my arm out like this and I don’t know what my hand is doing. I was playing with the idea of something that is happening with my body but I’m not really present, I’m completely vacant. This was completely against my training and against being in a harmonious whole. When I read what she wrote now, I feel much more interested in recovery. Some parts could be numb, dead or not there even but we keep on moving because we have to. We are figuring out how to move but we are still in dialogue with other people, we are still communicating. I find it interesting how things sort of twinge or get excited when they are in proximity with something or someone else.
I’m always talking about changing states. You’re in one state and you radically change to another and back again. Lately I realized it is not about changing, it is about staying. It is staying with something more than you want to, committing. You let it linger. You feel it but you can’t name it. It’s just a way of thinking about things and it can change as well. I used to think I was obsessed with trauma but things have changed. In general, I feel that things are lighter, more integrated now.
Bock: But the process of recovery is about the integration of something positive happening. In her book, Catherine Malabou talks about a kind of indifference. She uses examples of French workers in the 80s who lose their jobs or lose their identity with Alzheimers. They become a shadow of who they were and they almost have no relationships. But when I hear you talk about states, I think there is something of trauma in that. Something can start from zero and go to ten really quickly and turn into something else. I think trauma couples the coming up of fear and anger. Say these two states can be completely locked into each other and it can be quite arbitrary as well. Things can get over-coupled in a very powerful way, having there own intelligibility but not necessarily fitting in an everyday narrative.
Stuart: And you can’t always control what triggers them or how they lash out. She describes Alzheimers as if you are both alive and dead at the same time. Having no memory is as close as you can get to being dead. I have had moments where I was grateful that I didn’t remember anything and I love that when I’m dancing with people, I often can’t remember what we did afterwards.
I have a question for you, that actually is a line from my solo Hunter. When you don’t have any memory, what do you dream about? I wonder if everything would be blurry or if we would digest the day but get the subtitles all wrong? Do you know what it would be like?
Bock: Memory is based on image and affect. It is based on experiences that have some affective quality. Anything that has a certain quality of emotion in it, will stay in your system. Anything that has a certain quality of emotion in it will more likely stay with you. We need things that have some sort of felt quality.
Stuart: Do you work with transpersonal or false memory, as if you would remember experiences that aren’t your own? Does that happen with people you work with?
Bock: These facts of a story haven't always felt important. I haven't really looked for facts in that way partly because I work in a more aesthetic way through phenomenology. So I am interested in the aesthetic process of describing pasts.
Stuart: Do you mean the way people talk about their past?
Bock: Yes, how they speak of it. There is a quality to how I’m receiving what they say. It isn’t about searching the truth or trying to piece together what might have happened.
And you were talking about that in Hunter?
Stuart: At a certain point I mention it, yes. In Hunter there is a big section where I am blogging and chatting. I talk about people that influenced me, cultural heroes. I mention Trisha Brown and the fact that she is losing her memory. I’m only talking about memory for a short moment. But often when I’m dancing I have had the experience that I’m remembering things of people that I haven’t even met. Maybe I have met them or I wanted to have met them, like a fantasy. As I told you, when I first started out, I was working with trauma and the idea of something that is happening with my body but I’m not really there. Over the years I started wondering: “If I’m not really there, who is there? Other people could be! I can channel and filter or even be a psychic.” That is what started it, what cleared the space to play with it as material. It can be people or energies or even something more abstract.
Bock: It is a very potent idea of picking in other people’s memories and working with this sense of selfless, wider body. I recently read an article about the use of words. It said that every time we use the same word, we’re altering it. Every word, every utterance of life somehow has a carrying forward of experiences.
Stuart: And would there be an end of it, like the expanding universe that at some point has to retract again?
Bock: There is a limit to everything?
Stuart: I think we are very much aware of limits. It is like a collective hangover. We have done so much and now all of a sudden, there are these limits and they have timelines and deadlines and they are real. It moves our conscience about what is happening now and the choices we are making.
Bock: Do you refer to limits in terms of capacity?
Stuart: Yes. For now everything is fine but one day it will end and we won’t be able to do this or that. It is about resources and the sense of depletion.
You have your practice, you’re involved in dance but you are a psychiatrist as well. Do you think dance is healing?
Bock: That’s a good question. There is something about experiencing art that is healing. It allows a re-experiencing of life. Art has the capacity to connect people. So yes, I would say dance has a potential for healing, but not in the sense of “Get up and dance!” and then you’re cured.
Do you experience that in your work? Do you feel as if you are making a difference?
Stuart: I feel grateful to be able to expand the borders of what I am and to meet people in this other force. I guess it keeps me sane. Years ago I wouldn’t be sitting here at all because I had a lot of problems with talking but step by step and by what has happened with my work, I opened up. I like dance because it doesn’t pretend to have solutions. We translate what we know to be true and keep shifting up the experience of it. I wouldn’t say Pina Bausch healed her generation, but there was a lot of collective trauma in Germany and she put it out there and into imagery without saying “This is my topic” or analyzing it. I’m sure that it wasn’t her mission but for a certain period of time, it meant something.
Sometimes I feel this obsession with healing goes too far. Do we have to be healed or have healing experiences all the time? But it does interest me in a way. I once made this kind of kinetic sculpture where all the dancers and the audience laughed together. Of course, I know that it’s good for your health and it can also be a practice but what interests me is the idea that you go to see a performance and that together with the dancers and the rest of the audience, you become part of the sculpture.
Bock: Are you talking about All together now?
Stuart: No, this one we did for the Politics of Ecstasy with Jeremy Wade. It opened the festival and it was very simple. Afterwards we had a silent diner on the floor. I know that it is close to other practices but I think that it is something that is happening in general: Dance is pulling into the visual art world, looking for information to use, looking to create different kind of works. There is a merging of people’s skills. We are trying to build other kinds of structures and other ways of solving problems or relations with people, which I think is very interesting.
Bock: This way of accessing relationship through the body and through collectivity is very interesting. There are certain things that you can do with embodiment that are being wanted by other art forms.
Stuart: Making art is hard. You are giving something and questioning it at the same time. I think it is part of the process and an important aspect for me as well. What do I stand for? What do I construct? How do I speak? What is my work about? You’re constantly putting yourself on the line. It is confronting at times but at the same time very important.
Bock: You work a lot with other artists so there seems to be a great interest in meeting other people and figuring out how they work…
Stuart: I like working together and to be in a space with other people. If I would go back in time and decided to make work in a room all by myself, I probably would have produced things as well but I somehow find it fascinating to see other artists making their work. They could be the script or text and I imagine their work and try to put myself in it and meet them.
Bock: Were you on your own in Hunter ?
Stuart: I’m the only one on stage but there were a lot of people involved. There was a video designer, a sound designer, a stage designer, a dramaturge, … It wasn’t just me slogging it out on my own. I have had some moments alone for sure but not that many. Of course, there are very different forms of collaboration. Is every decision going to be made together with the other person or is it you who in the end makes the decisions?
My company and I made this book, Are we here yet? , which was published for the first time in 2010 and has recently been reprinted. It is about the company’s work and mainly about the politics of collaboration and making work together. It contains exercises as well.
Bock: Did you change or add anything in the 2nd edition?
Stuart: We changed only a little bit. It was out of print so there had to be a new one.
Bock: Did you want to?
Stuart: No, I thought it was pretty good the first time (laughs).
In the middle of the book, you will find a series of exercises and the first one is ‘Look at your own body as if you were dead’. The second one is; ‘You’re the last person on earth’, and another one: ‘Your personal future body’. They are rather unconventional exercises. I didn’t even realize that I had exercises because I normally just freewheel in the studio but Jeroen Peeters (editor of Are we here yet?) pointed it out to me and convinced me to share them. The first one might seem a bit dark ‘Look at your own body as if you were dead’ but just lie down, imagine you’re dead and see if you move. Just start from there and see what happens.
Bock: Do you still dance?
Stuart: I’m happy when I’m dancing. If I don’t feel good in my body, it’s very hard for me to lead or to teach a group because I feel that a lot comes through. I can make a new work while sitting on a chair, just by watching people, seeing how they move. I guess I get really fascinated by other people. But I have to remind myself to get in there. I feel that it’s very important. So yes, I still dance.
Bock: From a wish to be 'in the material' differently?
Stuart: I still surprise myself. Sometimes I know that I’m doing this or that again but then there are times when something just pops out or I end up doing something that comes from a place I don’t understand. I think that is important. You often start rehearsing, thinking that you are going to do a certain scene but when you start dancing with other people, something completely different comes out of it.
Bock: And you follow that?
Stuart: Yes, or I just look at it.
Bock: And do you have a sense of the other bodies that are in your gestures?
Stuart: Definitely, I feel as if my work is made through other people. Over the years, people have been coming into the work, shaping its tasks and scores with their own interests and their own work when we meet. So they are making and shaping the work as well. And if they reconnect, it feels as if you’ve met them. But that is just one practical way, you might be mean on another level…
Bock: Well, I guess it maybe relates to an idea of channelling which you often talk about. I am now thinking about you and Philipp Gehmacher and if the two of you take on some imprint of each other. How actively are you working there with an attunement to a sense of you that is wider than your own?
Stuart: I think you refer to a piece I did with Philipp Gehmacher that is a very specific dialogue. I made two pieces with him and we have a kind of ongoing dance connection. We don’t articulate what we’re talking about but we are talking about histories and events that are not spoken out. Through the misunderstanding, we come to an understanding. It can be very practical, for instance, the interest in working with the arms or with the gestural body but it is a very unique connection.
Bock: I like the idea of communicating through misunderstanding. There’s something very rich about that: Knowing that there will always be something that you are missing, something that is incomplete but you do understand a provisional meaning.
Stuart: Good dances are made in that mode. You have to dance to find out more. You don’t dance to prove yourself right or to prove the other one is right or to prove a theory right. You dance to keep talking in order to get closer and to understand. I’m very fond of that idea.
Bock: You have to keep moving.
Bock: Does anyone have something to add?
Audience: Isn’t all communication based on misunderstanding? Can we ever fully understand the other?
Bock: I believe it is an ongoing project. We never really arrive.
Stuart: I feel very comfortable with being disoriented, not only dance-wise but in general. I long for it. I live in Berlin and my German is ok. I can speak a bit and to a certain level, everyone understands me. But some parts will remain missing, like gaps and for me that’s a relief. It creates space to be my own world. It triggers this personal response. I become more aware of all that is between an experience or a dialogue or between two people. In general, there is a lot of projection. While talking with others, we put a lot of stuff in front of them that is not theirs, just by being there. The fact that we understand what people are saying, that we understand their words, doesn’t mean that we are really present. I think that is something performance can do. Maybe it’s because you can manage the time and people are forced to stay. It might seem old-fashioned but it is a very precious thing to be able to say: “Look at this. This is fascinating. Pay attention to this!” To insist and find out that they are willing to accept your insistence because they are sitting in a chair and the lights are out. I think that is very special about this set up as opposed to other set ups.
Bock: Distracted set ups…
Stuart: Yes, distracted. This is very special about performance. Even if it feels as if we question it all the time: “What are we doing as performers in these old-fashioned theater spaces? What is that?”
Audience: You talked about the fragmented body and the attempt to connect to the body and I’m curious how you relate all that to the aging body.
Stuart: In Norway, people are supposed to retire at the age of 42. So when you get there, they tell you you’re done. I guess that is one way to deal with it. Aged body, experienced body, knowledgeable body… What to do with it? It creates a certain urge. For now you still have the energy and the power but how do you transmit it? What do you share? How can you offer what you have before you loose interest or it becomes too tiring to jump around? At a certain point, this question occurs. But it seems as if things are changing. Young and old aren’t two separate entities anymore. Last September, there was this event, organized by Peter Pleyer in Berlin about New York in the 1980s. Sasha Waltz (my roommate in New York in the 80s) and I were there, Yoshiko Chuma and a lot of others as well. It was a mix of younger and older dancers and it was nice to attend an event where people aren’t sectioned into different groups. It is liberating to see that something is shifting in the world of performance.
Audience: Do you go back to dancers you worked with on many occasions and do you work with that past? Do you incorporate it in your work? Or do you prefer working with new people, people you don’t understand that well yet, in order to go back to that gap where there is room for exploration and misunderstanding?
Stuart: It is usually a mix. I reconnect to people that I’ve worked with before. They could have worked with me on a piece right before or it could have been years earlier. But I always invite new people as well, to balance the two. In terms of my own work and my habits as well. I would say you have this integrated body, as opposed to the fragmented body and you are integrated or connected to very strange things. I see that when I’m making work. You combine this weird image with that thing or with this spot. The idea that the connections are stretched or not necessarily obvious is another sense of integration and of connectivity that is not just…
Audience: … just a position?
Stuart: Maybe. Not always. What I wanted to say is that there are ways to create another sense of being connected.
Bock: So it is a kind of ‘smashing things together’, that don’t necessarily go together?
Stuart: Yes. It’s funny. It might seem as if I know what I’m doing but I often feel that I don’t know that much about anything. I think that keeps me young. Or is that silly?
Audience: Do you think if you would understand completely what you are doing, you might lose the ‘surprise of the physicality’?
Stuart: Yes. That is interesting. You try to force your own misunderstanding, as if you are looking for your own amnesia. But then there are moments when you know it and you face ego and a lot of other things. I think you have to keep checking. It’s not that surprising…
Audience: I think it has a lot to do with the other person. You don’t know exactly who this person is but you work with him. Your work is a lot about this ‘not knowing’ and I wondered if there were moments where you collaborated with someone and it didn’t work, because of this ‘not knowing’. Has this happened and if so, how did you react? Were you flexible? Or did you think: ‘Not again this way’?
Stuart: I give people a lot of space and I very rarely tell a designer or artist what it exactly is that I want. That can be pretty tough, especially if, for example, you’re a designer making the set. They are pretty much in open hands. I give keywords of course. They are not completely in the dark but yes, it can be quite hard and sometimes I don’t say enough. It happens that the sound designer makes a score and wants to put music in every single moment of the performance. Then it’s very hard for me to say: “Not right now… and not here and there either”. That happened to me with someone I know really well. But when I feel that I can’t give somebody honest feedback or that I can’t be direct, there’s a problem. They could be the most brilliant artist or dancer but that means that something is blocking, me or them. That’s what happened with this musician and I haven’t worked with him again even though his work is brilliant. While working with him, it was hard for me to be direct and then things go wrong.
I had familiar experiences in my younger years, while working with famous visual artists like Gary Hill, Ann Hamilton, Bruce Mau. I was the younger one and to me, they were the big star. I was impressed by them and had to keep myself from saying: “Just do whatever”, which wasn’t easy. I was overwhelmed by their presence and collaborating with them didn’t go so well. It didn’t go wrong either. The pieces went well, but I had to jump over something. I didn’t give up. When I’m not sure about something, I get pretty silent. Afterwards I’m happy when I do know. Things can spiral out in the process for a while and other people might panic, but I don’t. I can just let it hang. I’ve known to continue after a deadline so I’m pretty tenacious with the project.
Bock: I remember reading somewhere that the sound and light people you work with very much enjoy the process of working with you because of the space and knowledge of theatre that you bring. The 'safe hands' that you are, is somehow really trusted.
Stuart: That is something that I have earned through time. Just to reassure younger makers: In the beginning, it didn’t feel like that at all! With every proposal I would do - maybe because I worked a lot with friends - they would have doubts or disagree. That was hard. Later on, when I had made a few pieces that worked, all of a sudden that changed. In a way it becomes harder as well. You have to start battling your own history, your own limits. You have to deal with yourself. It doesn’t really get easier but people start trusting you and in that set up, you start to trust your own choices. It’s a kind of gift that comes with sticking to what you believe is true and hanging in there. But in the beginning it felt as if you had to convince everybody about everything, including yourself.
Audience: How much is your work set? How much is free? I imagine that you have quite a long making process. How much do you trust that in the performance things will appear the same way as they did during the rehearsal process?
Stuart: It gets quite specific and detailed, even to the point where I say: “This part has to look improvised so don’t do this and that and that.”
Audience: You’ve talked about states. In a performance, how much is there actually about finding the states? How much is that just part of the process? And when you have actually found this form or shape that you tried to achieve, how can you achieve it in the performance?
Stuart: By doing it more, doing it when you’re not in the mood, doing it again, doing it every day.
Audience: So it becomes like a second skin?
Audience: This summer, I saw your performance with Boris Charmatz in Berlin, as part of the Musée de la Danse. The two of you were doing this play with memories: “Do you remember this?” And I wondered how much of that was a mode.
Stuart: This was absolutely not set. It was an exposition with Boris Charmatz. It will come to the Tate in May so you will get the chance to see it. Boris and I have a kind of shared dance history, a spotty one but a shared one, and we play this game where I do a move and say “Do you remember this?” and then he’ll do a move from a dance I might or might not know and then he repeats the phrase to me. It’s a game for an improvisation, a structure for an improvisation. Nothing was set in this case. There was no rule.
Audience: No, but I was amazed how much you were using the archive of your work. It made me think that your work is quite set because you can draw from specific moments, which are very small and very detailed.
Audience: I have a question about the title of your company ‘Damaged Goods’. Can you tell me where the name comes from?
Stuart: It was the final line from the first review that I got on my first evening length piece in 1991, Disfigure Study. I don’t remember if it was a good review, actually. It probably was ok. At the end the author wrote: “Everyone was shown as damaged goods”. At that particular moment in time, when dance was quite virtuosic and quite energetic, it felt a bit ‘anti’ and I liked the idea that someone would be selling a dance company as damaged goods. It stuck and I still like it and now and then I ask myself if it should still be called damaged goods. But it’s still there and it’s still transiting, still moving, so it’s a part of the work as well. The company is still going. It gets support in Belgium and Brussels since the very beginning.
Bock: This seems like a good place to end. Thank you.
Stuart: Thank you.
Le dramaturge Jeroen Peeters dialogue avec le scénographe Jozef Wouters sur le projet INFINI de Decoratelier
En été 2015, quelques semaines avant la présentation d’INFINI 1-8 au KVS_BOL, je vais à la rencontre de Jozef Wouters dans le Decoratelier (‘Atelier de Décors’) temporaire. Un groupe de constructeurs y est à pied d’œuvre pour réaliser huit décors qui représentent autant d’endroits proposés par huit correspondants (Arkadi Zaides, Chris Keulemans, Michiel Soete, Michiel Vandevelde, Remah Jabr, Thomas Bellinck, Sis Matthé et Wim Cuyvers). Plus tard dans la saison la série de décors s’étendra à quinze avec des autres correspondants (Anna Rispoli, Begüm Erciyas, Jisun Kim, Rebekka de Wit et Rodrigo Sobarzo). Wouters explique la généalogie du projet.
Entre quatre murs
Après Zoological Institute of Recently Extinct Species et All problems can never be solved dans le cadre de Tok Toc Knock (2013), pour lequel le scénographe Jozef Wouters a investi la ville, avec le KVS, s’est posée la question de la suite. « J’ai senti en moi un doute à propos de refaire quelque chose dans l’espace public. Il m’a semblé bon de me pencher sur ce qui cloche dans ce sacré théâtre, » explique Wouters. Non pas que la salle de théâtre ne l’attire pas, bien au contraire : « Cela fait très longtemps que j’éprouve une énorme fascination pour la salle de théâtre, ou en fait pour tous les espaces où les gens se rassemblent. Cela fait des milliers d’années que les théâtres sont des édifices les plus grands possible, et pourtant recouverts de toits qui ne sont pas étayés en leur milieu par des piliers, pour que toutes les personnes à l’intérieur du bâtiment puissent voir plus ou moins la même chose. Ce désir de pouvoir regarder quelque chose ensemble, au sec, dans le noir et dans le calme, cette construction d’un regard partagé – c’est à cela que je veux me relier dans ce travail. »
C’est lors d’une conversation avec la direction artistique du KVS qu’est né le germe du projet INFINI, comme le dit Wouters avec une anecdote. « Dans une première discussion sur mes idées et mes besoins pour ce projet, un dramaturge dit soudain : ‘As-tu déjà pensé au fait que ce bâtiment ici à côté n’est pas un bastion mais une place couverte ?’ Un peu plus tôt, quelqu’un d’autre avait dit que ça lui plairait que je ‘vienne faire quelque chose chez eux.’ De retour dans mon atelier, j’ai noté : ‘Qu’est-ce que ça fait à un lieu, de vouloir à la fois être une maison et une place ?’ Ce qui m’a inévitablement fait penser à la maquette parfaitement transparente en plexi, du KVS rénové. Pourquoi avons-nous besoin de toutes ces métaphores pour nommer un espace qui, en soi, est déjà un espace spécifique avec une histoire propre ? Ce fantasme d’un théâtre transparent m’est soudain apparu clairement : un bâtiment qui veut être une membrane qui ne laisse passer que les choses désirées du monde extérieur, à savoir la lumière et la vue. Cela en dit long sur les centres actuels des arts qui sont à la recherche d’un dialogue quasi direct avec la ville – un désir que je comprends, mais qui se retrouve souvent en conflit avec la réalité construite. »
Une question du bâtiment
Le KVS a donné à Wouters carte blanche pour investir la grande salle, y établir même son atelier pendant quelques semaines pour pouvoir expérimenter avec la scène. La question qui porte INFINI vient du bâtiment lui-même, selon Wouters : « Mon approche est toujours pareille : établir mon atelier dans un bâtiment jusqu’à ce que ce bâtiment commence à me parler et pose une question précise. Il y a un an et demi déjà, j’ai investi un petit atelier, à côté de l’entrepôt, où j’ai pu mettre deux tables et un tas de livres sur l’histoire de la scénographie. Ensuite, je me suis mis à ‘lire’ la salle elle-même pendant de longues périodes, plus activement, à la vivre, à en déchiffrer l’architecture et l’histoire spécifiques. Et une étape dans ce processus, c’est la création d’une maquette. J’ai ainsi collé les 49 porteuses dans la cage de scène, une par une – on a le temps d’y réfléchir et après ça, on sait ce que c’est une porteuse. »
Quelle question a donc posée le bâtiment, ce KVS_BOL ? « Ce qui m’a frappé, c’est qu’avec la rénovation, une série de choix ont été faits concernant l’aménagement de cette salle. Je me suis peu à peu rendu compte qu’ils viennent souvent confirmer des choix qui avaient déjà été pris il y a cinq cents ans, dans un certain type d’édifice théâtral. Les murs sont toujours là, ils sont même renforcés par un cocon supplémentaire à l’intérieur, une boule en béton qui symbolise la création pour les architectes – une matrice, un œuf. Un autre choix est celui d’une forme de fer à cheval et d’un portail qui impose une certaine direction au regard, de la salle vers la scène. Aucun hasard dans tout cela. Le bâtiment m’explique qu’il y a une raison d’avoir conservé les murs. S’il existe dans la ville un espace d’où l’on peut exclure le monde extérieur, et montrer autre chose, dans le calme et dans l’obscurité, alors pour moi la question n’est pas d’ouvrir ce bâtiment, mais plutôt: comment pouvons-nous assumer ce médium aujourd’hui ? »
« La flexibilité de cette salle est aussi due à la technologie des cages de scène, avec les 49 porteuses, commandées électroniquement, de haut en bas. En réalité, cette architecture est conçue pour travailler avec des surfaces planes, c’est à cela qu’elle sert. Le cintre permet des possibilités infinies, tant que l’on travaille avec des toiles de fond et des décors peints – les fameux infinis. Aujourd’hui, on les utilise peu, mais cela m’a poussé à réfléchir à la façon d’utiliser cette salle pour laquelle elle est conçue. L’ancienne technique semble toujours très pratique pour permettre à plusieurs éléments de cohabiter dans un seul espace. »
A un moment donné, Wouters est allé voir le théâtre de ville de Courtrai, pour aider le chercheur Bruno Forment à dresser l’inventaire des décors peints il y a un siècle par Albert Dubosq. Vu que la scénographie est un médium éphémère, des collections d’une telle ampleur sont rares. « A Courtrai, il y a donc encore un stock de décors, ce qui m’a fait prendre conscience que le KVS aujourd’hui est un projecteur de dias sans dias, » explique Wouters. « Avant, un espace de stockage jouxtait les théâtres abritant des salles à l’italienne. Cet entrepôt renfermait toute une série de décors disponibles, pouvant être démontés en un tournemain et parmi lesquels le metteur en scène pouvait faire son choix sur place. Peut-être est-ce une autre question que le KVS_BOL m’a posée : de quel stock de décors le KVS aurait-il besoin aujourd’hui ? »
Une source centrale d’inspiration pour INFINI est l’œuvre du scénographe français du dix-huitième siècle, Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, un personnage qui fascine Wouters depuis longtemps déjà. « Cela fait dix ans que je porte avec moi des bribes de l’histoire de Servandoni, qui a créé à Paris des ‘spectacles de machines’ constitués de l’univers époustouflant d’éléments de décor animés. Servandoni a écrit qu’il voulait libérer la peinture et la scénographie du joug de la poésie et de la danse. Il avait reçu pour monter ses spectacles, constitués de pure scénographie, une salle vide depuis soixante ans, la Salle des Machines, construite initialement pour pouvoir créer la plus grande illusion de tous les temps, avec une scène cinq fois plus profonde que celle du KVS_BOL. A l’issue de la construction, la salle s’est pourtant révélée inutilisable parce que l’acoustique laissait à désirer et qu’on ne pouvait y monter d’opéras. Servandoni a donc pu y réaliser son rêve. La première année, en 1738, il y a montré une copie de la basilique Saint-Pierre, mû par le désir de permettre à ceux qui n’avaient pas les moyens d’aller à Rome de pouvoir tout de même contempler le summum de l’architecture. L’année suivante, il décida de montrer sept espaces différents dans sept décors successifs – c’est de là que vient l’idée de montrer une série d’infinis. Il a poursuivi ce travail pendant quelques années. Je n’ai découvert que plus tard que toute l’entreprise Servandoni a fait faillite. Cela ne marchait apparemment pas si bien, et ces spectacles n’intéressaient pas grand monde. »
A la Renaissance, Rome figurait souvent en toile de fond au théâtre, pour que les spectateurs voient la ville idéale. D’un point de vue historique, le théâtre est un lieu où une ville et une communauté viennent regarder une image idéalisée d’elles-mêmes. Quelle attitude pouvons-nous avoir face à cette tradition aujourd’hui ?
« Grâce aux murs du théâtre, on peut oublier le monde extérieur et évoquer à l’intérieur une réalité totalement nouvelle. La question ne porte cependant pas sur quel monde idéalisé nous devons montrer aujourd’hui, mais bien sur comment ce mécanisme peut aujourd’hui être utilisé de façon sensée, » poursuit Wouters. Il donne quelques exemples de créateurs qui contribuent à INFINI : « Michiel Vandevelde m’a dit que les murs du théâtre pourraient retenir à l’extérieur justement le monde idéalisé qui nous entoure tous les jours, pour qu’à l’intérieur on puisse laisser émerger un espace négatif. Wim Cuyvers aussi prétend que la ville telle que nous la connaissons a cessé d’exister. Qu’est-ce que cela signifie que la ville devient de plus en plus virtuelle et sans lieu ? Qu’est-ce que cela signifie aujourd’hui de manifester ou d’occuper une place ? C’est quoi un monument aujourd’hui ? Tout cela a évidemment un impact sur cette machine théâtrale implanté au cœur de cette ville, et qui sert, historiquement, à représenter cette ville. Prenez par exemple le projet de Chris Keulemans, qui discute avec des immigrés : chacun dans la ville se représente la ville d’une multiplicité infinie de manières. Que faire de ce bâtiment de théâtre dans ces conditions ? Comment la ville se représente-t-elle aujourd’hui ? Que signifie le changement drastique de l’espace urbain pour la scénographie, donc pour la création d’espaces dont la face avant prime et que l’on regarde à distance ? Quelles possibilités nouvelles pouvons-nous ainsi découvrir ? »
Comment regardons-nous ?
Au moment où nous sommes en pleine discussion philosophique sur l’espace contemporain, Wouters remarque qu’il reste essentiellement axé sur la scénographie. « Pour moi, c’est aussi une quête personnelle de ce que veut dire être scénographe. Qu’est-ce que cela signifie de perpétuer cette ancienne profession aujourd’hui ? Pour ce projet, j’avais l’intention de peindre des illusions et de dessiner la perspective, deux choses dont je suis incapable mais qui sont centrales dans l’histoire de ma profession. Après avoir passé quelques appels, je suis entré en contact avec Thierry Bosquet, un peintre de décor à la retraite, il a presque 80 ans et a passé une grande partie de sa vie à La Monnaie, sous Maurice Huisman. Pendant un temps, je suis allé dans son atelier d’Uccle toutes les deux semaines. J’emmenais une maquette du KVS_BOL à mes leçons, et aussi des peintures, des dessins et des photos qui m’absorbaient, comme la Basilique Saint-Pierre et des images de journaux. Il me parlait de l’histoire de la scénographie, du regard perspectiviste et du point de fuite. Thierry a pris une photo et l’a divisée en plans, que je devais redessiner un par un et les assembler en une maquette de manière à ce que lorsque l’on se place devant, la perspective soit la bonne. Me voilà donc devant un homme qui est aussi scénographe, et malgré des différences gigantesques, nous avons aussi une histoire et un désir en commun. Nous nous concentrons tous deux sur des espaces qui sont regardés, sur l’organisation de l’orientation du regard, sur la façon dont on regarde. »
Comment regardons-nous ? Dans cette question résonne un récit historique culturel plus vaste, où la scénographie – en tant que medium et technologie – joue un rôle. « D’un point de vue historique, la construction d’un regard ne touche pas uniquement le théâtre, » continue Wouters. « Les scénographes ont eux aussi déjà traduit le regard du théâtre vers l’extérieur, la façon dont nous lisons la ville. Servandoni par exemple a conçu des fêtes, des processus et des feux d’artifice, ou songez donc aux parcs, jardins et fontaines. L’histoire de la scénographie et du regard dans un théâtre pénètre donc notre lecture de l’espace. La manière dont une image est construite, pourrait-on dire, provient de la manière dont nous avons fait des décors pendant des centaines d’années. J’en ai trouvé un exemple flagrant dans une photo du photographe de guerre Teun Voeten, qui choisit en Syrie sans le savoir le cadre que Thierry Bosquet aurait aussi choisi pour représenter un espace. C’est leur connaissance incarnée. »
La question de ce que l’on peut aujourd’hui encore raconter avec les anciennes technologies comme la salle à l’italienne est donc inévitablement associée à une deuxième question : quel effet les anciennes technologies ont-elles aujourd’hui sur la façon dont nous regardons le monde ? Montrer des ‘espaces autres’ devient ainsi une question complexe. Qu’est-ce que cela signifie, montrer des ‘espaces autres’ ? Quand nous regardons ce soi-disant autre monde, par exemple quand nous lisons un article sur la Syrie dans le journal, cela nous conduit-il réellement là dehors, dans cet autre monde ? Ou sommes-nous tout de même surtout empêtrés dans nos propres façons habituelles de regarder et nos propres schémas d’attentes ?
Ce nœud de questions nous met face au rôle du ‘correspondant’, une figure centrale dans INFINI. Huit artistes (créateurs de théâtre, auteurs, un architecte) ont été sollicités pour être ‘correspondants’ et en tant que tels, fournir une nouvelle du monde, avec laquelle l’Atelier de décors a pu travailler. « A un moment donné, j’ai commencé à étreindre l’espace théâtral comme un lieu capable de représenter ces autres lieux. D’un point de vue historique, c’est aussi la tâche de l’atelier de décors : représenter des espaces dans lesquels nous ne trouvons pas à l’instant même, » commente Wouters. « Reste une question : quels espaces construire. Avec le commissaire Dries Douibi, nous avons invité une série de personnes dans l’atelier de décors, et nous leur avons posé la même question à toutes : pouvez-vous déterminer pour nous quel paysage nous devons montrer au théâtre ? Nous leur avons également donné un budget et quelques limites. Nous voulons que tout parle de l’espace, sans acteurs sur scène. Et il s’agit de représenter d’autres lieux, d’essayer réellement de jeter un pont entre ici et un endroit ailleurs. »
Négocier dans l’espace
La question posée aux correspondants ‘Quel espace devons-nous représenter aujourd’hui ?’ donne dans INFINI autant de réponses qu’à la question ‘Comment voulez-vous travailler aujourd’hui dans la grande salle ?’ Les huit correspondants sont-ils donc metteurs en scènes du spectacle ? Ou est-ce Wouters lui-même qui décide, en tant que scénographe et directeur artistique, du résultat final ? « Dans ce processus, nous nous passons sans arrêt des questions. J’ai reçu une question du KVS, que j’ai passée à huit personnes, qui à leur tour me posent une question que je dois examiner avec les constructeurs de l’atelier de décors, ce qui fait surgir de nouvelles questions, et ainsi de suite. Je me représente cette structure comme un grand groupe de gens autour d’un centre vide, une scène ou un espace où il faut déterminer ce que nous allons construire, où nous ne cessons de nous refiler des questions. C’est donc autant mon projet que celui de ces huit personnes, qui semble de tourner autour d’un désir partagé. J’aime croire que la salle a déclenché le spectacle et que l’essentiel est surtout de bien écouter ce contexte. »
La mise sur pied d’un Atelier de Décors temporaire, où les correspondants et le scénographe et un groupe de constructeurs échangent leurs réflexions sur les endroits qu’ils veulent représenter, a été un pas important pour Wouters. « Cet atelier me fait l’effet d’un retour à la maison. Je suis reconnaissant à tous ici que l’atelier de décors soit un espace où je peux dialoguer avec beaucoup de personnes et où nous pouvons nous poser des questions. Les correspondants viennent souvent avec un endroit, un concept ou un discours que je ne comprends pas tout à fait, mais la discussion qui suit, nous pouvons la mener en espace. Quand les besoins de l’un des correspondants changent au cours du processus, je peux encore faire des adaptations sur place par exemple en déplaçant une paroi ou en rapetissant une paroi en en sciant un morceau. A la différence de l’architecture, la scénographie est une grande maquette à négocier. Je pense que les moments où les metteurs en scène doivent venir dans l’atelier de décors sont souvent les moments les plus intéressants dans un processus de production.
« En tant que scénographe d’INFINI, je réfléchis à la manière dont nous allons représenter ces différents espaces, mais aussi et peut-être plus important encore, comment toutes ces choses peuvent coexister dans le théâtre. Michiel Vandevelde par exemple veut partir d’une scène vide, nous devons donc équiper quelques autres décors de roulettes pour pouvoir les déplacer rapidement. La scénographie est une négociation en espace. Négociation entre l’espace auquel elle renvoie et l’espace existant. Négociation entre les désirs des créateurs et la réalité du matériau et le budget et la technique. Et négociation entre le public et la scène : comment regarde-t-on ? Comment orientez-vous votre regard ? »
Ce questionnement constant et cette négociation en espace est une expérience que Wouters veut, au bout du compte, aussi partager avec le spectateur dans INFINI. Il considère le spectacle comme une série d’essais, où l’expérimentation et le test détermine la forme. « Bart Verschaffel écrit à propos de l’essai qu’il est une compilation hétérogène à la recherche d’un lieu où un sujet rétif peut apparaître. De la part de Wim Cuyvers, j’ai reçu la question de savoir si l’architecture peut douter, » explique Wouters. « L’atelier de décors est une manière de créer de l’espace tout en cherchant, et peut-être que la scénographie est, par excellence, l’architecture qui doute. En considérant INFINI comme un essai, il est parfaitement possible que les choses que nous montrons doutent encore. Je crois que nous montrons l’atelier de décors lui-même. Pour moi, il est important de créer un espace où l’on peut se demander pourquoi certaines choses fonctionnent ou pas et pourquoi c’est ainsi – c’est cela pour moi douter sur scène. Je crois que la grande aspiration de ce projet est de partager cet espace dans le doute, pour pouvoir ainsi douter de l’espace. »
Dramaturge Jeroen Peeters in conversation with the stage designer Jozef Wouters on the INFINI project of Decoratelier
In the summer of 2015, several weeks before the presentation of INFINI 1-8 in the KVS_BOL, I visited Jozef Wouters in the temporary Decoratelier (‘Scenery Workshop’). A group of set builders was busy working on eight stage sets depicting eight places suggested by eight ‘correspondents’ (Arkadi Zaides, Chris Keulemans, Michiel Soete, Michiel Vandevelde, Remah Jabr, Thomas Bellinck, Sis Matthé and Wim Cuyvers). Later on this season the series will be expanded to fifteen with new correspondents (Anna Rispoli, Begüm Erciyas, Jisun Kim, Rebekka de Wit and Rodrigo Sobarzo). Wouters explains the genealogy of the project.
Between four walls
The KVS requested a sequel to follow Zoological Institute of recently Extinct Species and All problems can never be solved, which were part of Toc Tok Knock (2013), when Jozef Wouters joined the theatre’s outing into the city. ‘I found that I was hesitant about doing something in public space again. It seemed to me a good idea to have another look at what was wrong with that much talked-of theatre,’ says Wouters. Not that the theatre does not attract him, on the contrary: ‘I have long been tremendously fascinated by the theatre building, and in fact by all places people assemble in. For thousands of years, theatres have been trying to be the biggest possible buildings, yet spanned by roofs that are not supported by pillars halfway across, so that all the people sitting there can see more or less the same. I would like to relate to that desire to be able to sit together, dry, dark and silent, to watch something – the construction of a shared view.’
In the course of a conversation with the artistic management of the KVS, the initial idea for the INFINI project was born, as Wouters indicates with an anecdote. ‘In the first conversation about my ideas and needs for the project, one of the dramaturges suddenly said: “Have you ever reflected on the fact that the building next door is not a fortress, but a covered square?” Someone else had previously said that they would like it if I “came and did something in their house”. Back at my workshop, I wrote the following: “What sort of place is it that is intended to be both a house and a square?” In this regard I inevitably had to think of the completely transparent Perspex model of the renovated KVS. Why do we need all these metaphors to designate a space which is in itself already a specific space with its own history? This phantasm of a transparent theatre suddenly became clear to me: a building that is intended to be a membrane that only lets in those things from the outside world that are wanted, these being light and sight. It tells us something about contemporary arts centres, which are trying for an almost direct dialogue with the towns and cities they are located in – it’s a desire I understand, but it often conflicts with the reality of the building.’
A question put by the building
The KVS gave Wouters carte blanche to set to work in the main theatre, even to set up his workshop there for a few weeks to be able to experiment with the stage. The question that drives INFINI comes from the building itself, according to Wouters: ‘That has always been my approach: to set up my workshop in a building and wait until the building starts talking to me and puts a particular question. A year and a half ago I had already taken over a small workroom next to the props store where I was able to put two tables and a pile of books on the history of stage design. Now I started to “read” the theatre itself more actively for a long period, to experience it, to decipher its specific architecture and history. Part of this process was to make a model. For example, I glued in all 49 fly-bars in the fly-tower one by one – then you have time to think about it and afterwards you do know what a fly-bar is.’
So what question did the building ask, the one called KVS_BOL? ‘What struck me was that during the renovation a number of choices had been made about the design of the auditorium. I started to realise that they often reaffirmed choices that had been made about five hundred years ago for a particular type of theatre building. The walls are still there, and what’s more they were reinforced by an extra cocoon inside, a concrete sphere which to architects symbolises creation – womb, egg. Another choice was the horseshoe shape and an arch that determine a specific direction of view from the auditorium to the stage. None of this is by chance. The building tells me that there is a reason why these walls are still there. If there is a place in the city where you can shut out the world and show something else, in silence and in darkness, then for me the question is not how to break open this building, but rather: how can we embrace this medium in the present day?’
‘The flexibility of this building also lies in the technology of the fly-tower, with its 49 electronically-controlled fly-bars that go up and down. This sort of architecture is actually conceived for working with flat planes, that’s what it’s for. The flys offer an infinite number of possibilities, as long as you use painted scenery and backdrops – infinis as they are called in French. This is quite uncommon these days, but it challenged me to think about how we could use this sort of space for what it was designed for. The old technology turns out still to be extremely practical when it comes to enabling several things to exist at the same time in a single space.’
At a certain moment Wouters visited the municipal theatre in Kortrijk, to help the researcher Bruno Forment inventorise scenery that was painted a century ago by Albert Dubosq. Since stage design is an ephemeral medium, the preservation of such large collections is quite rare. ‘In Kortrijk there is a whole stock of sets, which made me realise that the KVS today is like a slide projector with no slides,’ says Wouters. ‘In the past, proscenium theatres had a storage area next to the theatre where a whole series of sets was available that could be set up in no time and from which the director could make a choice on the spot. So perhaps that is the question that the KVS_BOL was putting to me: which stock of sets would the KVS need today?’
One of the main sources of inspiration for INFINI was the work of the eighteenth-century French stage designer Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni, who has fascinated Wouters for some time. ‘I have been carrying scraps of the Servandoni story around in my mind for ten years now. In Paris he created “machine plays” that comprised astonishing animated scenery elements. Servandoni wrote that he wanted to liberate painting and stage design from the yoke of poetry and dance. For these performances, which consisted solely of stage design, a theatre was put at his disposal that had been empty for sixty years – the Salle des Machines – which had originally been built to create the biggest illusion ever, with a stage that was five times deeper than that of the KVS_BOL. After it had been built, however, it turned out that the stage was useless for performances because the acoustics were so bad and no operas could be performed there. So Servandoni was able to realise his dream there. In the first year, 1738, he showed a copy of St Peter’s basilica, out of the desire to enable people who did not have the money to make the trip to Rome still to be able to see this masterpiece of architecture. The following year he decided to show seven different spaces in seven successive sets – which is where the idea of showing a series of backdrops comes from. And he continued in this way for several years. It was only later that I discovered that this whole enterprise bankrupted Servandoni. It seems it did not work particularly well and there was little interest in his performances.’
In the Renaissance, Rome often provided the backdrop in theatres, so audiences had a view of the perfect city. Historically speaking, theatre is a place where a city and a community come to look at an idealised image of themselves. What can we do with this tradition today?
‘Thanks to the walls of the theatre, you can forget the outside world and evoke a completely new reality on the inside. But the question is not which idealised world we should show these days, but rather how this mechanism can still be meaningfully used,’ says Wouters. He gives several examples of theatre-makers who are making a contribution to INFINI: ‘Michiel Vandevelde told me that the walls of the theatre should be able to keep out precisely that idealised world that surrounds us every day, so that you could allow a negative space to come into being inside. Wim Cuyvers too claims that the city as we know it has ceased to exist. What are the consequences of the city becoming increasingly virtual and placeless? What meaning does it have these days when one demonstrates or occupies a square? What significance does a monument still have? All of this naturally has an impact on that theatre-machine that stands there in the middle of the city with the historical purpose of depicting the city. Or else take the project initiated by Chris Keulemans, who held conversations with migrants: everyone in the city imagines it in an infinite number of ways. So what can we still do with this theatre building? How does the city portray itself nowadays? What do the radical changes in the urban space signify for stage design, and thereby for the creation of spaces that above all have a front and can only be seen from a distance? What new possibilities can we discover in this way?’
How do we view things?
Just when we are in the midst of a philosophical conversation about the contemporary space, Wouters observes that his focus is after all on stage design. ‘For me it is also a personal quest for what it means to be a stage designer. What does it mean to continue with this old profession at the present time? For this project I had resolved to learn to paint illusions and draw perspective, two things I am not able to do, but which are at the heart of the history of my profession. After a bit of ringing round I ended up finding Thierry Bosquet, an almost eighty-year-old retired scenery painter who had spent most of his working life at La Monnaie under Maurice Huisman. For some time I went to his studio in Uccle every two weeks. I took a model of the KVS_BOL to these lessons, as well as paintings, drawings and photos that occupied my thoughts, such as St Peter’s basilica and pictures from the newspaper. He told me about the history of stage design, the perspective view and the vanishing point. Thierry took an image and divided it into vertical planes between foreground and background, which I then had to copy one by one and hang in a model in such a way that the perspective is correct when you stand in front of it. So there I am, sitting opposite a man who was also a stage designer, and in spite of the huge differences we also share a history and a desire. We are both engaged with spaces that are viewed, with organising the direction of view, and with the question of how people view things.’
How do we view things? A broader cultural history narrative resonates in this question, a story in which stage design plays a part as a medium and as technology. ‘Historically speaking, the construction of the view is not only a matter of the theatre,’ says Wouters. ‘But in the past too, stage designers already applied the theatre view to the outside world, to the way we read the city. For example, Servandoni also designed festivities, processions and fireworks, and then there are also parks, gardens and fountains. So the history of stage design and viewing in a theatre finds its way into our reading of space. You might say that the way an image is composed emerges from the way we have made sets for hundreds of years. I encountered a striking example of this in a photo by the war photographer Teun Voeten, who, when in Syria, unknowingly chose the same framing as Thierry Bosquet was to choose when portraying a space. That is their embodied knowledge.’
So the question of what you can say today using old technology such as the salle à l’italienne is unavoidably linked to a second question: what effect do old technologies have on the way we look at the world today? This makes the question of showing ‘other spaces’ a complex affair. What does it mean to show ‘other spaces’? When we look at this so-called other world, for example when reading an article on Syria in the newspaper, does it really take us outside, to that other space? Or are we after all caught up in our own viewing habits and expectations?
This tangle of questions takes us to the role of the ‘correspondent’, a leading figure in INFINI. Eight artists (theatre-makers, writers and an architect) were requested, as ‘correspondents’, to provide a report from the world with which the Decoratelier could set to work. ‘At a certain moment I started embracing the theatre space as a place that could portray other places. Historically speaking this was in fact the function of a scenery workshop: to depict places we are not actually in at that moment,’ says Wouters. ‘The question remains of which spaces one is going to build. With the curator Dries Douibi we invited a series of people to the Decoratelier and asked them all the same question: can you decide which landscape we should show in the theatre? We also gave them a budget and a few restrictions. We wanted, for instance, to tell everything in terms of space, with no actors. It is all about depicting other places, really trying to build a bridge between here and somewhere else.’
Negotiating in space
The question we put to the INFINI correspondents – ‘Which space should we depict at the present time?’ – yielded just as many answers to the question ‘How do you want to work in the large theatre at the present time?’ So are the eight correspondents the directors of the production? Or is it Wouters himself who, as set designer and artistic head, decides upon the final result? ‘In this process we are constantly passing on questions to each other. I receive a question from the KVS, which I pass on to eight people who in their turn ask a question which I then have to consider again with the builders in the Decoratelier, which raises new questions, and so on. I imagine this structure as a large group of people around an empty centre, a stage or space where we have to determine what we are going to build, whereby we are constantly passing questions on to one another. So it is both my project and that of these eight people, which appears to circle around a shared desire. I would like to believe that the theatre elicited the performance and it comes down above all to listening to this context.’
For Wouters it was an important step to set up the temporary Decoratelier where the correspondents could exchange ideas with the set designer and a group of builders about the places they wanted to depict. ‘To me, the workshop feels like coming home. I am grateful to everyone here that the Decoratelier is a space where I can discuss things with a lot of people and where we can ask each other questions. The correspondents often come up with a place, concept or discourse that I don’t entirely understand, but we are able to carry on the subsequent conversation in space. When one of the correspondent’s needs change during the process, I can make adjustments on the spot, for example by moving a partition or sawing a piece off. Unlike architecture, set design is like a big, negotiable model. I think that the moment when directors have to come to the scenery workshop is often the most interesting point in the production process.’
As the designer of INFINI, I reflect on how we are going to depict the various spaces, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how all these things can exist together in the theatre. For example, Michiel Vandevelde wants to start out from an empty stage, so we have to put wheels on several other sets so as to be able to roll them on and off easily. Set design is negotiation in space. Negotiation between the space it refers to and the space that there is. Negotiation between the makers’ wishes and the reality of the material and the budget and the technical aspects. And also negotiation between the audience and the stage: how does one view things? How does one focus one’s gaze?’
Ultimately, this continual asking of questions and negotiating in space is an experience that Wouters wants to share with the INFINI audience. In fact he sees the performance as a series of essays in which experimentation and trying things out defines the form. ‘Bart Verschaffel wrote of the essay that it is a heterogeneous collection in search of a place where a bashful subject can appear. And from Wim Cuyvers I received the question of whether architecture can hesitate,’ says Wouters. ‘The Decoratelier is a way of creating space in the course of the exploratory process, and perhaps set design is the pre-eminently hesitant architecture. By seeing INFINI as an essay, it is perfectly possible that the things we show are still hesitating. I think that we show the Decoratelier itself. To me it’s important to create a space where you can ask yourself why certain things do or do not work and why that is so – that is what I see as hesitating on stage. I think the great desire behind this project is to share the space hesitatingly and thereby to be able to hesitate about space.’
Excerpts from interviews by dramaturge Jeroen Versteele with Meg Stuart, performers, musicians and designers during the creation process of UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP.
Meg Stuart: Based on my experiences with contact improvisation, I was eager to test some ideas about contact and touch. I started to work on the skin and borders. Where does one body end and another begin? Where lie our personal borders? In which zones do we feel free? Where is our behaviour totally allowed and where not? Where can we pass our own limits? I was curious how to create a sense of intimacy in a theatrical setting, a theatre stage instead of a hotel room. How then, can you still talk about intimacy and internal exposure?
You see people on stage. You share their questions, their doubts and fears. Though you’ll never understand exactly what they are, somehow a bit of mystery always remains.
In the very beginning, I was inspired by the story of Cornelius Gurlitt. I was curious how it’s possible for someone to slip through society like that – somehow knowing that what they’re doing is wrong, but, in a somewhat unhealthy way, still getting pleasure from art, or paintings in this case.
I often wonder what Gurlitt was doing with them. They obviously gave him a sort of comfort. They might have been a substitute for – familiar – love and braced him against the experience of loss. I was moved by him saying that it was more painful to be parted from his paintings than to lose his own mother. Love comes in strange formats. Looking at extremes opens a window to yourself, your fantasies and your edges.
After a while, I began to see Gurlitt as a kind of magician, who made both himself and significant art disappear. I became passionate about the ‘magic act’, about illusion – which in general is the basis of theatre. What is the exact moment in which we believe? How do we divert attention in performance? What do we need real magic for?
Together with the performers, I began to explore what is magic. And by magic I don’t mean those big fancy tricks we know from Las Vegas, but those little moments of astonishment and ‘wows’. Magic evokes a kind of re-enchantment or reconnection to the wonders we know from our childhood. During creation, we invited a couple of magicians to the studio. One was a mind reader, a mentalist who hypnotized the whole group simultaneously and put us into trance. While improvising and performing you are in a kind of trance as well. In fact, I think we’re all walking around with our little trance states and it’s all about what trance of others you can or can not relate to.
This work contains an aspect of healing and support. The body is a mysterious thing. Being touched on certain places, during a certain treatment or massage, could make you scream or cry. The body is a container of memories and we don’t always know what’s in store and what could possibly trigger what. I believe in the body’s ability to heal itself. There are certain dramatic events people recover from. It’s possible to reintegrate yourself in the world. We are social animals who need social contact. We need these constructed possibilities of ‘play’. We need to witness social interaction. It keeps us going and it lifts us up. Sometimes, I feel, there’s a lack of willingness to be silly and creative. Often, there is not enough trust in the room. Our social relationships are built on protocol, fear even. We have a lot of limitations. Some we don't even know where they come from. In social relationships, a lot of time goes into negotiating our limits: how far or close are we to each other? How do we answer our e-mails? In a way, it is all a game of borders. Why can’t we just say: “Okay, let's have trust! Let's say what we want if we feel like it and if we don't feel like it, that’s ok too”. I would like people to meet each other differently, even if they are strangers.
Jared Gradinger: The experiences we’ve had as a group are what’s most important to me. When friends ask me: “How are the rehearsals going?”, I tell them we participated in a Tantra workshop, which really changed the way we move and look at each other. All this - working with Meg, the input she gives us - completely changed me. Making this piece, for me, is about all of this. It’s as if we’re re-experiencing things we’ve done together – a crazy world with its very own logic.
Kristof Van Boven: For me the project is about how one can be stuck in the past. And about the lack of a collective conscience. One can pull a rabbit out of a hat, but that doesn’t change the fact that a large number of people is still dying every day. Magic is really only for the “lucky few”. The classics still do the trick, but only for babies. Somehow they grow up and can’t be scared or charmed anymore.
Maria F. Scaroni: What’s new for me is the returning fear of getting hurt, of constantly putting yourself out there and to build a trust. It’s an old story but one experiences it anew, with new people and new games. You wear a dress, simply because it’s a dress. You don’t play around or comment on it. You’re not following an imaginary scenario. You just face it, that’s what’s really entirely new.
Claire Vivianne Sobottke: When you watch pornography on a television screen, you feel safe, secure. That is not the case with theatre. I think it’s a good thing the audience is touched by it, especially because it’s about intimacy. I find it striking that in English the words ‘intimacy’ and ‘intimidating’ are so related to each other. Very often, intimacy is a blatant attack at one’s own person. It can also be the opposite: relaxation, warmth, being able to lie together, to talk, to belong together. It can also be that.
Neil Callaghan: For me, this production is about desire and the ways and means to express desire. The stage is a place where one discovers desire, even if one doesn’t know exactly what it is. It’s a place of sensitivity, experience, sensuality, it’s about skin. It’s not about analysis or interrogation but about doing something and seeing what happens.
Leyla Postalcioglu: It’s about contact, but not only in the sense of the body. A lot of things from my past that have to do with contact are coming to the surface. Every touch will trigger a memory. It’s as if the 34 years I have lived are in this piece. It’s about the way we touch or don’t touch things but also about our inability to handle everything. I would love to reach out my hand and contact the outside world. It’s impossible to be in contact with the world, with everyone, with what we see on the street or in the news. There’s a strong desire for this type of contact.
Paul Lemp: Meg Stuart and I know each other for 15 years and have already made several works together. It helps me to experience this type of performance and to find myself in it in a musical way. We started of with very little, catchphrases like ‘Big Band’ - which eventually resulted in a jazz trio with bass, drums and piano – or with a concept like ‘intimacy’. Over several months, everyone begins to work with these elements, until it becomes a common piece in the end.
Marc Lohr: At the beginning, in the first few weeks, I was super stunned. Of course, the goal is to work toward something concrete, but I think this production has made me a better person. On a daily basis, you work together with ten people on a very intimate level given that it’s about the interpersonal, about things that a normal musician generally wouldn’t showcase on stage. I would say it has helped me. It helps to forget virtuosity.
Stefan Rusconi: I’m deeply moved by the facets of magic at issue here – the radiant, spreading into something positive on the one hand, and the dark, profound energy on the other. Contact is also an important theme. Being on stage during the process was both fun and valuable. It gave me the opportunity to experience what it is like to give yourself form and structure in a space by using your own body.
Doris Dziersk: An important element of this stage design is the facial, which should create the impression that you find yourself in an underlying space, a cellar. In an early stage, Meg talked about how she would like to see a certain desire in the performers to ascend. And to go up, one has to be down. The diamond shape and the color lilac were there since the early stages as well. We have been inspired by magic, magical spaces, playing cards and tricks.
Nadine Grellinger: The first scene is full of colors, worn by the performers. A moving painting is created, just like the one by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, that appears later in the performance. You can almost feel the longing for the outdoors, for life. Just like the dancers, the colors add something vital.
"Il faut s’affranchir des règles non dites qui produisent des inhibitions, de l’uniformité." Dernier opus en date de Meg Stuart, Sketches/Notebook fait éclat de tout ingrédient et déploie une matérialité pleine d’utopie. Il s’est agi, dit la chorégraphe, "d’atteindre et de libérer des essences".
Sketches/Notebook que nous découvrons au Centre Pompidou fait large place à l’improvisation et laisse le sentiment d’une forme déstructurée. Cela fait rupture avec la progression ordonnée dont on se souvient dans des pièces précédentes, telles que Violet, Blessed ou encore Forgeries, Love and Other Matters (avec Benoît Lachambre). S’agit-il donc de marquer un nouveau tournant, ou un moment très singulier de votre parcours ? Voire d’énoncer un manifeste ?
Nous ne sommes pas partis de l’intention d’effectuer un travail qui allait marquer particulièrement quelque chose. Il s’est simplement agi d’aborder l’espace offert dans le cadre de ma résidence au Hau à Berlin, et là s’engager dans un processus. Lequel est passé par une suite d’idées de mouvements, de propositions, d’essais, augmentés des apports de Claudia Hill avec des éléments vestimentaires. Tout s’est opéré par croisements et échanges, débouchant sur des ouvertures d’espaces. Cela laisse, en effet, large place à l’improvisation, mais aussi à des collaborations directement investies sur le plateau, de la part du musicien par exemple. Et on trouve ce qu’on pourrait appeler des présences sans rôles.
S’il fallait situer cela dans un parcours, ce serait à relier avec Auf den Tisch! que j’ai développé entre 2005 et 2010, mais aussi avec Crash Landing, dans la deuxième moitié des années 1990, qui s’était déroulé notamment au Théâtre de la Ville à Paris. Mais à ce moment là, la démarche était plus théorique, plus thématisée, tenue par une recherche que j’explicitais. Tout cela s’est assimilé et se développe plutôt à présent sur un chemin de matérialité, d’ombres, de lumières, de forces. Il y a des matériaux, il y a des tâches, il y a de l’improvisation structurée, mais en effet, il n’y a pas véritablement de dramaturgie constituée.
Un autre trait marquant de Sketches/Notebook est l’effectif impressionnant de votre distribution sur le plateau. Qu’est-ce que cette force numérique vient manifester ?
Dix-huit personnes œuvrent sur le plateau. C’est peu habituel. Mais ce qui est réellement intéressant c’est de voir qui se trouve là. Moi incluse, il n’y a en fait que six performeurs, ce qui est un nombre tout à fait habituel. Qui sont donc les autres ? Ce sont les ingénieurs de plateau, les créateurs lumières, les assistants, ceux qui s’occupent des costumes, etc. Ce sont tous ceux qui, le plus normalement du monde, constituent l’équipe effective d’un spectacle. À ceci près qu’habituellement, on ne les retrouve pas sous les projecteurs.
Voilà très exactement ce qui se produit dans Sketches/Notebook, qui révèle et met en circulation toutes les actions de tous les collaborateurs de cette performance, lesquels s’en trouvent déplacés. Certains, parfois, débordent alors de leur champ de compétences habituel, et des actions et situations inédites se produisent. Il n’y a donc pas un effectif exceptionnel à proprement parler, mais une façon exceptionnelle d’aborder l’espace de la représentation et d’y engager les collaborations.
Puisque vous revenez à cette notion d’espace, que pouvez-vous dire de ce que vous offre votre nouvelle résidence de longue durée au Hau à Berlin ?
En fait, je ne dispose même pas d’un studio permanent, mais de belles plages de disponibilité régulières. Cela traduit en termes physiques la valeur principale de ce type de résidence, qui est la cohérence et la régularité d’un accompagnement ; ce qui est déjà très appréciable. Il y a du sens dans le fait que, du même lieu, émergent une grande forme comme Sketches/Notebook, mais aussi dans quelques mois mon prochain solo. Dans Sketches/Notebook, il s’est agi, finalement, d’atteindre et de libérer des essences, c’est cela.
Revenons donc à cette proposition, qui marque aussi par sa grande durée, son abondance, sa profusion, sa façon de ne pas se presser de finir, de passer le relais de nouveaux tableaux en nouvelles situations. Pareilles caractéristiques sont loin d’être les plus partagées dans une mouvance de l’esthétique chorégraphique et de la performance dont on peut vous rapprocher. On y trouve volontiers des stratégies beaucoup plus minimalistes, ou austères.
Cette longueur, cette diversité, cette abondance si vous voulez, ne sont, honnêtement, que le fruit du mode de travail dont découle cette pièce. Encore une fois, c’est une question de matérialité, je pourrais presque dire de travail manuel, mais plein d’utopie, et comme gonflé par un dialogue incessamment insufflé, fait de réponses et de renvois, d’idées singulières, d’accidents, d’imprévus, mais aussi de répétitions, de mises en série, de liens en connexion. Et s’il y a de l’implicite dans votre question, alors oui j’y assume le fait d’offrir quelque chose au public, dans un mouvement d’ouverture vers lui.
Or justement, on peut constater une contradiction dans cette pièce : un dispositif très original conduit les spectateurs à s’installer directement sur le plateau, au plus près des performeurs, sans rien de commun avec la répartition scène-salle habituelle. Pour autant, le spectateur demeure tout à fait spectateur, sans que son statut s’en trouve fondamentalement mis en cause. N’y a-t-il pas là une limite dans votre projet ?
Modifier l’emplacement physique du spectateur, et modifier la nature de la relation entre spectateur et performeurs ne sont pas deux notions parfaitement synonymes. J’admets tout à fait que notre proposition reste assez douce, gentille pourrait-on dire, mais elle est honnête : le spectateur choisit sa place, il en découle des modifications dans ses perceptions de l’espace et de l’action, et des opportunités de contact inhabituelles. Le spectateur en fera ce qu’il voudra, et il n’est pas obligatoire que cela révolutionne du tout au tout son statut.
Dans le même ordre d’idée, la tonalité dominante de cette grande performance collective est surtout joyeuse, ludique, optimisante, ce qui la distingue encore des partis pris esthétiques qui entendent travailler vers une gravité et une profondeur des enjeux.
Le seul fait que vous le souligniez révèle en quoi cette option peut faire débat. Il y aurait quasiment une prise de risque dans l’option de donner du plaisir – ce qui n’est pas synonyme de produire du pur divertissement. Il me semble que notre travail n’est pas si commun. Il expérimente de nouvelles formes de collaboration, il brutalise les conventions de la narration, il transgresse les frontières, il est plein de connexions et de complexités.
Après quoi, je n’arrive pas à me convaincre que serait négatif en soi le fait qu’il en émane une tonalité positive. Celle-ci n’est jamais que la traduction de l’énergie que nous y avons investie, et qui nous est retournée, sans crainte des effets de magie et d’illusion. Il faut s’affranchir des règles non dites qui produisent des inhibitions, de l’uniformité. Je sais déjà que mon prochain solo sera, lui, beaucoup plus tourmenté, malaisé, âpre à l’approche.
L’une des performeuses de Sketches/Notebook me disait que vos précédentes représentations à Beyrouth avaient eu un impact exceptionnel, dont la résonance s’était faite ressentir jusqu’à Paris. Que s’est-il passé là-bas, de si particulier ?
Je peux difficilement me mettre à la place du public libanais. Mais je peux supposer qu’il ait été très sensible à la dynamique de traversée des frontières, à la question des territoires que cette pièce engage sur le plateau. Bien entendu aussi, et au risque de cultiver des clichés exotiques, on dira que l’humeur d’un public libanais à Beyrouth est plus débordante, moins cadrée, que celle d’un public de première au Centre Pompidou à Paris.
Dans cette pièce, on pourrait aussi caractériser comme très lyrique, enflammée, voire héroïque, la qualité d’engagement qu’y investissent les performeurs…
Héroïque ? Lyrique ? Est-ce que vous voulez parler des musiques de Jurassic Park ?
Oui, il y a de l’ouverture, une envie d’y aller, mais d’un héroïsme d’enfants alors, dénué de toute prétention. On traîne peu de passé dans cette pièce, on la vit engagé dans l’instant. Et là je préfère y déceler des connexions subtiles, des vibrations, des variations. Par exemple, beaucoup d’actions sont minimales, comme le fait de sauter tout simplement sur place.
Mais alors, une action aussi basique engage une forme de confrontation avec la migration, la mutation, le dépassement d’un territoire, l’émergence. Il faut y chercher sa place. Dans cette pièce, c’est tout un collectif qui m’a déportée vers ces types de qualités. Mes propres séquences y sont particulièrement reçues, accumulées, placées sous cette pression d’un mouvement d’ensemble. Ça n’est peut-être pas si mal que, finalement, je montre mes propres contradictions de manière apparente dans une pièce…
S’habiller, se vêtir, se travestir, se costumer, se changer continuellement, sont des actions réitérées, parmi les plus partagées de Sketches/Notebook. Quelle est votre relation avec la question de l’apparence vestimentaire, voire du look ou de la mode ?
Je ne suis pas une accro de la mode. Mais je suis très concernée par la question de la construction des images. Dans la grande circulation des éléments vestimentaires que vous observez dans cette pièce, ce ne sont pas les personnes elles-mêmes dans leur narcissisme qui importent, mais le mouvement de partage de leurs identités, les échanges, le principe de composition de soi par emprunts aux autres. Rien de décoratif donc, mais une exploration des voies de la métamorphose et un principe de mutation permanente. Il est également excitant de questionner le lien entre l’enveloppe du sujet par sa peau, et l’enveloppe seconde par le vêtement.
On reconnaît certains de vos performeurs comme des figures significatives dans le champ des performances de genres, sensibles aux théories queer. Pour autant, cela ne semble pas être investi directement dans cette pièce.
C’est leur pièce. Je laisse faire la confusion et le mouvement, sans thème unificateur. Ils sont tous très différents.
Quel est exactement votre rôle dans Sketches/Notebook ? Dans cette grande session d’improvisation, quelle signification accorder à l’indication d’un projet de Meg Stuart, créé en collaboration et interprété avec cinq performeurs, ainsi que le mentionnent les documents produits ?
Je dirige. Pas de doute. Mais de quelle manière ? Un processus très ouvert engage tous les collaborateurs. J’ai pris l’initiative de les réunir. Je maîtrise certains moyens pour le faire, je rends possible des croisements, je fais en sorte que cela fonctionne. Il ne s’agit pas d’une zone libre. Je décide d’actions, je m’autorise à les changer, je dégage des lignes dramaturgiques. C’est un travail d’orchestration.
Pour autant, c’est leur pièce. Pour ne prendre qu’un seul exemple, la disposition spatiale, si déterminante dans ce projet, ne vient pas de moi. De même que tout ce qui se passe à chaque instant vient des apports de chacun et ne cesse de se moduler au cœur de l’action même. Cela reste toujours en discussion, le sens demeure ouvert, ne se fixe pas, laisse place à des changements de situation. De ce fait, la notion courante de score, au sens de partition d’actions à conduire, ne me semble pas vraiment pertinente pour évoquer ce travail. C’est que tout relève aussi d’un principe de rythme, de temporalité.
Cette pièce est une célébration d’un principe de travail ouvert et collectif. J’espère qu’il apporte aux gens ce dont ils ont besoin ; et cela n’est pas synonyme de ce qu’ils aiment. En ce sens, je reconnais bien volontiers que ce projet exerce une forme de séduction sur le spectateur, mais alors il faut mettre cette notion en discussion. Par les temps qui courent, il n’est pas anodin d’offrir à un public des raisons de ne pas désespérer.
Reproduction interdite sans autorisation
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.
In her new piece‚ Hunter, the Brussels-based choreographer Meg Stuart explores her personal cultural archive. One could see it as the performed sequel to the book Are We Here Yet? from 2010, in which she reflected on her practice.
Remarkably, Hunter is Meg Stuart’s first full-grown solo since she broke through as a choreographer with Disfigure Study, in 1991. What made her decide to make this piece? “I had never made a medium-length solo like this,” she replies. “The solos I did make since Disfigure Study were all kind of side projects between group pieces. This time I really started choreographing on my own body again, making movement studies, curious of how my age [laughs], my experience, and all the work that I’ve been producing and the material that I’ve been exploring, have influenced me and my movements. So in the preparation I went through my personal archive: the work, but also the family history archive, Super 8 tapes, photos, cultural heroes, and stuff that I used to like when I was young. In the result, the personal and private meet the public, because the collaborations and the shared thinking with different artists, scenographers, and musicians were an inspiration too.
What do you think you were hunting for?
Stuart: Back in time, you hunt for clues to who you are, for patterns in the choices you have made, for the things that got you were you are now. Hunting has a certain urgency: it is longing but not reaching, looking for a connection. But it is also playful. Making these quantum leaps in time and space, I also explore possible parallel lives and worlds. As if by going back into the past I can rework and rewrite it.I went to a shaman once, and when we talked about family history she said it took seven generations to make changes in the patterns families live in. And I do sometimes have the feeling that the lives of other people – family and others – are influencing my movements. That I am actually dancing experiences of other people. You could say that in Hunter I am crossing the weird notions of shamanism and quantum physics.
So the piece is not a chronological personal diary or overview of your work.
Stuart: And it isn’t a direct translation either. It has the form of a collage, with very clear sections and a very important sound score by Vincent Malstaf. I make all sorts of associations and juxtapositions; I also use fictional selves and bodies, so the material is all first-hand and has its own complexity. And as I didn’t want to be all alone onstage, there are a lot of voices. Of people I know, but also from William Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Yoko Ono: a lot of fragments and voices which are talking to me or through me. I also talk about Trisha Brown, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson… Not that I drown in nostalgia or that it is only for people of my age. [Laughs]
Did the hunt bring you to places you had never been to before as an artist?
Stuart: There is a part in the piece where I am talking and blogging about art, urban space, dancing… Maybe I didn’t realise before that I have so many things to say. [Laughs] I think that this person on stage, who doesn’t need to be behind a lot of alternate identities and is not afraid to be transparent, is kind of new. I don’t think I’ve done another performance before in which I was so openly saying what was on my mind. I also show many sides: tough, aggressive, and masculine, but also softer, lyrical, fantastic. Which doesn’t mean that I’m off on a solo career now.
Interview with Meg Stuart
I usually work with musicians who compose a soundtrack during the creative process. For Built to Last I wanted to start with existing, overpowering, symphonic music. As a human being, how do you deal with the enormity of it? In collaboration with Alain Franco a series of pieces have emerged, resulting from various traditions of classical and modern music. I didn’t carry out a mathematical analysis and deconstruction of the works, I simply responded to them on an emotional level. What is it that music releases in us? Slavoj Zizek says something very interesting in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema: “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 soundtrack acts as a time machine. The dancers move this way and that in history. They unfold a new consciousness in every scene: for themselves, for the space, for the music, for each other. Many dance sequences have emerged from an exploration of changing laws and codes. Many of my other choreographies stem from a certain state of mind. But in Built to Last we let the music force us to adapt to new forms, time and time again. In each form we looked for complex, subtle manoeuvres. The slightest movement, a single glance, can make iconographic, monumental pictures into something ambiguous and human.
The expression ‘Built to Last’ betrays a belief in eternal values, heroism and universality. At the same time, we have the urge to continue reinventing ourselves. We have to move forward. Many things are designed to break after a short time. There is also the sense of an approaching end. Everyone is preparing for it. It is sad, but that’s the way it is. Maybe Built to Last is about how, in the light of eternity, we can practise taking our leave, practise dying.
translation: Gregory Ball
She is fascinated with natural phenomena such as tsunamis, tornados and rock formations. Because of the energy they trigger and the relationship they create with their environment. No wonder then, that choreographer Meg Stuart has named her most recent performance after the last colour in the rainbow: violet. The colour that forms the transition into the unknown, the invisible. Violet, a force of nature, will be presented at SPRINGDANCE 2012.
The American Meg Stuart works from Brussels and Berlin. With her company Damaged Goods, based in Brussels, she has made more than twenty productions. She is known for her theatrical choreographies in which she scrutinizes human relations. Do Animals Cry, for instance, billed by SPRINGDANCE two years ago but cancelled due to the ash cloud over Iceland, presents a deceptively comfortable family scene. With Violet she is taking a new turn. Stuart herself calls Violet her first abstract piece. But do not expect a purely formalist showpiece. ‘I think Violet is very moving, very touching. You see the dancers at their limits. It is charged, it is alive. It goes out of cold abstraction.’
Five dancers and a musician. The music is performed live and drives the dancers on. Movements and tones undulate across the room, a shaft of energy fills the auditorium. Stuart and the dancers created their performance during an emotionally charged period. The protests in the Arab countries entered our living rooms via television and the tsunami in Japan, home to one of the dancers, and the accompanying disaster at Fukushima nuclear power plant brought commotion across the globe. Violet does not deal with these things explicitly, but it has been influenced by these contextual factors. Such events, mass and movement carry some imperceptible force, and this is what Stuart and her dancers have tried to capture. ‘What makes things change? What makes them transform? What makes them move? Somehow we absorbed the climate into the piece.’
Violet has been described as a landscape of physical sculptures. A description that seamlessly fits in with the theme sculptured bodies & body sculptures set for SPRINDANCE 2012, which focuses on the exchange between dance and visual art. In the past Stuart often worked with visual artists, but with Violet it was a conscious choice not to do so. And so, there images appearing in front of us are not static. She herself calls them sensorial sculptures. With the intensity of the music and the movements, and by stripping away any surplus theatricalities Stuart tries to create a physical sensitivity, both in her dancers and in her audience. ‘We wanted to make something that was quite intense and that wasn’t just a visual experience, but also an experience for the nervous system.’ They took a pop concert as their inspiration. ‘When you go to a concert, you feel the potential, the energy, the drive. That is the feeling we want to transmit.’
Energy appears to be the thread connecting Violet. Stuart’s decision to create an abstract performance has resulted in a, to her, new form. In her earlier work she addressed people’s manipulative natures, and behavioural intentions. In those performances she also manipulated the audience’s view. In Violet the five dancers can simply ‘be’ which allows the spectators the scope to decide for themselves what to look at. Stuart describes Violet as a ‘utopian space’. ‘There is nobody pushing anyone around. The dancers are all living independently. There is an acceptance and that is a very special choice in Violet. It is all just happening.’ One important source of inspiration was a video by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, in which he walks into a tornado holding a video camera. ‘He just did that. What kind of physical experience is it to be in the centre of such a force? Natural phenomena are something mysterious and unpredictable. The dancers in Violet are in a force as well. They can´t get out. They are also just doing it.’
Even in this new form, Stuart’s signature is still clearly identifiable. Her focus on the upper body, the frequent use of the arms. The performance was made in close collaboration with the dancers. Their individual material has been worked into the piece. But the most characteristic element is the search for some edge, the taking up of new challenges. ‘Violet pushes some kind of edge. You get a bit disoriented because the dancers get dizzy, the atmosphere gets delirious, it’s hot and the music is getting loud. You lose a bit of ground.’
During SPRINDANCE 2012 Violet will be performed at the Stadsschouwburg, but as a spectator you will be seated on the stage, in close proximity to the dancers. That way you will feel the music, see the sweat. This proximity is important to Stuart. ‘We want the audience to see that the dancers are at risk, that it is for real. You might not know exactly what they are working on, but you feel that they are engaged in what they are doing, without any distance.’
Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods
Thurs 26 April / Stadsschouwburg / 7:30 pm
Annette van Zwoll is a freelance dance dramaturge and essayist in the cultural sector. She has regularly worked for festivals such as Springdance, Nederlandse Dansdagen, Oerol and ITs Festival Amsterdam, for individual choreographers such as the Belgian Koen de Preter, and for organisations such as anoukvandijk dc, Dansateliers and ArtEZ Dansacademie.
In Meg Stuart’s BLESSED a white-clad man in sandals — picture a Brazilian hippie passing a lazy day at the beach — traverses a stage that resembles a storybook island. His flattened movement gives him the two-dimensional air of Nijinsky on holiday. But there’s something not quite right about this strange scene: the set, which features a palm tree, a hut with a chair and an enormous swan, is made entirely of cardboard. Soon enough it begins to rain. There’s trouble ahead.
“You have to think about questions of fate,” Ms. Stuart said in a telephone interview from her home in Berlin. “People in spiritual decline often think, ‘Why do these things happen to me and not to someone else?’ ”
Beginning on Thursday, New York Live Arts in Chelsea presents the American premiere of BLESSED, welcoming Ms. Stuart back to the city where she lived and worked starting in the mid-1980s. This acclaimed 2007 production, with a score by Hahn Rowe, also reunites her with the Portuguese dancer and choreographer Francisco Camacho.
In 1991 Ms. Stuart, an American choreographer and improviser whose influence on the European dance and performance scene is extensive, made Disfigure Study, the work that put her on the experimental map. “The piece was very physical and concerned with movement language and choreography,” Mr. Camacho said. “But I think she was also trying to touch feelings and emotions, and that made us dig deep into the work. Like with BLESSED, it put our bodies in a different place.”
Since the premiere of Disfigure Study Ms. Stuart, who was born in New Orleans and raised in California, has lived in Europe. Berlin is her home, but her company, Damaged Goods, is based in Brussels, largely for financial reasons. While her appearances in New York have picked up in recent years, her choreography — especially the group works — is all too rarely performed in the United States. Her group, which shifts according to project, was named after a line in a review by the American critic Burt Supree: “But it’s failure that absorbs Stuart, the body’s stubborn, fumbling thickness, its sticky desires and cruel inefficacies. And everyone is shown as damaged goods.”
The man in BLESSED has surely suffered some damage, yet for Ms. Stuart, Mr. Camacho’s calm presence solidifies the spirit of the work, which has more to do with his reaction to the collapsing world — somehow he withstands the trauma — than to the collapse itself. “He’s such a sensitive dancer,” Ms. Stuart said. “He has so much poise. It’s not like if I make a solo for him, it’s all about flash.”
The work develops slowly to reveal the effects of time and is, in part, a wordless morality tale, which balances the formality and the serpentine theatricality that grace all of Ms. Stuart’s work.
Yet despite her sustained success Ms. Stuart is intrigued by new territory. In Are We Here Yet? (Presses du Reel, 2011), a book exploring her artistic practice, she writes: “I’m still learning to make dances. I don’t feel I have a formula.”
In conversation Ms. Stuart’s accent blends the cultivated sound of someone who has lived overseas for years with something a little more surfer girl. For her next dance, she said, she will work with classical music.
“Can you believe it?” she asked, before adding a whoop of laughter. “With emotions and theatricality and a Beethoven symphony — well, just some of it. What does it mean to work with a monument like that and experiment? It’s like how people occupy public spaces now in order to reclaim them. It’s somehow reclaiming this music.”
BLESSED, essentially a solo with a couple of appearances by guest artists, was a way for Ms. Stuart to revisit her New Orleans roots. The production was first shown two years after Hurricane Katrina, and the influence of the disaster is palpable, notably in the way that Doris Dziersk’s set is gradually washed away by rain.
“I lived there until I was 5,” Ms. Stuart said. “My memories are of hurricanes and big water beetles and Mardi Gras. It wasn’t about, O.K. now I have to make a piece about Hurricane Katrina. It just came out, and it connected to a lot of things I’ve been about: people dancing as if it’s the end of a relationship or the end of the world — ‘what if’ scenarios.”
As the landscape shifts onstage and the rain persists, Mr. Camacho plugs away, finding shelter with soggy cardboard and, later, transforming his body into shapes that conjure religious images. Ms. Stuart and Mr. Camacho both found the 1999 David Lynch film “The Straight Story,” which features a man driving a lawnmower across rural America, particularly inspirational. As Mr. Camacho put it, it gave him permission to be a man who’s “losing control of things around him, but he still goes on and on.”
It is that perseverance that defines Mr. Camacho’s doggedness in the work, which, as you might expect, is not easy to perform. The rain, for one, which was introduced to the rehearsal process early on, creates harsh conditions.
“It gets cold fast, so it’s very uncomfortable,” he said. “The smell of the cardboard with the water is terrible after a while. So it’s very unpleasant, but it does change the perception of your body and of what the movement can be. I like to look at the possibility of movement within different contexts, with different materials even. There’s a moment when I sit in the chair for a long time just looking at the audience and what is dancing is the set.”
BLESSED, Ms. Stuart said, explores how circumstances can change from one minute to the next. “What does it mean to survive?” she asked. “But as much as I go there, I also think of it in terms of form and what this is as an art piece. What is the theatrical experience you can have that’s not shock, that’s not just — O.K. let’s be brutal? There’s an interest in pushing things beyond their comfort zones, but there’s a lot of poetry in this piece. You don’t have to give up one for the other.”
Meg Stuart is an American choreographer and dancer now living in Belgium. She is a very important figure in the European and International contemporary dance world, leading her own company Damaged Goods since 1994. We got the chance to talk to her and the well known Austrian Choreographer and Dancer Philipp Gehmacher together with the German visual artist Vladimir Miller about their new, physically intense piece the fault lines which they presented via Tanzquartier Wien in the MUMOK factory basement on 4th and 5th February 2011.
How did this collaboration come together, what does your work as a trio look like?
Vladimir Miller: I was invited to work together with Meg and Philipp who have previously done a piece called Maybe Forever, also with a third person on stage, a Belgian musician. So it is a continuation of this kind of praxis, bringing a third person - in addition to the two dancers - on stage.
Philipp Gehmacher: We have worked with different artists like scenografists or artists specialised in video before.
Meg Stuart: We made this piece Maybe Forever and we were touring it. It is now four years old. Then it felt there is still another piece with more intimate body dialogue to be made ... so there was something more to do. Few years ago we had a short residency in Salzburg. At that time we invited Vladimir and started to research.
PG: I think it is really a piece that came out of a meeting. Getting together in the same space, each of us proposing ideas and throwing them in there from our own pratice. It was not that kind of work with a score conceived. The gathering came out of a shared interest to meet and spent time together.
MS: We had this growing artistic concerns about putting the work into an art context. It was interesting for us to not just do a performance on stage but to work on something more like a performance installation.
PG: Coming from the performing arts doing a show together that one has to install and reinstall in different places and different buildings which is logistically not always so easy was really an interest of mine. That you can play on site. That doesn’t mean it is site-specific but you have real walls to deal with. It’s not a bare theater but it can become a bare space. You get into the white cube situation because of the video projection that has to work, but it would also work when white walls are rebuilt for us. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be the classical white cube context either.
The concept of space and void seems important for your works. How do you try to fill the void or produce void?
PG: I think in my work I have done a lot of pieces where I have stripped the theater stage sort of bare of all the theater paraphernalia like the curtain and everything: just a bare floor and walls to attain emptiness or void. Then questions pop up like: How to reinstantiate or instantiate movement, physical communication, physical states and physical interaction? With a visual artist like Vladimir coming in through projection, light and all kinds of media it doesn’t necessarily become a straight forward background that illustrates the hole space for a particular theme or aim. In the fault lines the input of Vladimir adds to a certain empty space in a very subtle way.
MS: We are exploring »stills« over many years. Especially in Maybe Forever we have done this »sculptural stills«. In the fault lines there is Vladimir manipulating and flickering light with this very expose means. He is proposing thought processes, questions on all different levels that are not necessarily revealed but are suggested. Not through movement but with projections and drawings.
How do you feel about using spoken words? How does it go along with the movement? How do you work with that in general?
MS: Somehow for me it is always – even if there is language involved – a dance proposal. Even if I am working with language I am still working on moving the discourse of dance or »dance as«. Where does language fail, where does movement stop or become interior or how is it exposed? A lot of our work is about stating things that are not explicit and easily readable.
What about the title of your new performance installation the fault lines?
MS: There is an undisclosed situation that is somehow re-examined and re-constructed. There are gaps in relationship to memory and information, in being too close to it whereas there is a need for a distance. On another level there are the lines between the video projection, the drawing, the hidden connections to life. There is no save territory, something could happen at any moment. It is something you presage but don’t experience at the moment. It is quite dangerous to build something on a »fault line«.
PG: It is a technical term actually, »Verwerfungslinie« in German.
VM: Yes, it’s a geological terminology: Where tectonic plates come together.
How important is theoretical research in general? Do you have to generate a certain amount of information before you start to work on something?
MS: It is different for everyone of us. We didn’t do a big sort of conceptual preparation for this work. We are working individually on obsessions, expressions ... interests, discoveries on all levels ... and then we bring it all to the studio.
PG: I think we all read a fair amount and have a large interest in theory. I like it when I work by myself. I don’t need a theoretical starting point or an academic research. I try to work as intuitively as I can at the moment, I try to push this process. I think it is important to say we all have our own histories but also know each others histories. I have seen Meg’s work since 1996. I know more or less 80 % of her works. Every time I look at her on stage – I know when a new movement appears that I like, that catches my eye. She also knows what I am up to. We do come with a whole load of stuff that we want to continue with, we know the discourses around our works. Partly we can try to leave it behind. It is a mix of both things: trying to find something new on the one side and trying to go on on the other side. We know what the other person stands for. All that comes into play when you work with someone you are interested in, you like for certain abilities: You maybe even want to push someone into a certain direction or you suggest they could do something they have not done before. That is very different than being more on the directors side and having performers to cope and collaborate, where you have to be more strictly direct.
How important is the architectual space you are performing in? Is it a kind of restriction?
PG: I don’t think it is a restriction. We just have to adapt every time.
VM: It is important for practical reasons. The projections need specific distances to the wall, they need specific lighting situations, specific wall colours. They need the architecture to be possible. We have to situate ourselves precisely in the space.
Why did you choose the MUMOK Factory for the fault lines and not a typical theatre space?
PG: Initiately it was because we wanted to make something intimate. We needed white walls for the projections because the black box theatre wouldn’t work for that. The beauty of the work is that it opened up a paradox situation. We found it interesting to be in a white cube setting, but at the same time we needed a wooden floor because we created a very physical scene that we could not do on concrete. The white cube frames the theatricality of this dance piece in a good way.
VM: I think there is a shared interest to continue exposing this spill over of dance and visual art to confront ourselves with this particularities of viewing. To see a different take on basic constructions like dramaturgy, to see a different culture of perception.
MS: It is an art space, a white cube but it is also a real room. Looking at the gallery as a room: It is a real place, even though it is neutral, where things are projected in to, on to it. We didn’t want a constructed, fake white cube in a theater space.
PG: Black box theater often doesn’t allow you to use its walls because there is a lot of technical stuff tucked away. It is much more like a podium. The focus goes to the centre of the stage whereas here we want to focus on and use the periphery. We appreciate the possibility to deal with the real architectural boundaries.
Depuis qu’elle a débarqué en Europe en 1991, Meg Stuart fait oeuvre singulière et écorche vif les apparences sociales plus ou moins joliment vernissées. Radical, à l’écart des modes comme des postures, sa danse met en scène des états de corps qui laissent échapper les gestes du désastre intérieur contaminé par le chaos de l’époque. Avec VIOLET, elle propose un voyage mental, par la danse et dans la danse, où l’abstraction du geste donne formes aux perceptions du monde.
VIOLET semble plus abstrait que vos précédentes pièves, qui travaillent sur le corps social. Cette création marque-t-elle une inflexion dans votre démarche ?
Meg Stuart : J’étais en recherche d’un autre mode d’expression, plus abstrait en effet, d’un mouvement qui parle des impulsions du corps et non d’une narration. Mes précédentes créations ont souvent fouillé les structures familiales et sociales, les interactions avec l’intime et le quotidien, les dynamiques des relations humaines. VIOLET explore par-delà les schèmes sociaux, par delà les mécanismes psychologiques et va chercher les pulsions, l’énergie, l’invisible… Les cinq danseurs ne sont pas des personnages, mais des individualités, comme cinq voix différentes qui possèdent chacune leur rythme, leur qualité de gestuelle, leur intensité de présence, et qui se combinent ensemble. Ils le tiennent en ligne au fond du plateau et avancent peu à peu, portés par une vague continue de musique de plus en plus intense : ils vibrent intérieurement, se déforment jusqu’à devenir presque monstrueux, voyagent dans leur paysage mental.
Cette recherche a-t-elle modifié le processus de création ?
M. G. : J’ai suivi le même processus, qui part d’improvisations. Je donne des « taches » aux danseurs, sous formes de questions, de mots ou d’images, je leur fais des propositions, je leur parle, je les guide durant le travail, pour les amener à sortir d’eux-mêmes. L’émotion vient ici par l’épuisement, par la physicalité, par la répétition. J’ai fait des recherches sur l’alchimie, j’ai beaucoup observé les motifs de la nature, les schémas de la psychologie, émotionnelle et physique, les symboles, les structures itératives. Les gestes naissent des impulsions, de l’accélération de l’énergie, des connections entre l’esprit et la chair. Les danseurs sont enfermés dans un « trip » sans fin, sans échappatoire, qui les pousse à leurs limites physiques et s’enfonce de plus en plus profondément dans les perceptions. Leur danse, très organique, s’appuie sur des micromouvements complexes, sur un travail des bras, sur des états proches de la sensation d’effondrement et de la tension orgasmique. Elle les transfigure, comme une catharsis.
Comment avez-vous travaillé avec le musicien Brendan Dougherty, qui joue sur scène en direct ?
M. G. : Il a partagé tout le processus de création avec nous. Sa musique mélange des sons électroniques et des percussions, elle est extrêmement puissante et soutient la montée de l’énergie sur le plateau.
Cette pièce est-elle moins politique que vos précédentes ?
M. G. : VIOLET est un processus qui amène à d’autres perceptions du monde, à une modification de l’état de conscience. C’est une expérience de l’accélération de temps, qui fait écho à celle que nous éprouvons aujourd’hui. Les danseurs vivent une transmutation. Ce sont des individus traversés de forces contraires, qui marchent ensemble et séparément. Ils se dissolvent et se reconstruisent, selon des cycles, comme dans la nature. Ils ne sont pas à l’unisson mais coexistent sans hiérarchie. Ils deviennent des signes. Je crois que les formes et l’abstraction peuvent se révéler d’une très grande force pour le public.
Non-Shrinking VIOLET. Propelled by loud sound and booming silence, Meg Stuart’s new choreography channels pent-up energies – natural, musical and alchemical – and slams with the force of a tsunami
Even though she’s won a Bessie award and her work has inspired erudite analyses, and even though if she’s lauded as a figurehead on the international dance scene, American-born Brussels-based choreographer Meg Stuart remains a mutineer within the establishment. She’s an intrepid artistic explorer and a charismatic character to whom other adventuring artists are attracted.
It all began 1991 with Disfigure Study, her first evening-length choreography during which she twisted and distorted herself in the semi-darkness. The piece was a smack in the eye for a small but select audience in Leuven. It launched her international career and gave her a foothold in Belgium, which soon became her base.
Since then, each work has dealt a different challenge, a new obsession and more risks. Stuart continuously reformulates irresolvable, essential questions about our plight as contemporary beings. In so doing she can drench a performer in water, have dancers in rollers-skates stumble down steep steps or cast herself as a distraught hobo seeking her soul on a carpeted mountain. Although her extensive body of work attests that she is now a grand dame of dance, her unruly blonde crop and intense, slightly truculent stare, still give her, at 45, the air of a mischievous ringleader kid on the block.
In her latest performance, VIOLET, Stuart once again ventures into the unknown. She has banished the social-emotional issues that have coloured her previous pieces in order to concentrate on the kinetic and the abstract. Over and above a theatrical event, Violet is an intense sensorial experience for the audience. Brendan Dougherty, the composer, sits on stage behind a drum kit and produces a dense wall of electronic and percussive sound through which five performers ceaselessly progress, at times painstakingly, at others frenetically. The sensation is simultaneously startling, liberating and harrowing for spectators and performers alike. As usual with Stuart’s work, indifference is not an option.
“The trigger was a video by the artist Francis Alÿs*, where he walks into a tornado,” Stuart told me in August, after VIOLET’s performance in Berlin. “I wanted to give myself the challenge of stripping things right down and, by taking movement as the starting point, feel what abstraction can do. But I didn’t want to make something analytical and cold; I still strongly believe in theatre’s power to communicate to an audience. I began looking at energetic patterns in nature and at alchemic symbols that today have lost their meaning but are still charged with innate sense. We tried transposing the symbols onto the body through movement and infusing them with human intensity. I wanted to think in terms of the dancers being on a ritualistic journey. They are five voices that can be heard simultaneously but that never fall into unison. Each dancer moves using a physical vocabulary unique to themselves; they look for energetic solutions and struggle with endurance and their own possibilities and limitations.”
“The work does not have a specific theme,” she continues, “but I remember one particularly significant rehearsal. We’d been playing with ideas of trying to harness kinetic energy and imagining the havoc it could wreak; we’d been thinking about corrosion, coagulation, things mounting up. One of the dancers was preparing to leave on holiday for Japan and then, suddenly, the tsunami struck. I don’t say the piece is about that, but certainly outside events affected the work somehow.”
“The music is also very important and frames what the dancers do. Brendan got involved in the work on a very profound level, never missing a rehearsal. The sound gets very loud during the first forty-five minutes of the performance, after which the silence is resounding. It’s felt almost physically by the audience.”
And the title? “Violet is the last colour in the spectrum, before ultra violet light, before the unknown, before the imperceptible. I like that notion. Plus, it could be a good name for a rock band. That’s a bit how we feel,” she laughs, “like we’re giving a hard core rock and roll concert rather than a dance performance.”
When New Orleans-born, Berlin-based choreographer Meg Stuart walks into a crowded room her presence ricochets against the walls penetrating the bystanders. The stakes are at once raised and there is a a sudden palpable energy in the space. She is 40-something, tiny and compact, around 5’2” with a slender, muscular build, strong handsome features and thin blondish hair that flops over her forehead in multiple directions. She is quiet and unobtrusive and yet her intense observation of the people around her puts them all figuratively onstage. Each small gesture is magnified, the subtleties of posture identified, each word spoken has the weight of theatrical dialogue. Immediately everyone wants to impress, be at his or her smartest, hippest, coolest. Stuart doesn’t seem to notice the effect she is having. She is actually rather shy and her quiet penetrating gaze is more defensive than offensive. Lucky for the world that Stuart feels kind of uncomfortable at parties. Her refuge in observation transfers to her strategy in creation. She puts life on stage: exposed, abstracted and carefully crafted. In her own words, she looks to “portray people by reinforcing and encouraging qualities already present.” In her last group work, Do Animals Cry, Stuart explored the creepy, beautiful, and complicated world of the family where lessons were taught, love was given and withheld, and family members experienced panting reunions and frequent alienation. It was at once recognizable and surreal, dramatic and monotonous, funny and deeply saddening. Stuart has been creating work in Europe since 1991 when she became the surprise darling of the European contemporary dance scene with her first full-length production Disfigure Study. Over the years since she has created over sixteen productions, collaborated in numerous projects (with Benoit Lechambre, Philipp Gehmacher and Jeremy Wade to name a few), created the improvisational series Crash Landing and Auf Den Tisch! and has had an incredible impact on the way contemporary dancers, choreographers and scholars train, create, perform and speak about dance.
One on one Meg is not the intimidating person she appears to be in public. Rather she is warm and open, curious and kind-hearted. She oscillates between a quiet familial existence and a life on the road—performing and directing, touring cities around Europe and elsewhere, hosting conferences, occasionally teaching and last year working on a book created with editor Jeroen Peeters on her own creative process and history titled Are We Here Yet. It was within the book project that I got to know Meg. After I took a workshop with her in the summer of 2009 she hired me to help her edit and clarify her statements taken from interviews with Peeters. For four months we worked in Berlin, Brussels and the US, sometimes via Skype, both of us on computers gazing at the same Google document, discussing her ideas back and forth, laughing a lot, groaning when we realized we had spent the last hour on one sentence. It’s been almost six months since our work together ended and I’m excited to re-connect with her this July when she comes to SF to teach a workshop at Kunst Stoff Arts. I recently interviewed Meg via skype and a brief excerpt of our conversation follows.
Do you think that having the book finished and out in the world has affected your artistic process?
Meg Stuart: Recently I read something like, “Once things are too articulated it disrupts the organic whole.” I feel a little bit like the book has a little bit disrupted me.
Are you feeling like your methods have become almost a science—like the rules are too clear or solid?
In a way, and because, for example, I said in the book “I never make dances to music,” I think, what if I took on that task? Now I have an obsession with making a dance to total over-the-top music like Beethoven’s Ninth. Not do it the Anne Teresa [De Keersmaeker] way but rather from a very personal place. Perhaps have someone come out with that huge music and just be sort of shy and maybe friendly to the audience. Instead of trying to dance the music just taking it as a “wow, here we are in this moment, like I don’t know, should we celebrate this moment or...?” I don’t really feel close to touching that topic right now and yet it’s there somewhere. It’s on my agenda so I don’t give it up.
I am curious about the origin of your ideas. You talk about “image first” in the creative process, but can you trace when those images or ideas come? In the studio or in every day life?
Good question! I wish I knew. I guess we all would like that right? Where’s the hook up? How do you get there? I think I’m really flexible in the back of my mind in terms of taking any source. A lot of us have really great ideas, we just don’t honor them by acknowledging them and pushing them forward. It’s kind of like they pass through us. I tune myself to pay attention and I try to stay receptive to those ideas and keep them present. Sometimes it’s really concrete, like with shaking in Alibi—it just came into my mind. I want the dancers to shake in this piece. The willingness to let it come from all sides is the key. I feel like whatever speaks to you, like an image or a movement, also speaks about you. There’s a reason that you like it or that it has impact. It says something about your own internal state of mind. I always feel so grateful when I like something or feel really moved. I try to take mental notes of those moments.
In your opinion, what is important in a dancer's education? How do you approach teaching?
I often talk about expanding the range, a willingness to jump into the unknown. Dancers must be free enough in their mind and body that they are available for risk, for failure. It can be about a physical readiness—a released body for example. Or it can be about a mental or emotional readiness—a lack of fear or stubbornness, a willingness to be embarrassed. In my workshops I use scores and exercises I’ve developed over years to take people on trips. Some are about entering a fiction such as “Imagine you’re dead” and some are about disruption and commitment, like “Change” in which I ask the students to change physical or emotional states abruptly on command. Some are somewhere in between like “Impossible Tasks” in which I ask the dancers to do things they cannot do such as “be in two places at once” or “disappear.” I am continually responding to the moment and the group. I improvise as they improvise. I have to be quick to respond and identify material and encourage a deeper investigation or development. I accompany the dancers in their work.
Sonia Reiter is a dancer, writer, and dance and Yoga teacher.
Originally published by Dancers’ Group in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance. www.dancersgroup.org
Interview in the frame of Toneelstof, a project mapping theatre history in Flanders starting in the sixties. Meg Stuart has been interviewed by Bart Magnus about the nineties.
How do you look back on the nineties?
It's strange to look back, because you can't separate it from your own history. In 1990 I was twenty-five, so it's different to be in your late twenties than now being in my mid forties. But for me, it was the big transition from working in New York for ten years to showing my first piece in 1991 at the Klapstukfestival. It was the transition of becoming a choreographer and an artist in my own right. There was an extraordinary amount of energy and also a lot of tension. But maybe that is what I see in the decade because of my personal experience.
Did you see any performances of the 'Flemish Wave' like Rosas, Jan Fabre, Wim Vandekeybus when you were in New York?
I heard that things were going on in Belgium and there was an audition for Wim Vandekeybus, but I couldn't imagine leaving New York, so I didn't go. But I was interested in what was going on. There was a performance of Vandekeybus at The Kitchen, but I didn't see it. I remember that, when I showed my first work in Leuven at the festival, Michel Uytterhoeven said to me: 'Unless you have seen Rosas and Jan Fabre, you can't speak about dance or performance in Belgium', and I thought, 'who are they?'
So I went to see Jan Fabre's Sweet Temptations. It didn't really shock me, but it was a strong confrontation. I found the use of elements almost irritating. It was disjointed, strong and powerful. Later on I also saw Ottone Ottone by Rosas. It had a huge influence on me. I found it so accomplished. I was really impressed by it. But I only saw those works. I still haven't seen Fase. And I only saw the reconstruction of Rosas danst Rosas.
The most important performance for me in the nineties still is Moeder & Kind by Alain Platel and Arne Sierens. I found it so human, but with a very sharp lens. Nothing was covered up. Everything was exposed. It was an intimate space of a very dysfunctional family and it was laid out in images. The kids in the piece had an equal voice and an equal say. They expressed themselves through pop music. At the same time it was kind of brutal. I saw it with a bunch of friends in Bruges around Christmas. We had a Christmas party and I thought it was the perfect Christmas show, because it was about family falling apart.
When I started working here, I made No Longer Readymade in residency and had more contact with the artists here. I started to meet different artists and got more into contact with choreographers.
How were your last years in New York? Why did you decide to come to Belgium?
When I was in New York I was always on the run, working two or three jobs, touring and dancing for two or three different companies. It was a good time, because I took in a lot of information. I went to a lot of galleries and I saw many things. But at the same time I felt that there was something that needed to be said. At that moment there were a lot of new body techniques: a lot of work with technique and release. But I guess everyone in New York either wanted to dance with Trisha Brown or was training in that way. I was also training in that way, but I was curious to show something more ruptured, another type of body. I was trying to resist my training. AIDS was also a big topic in New York at that time.
Did it have an influence on the dance scene?
Very concretely, artists were dying. Somehow, there was a sort of dance boom in the eighties in New York with a lot of financial support. A lot of people did dance. It got a bigger audience, but later on things were closing down and there seemed to be less money and less companies. People could do their first piece or second piece, but they could never start up a company that could sustain itself, besides the main companies of Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. Financially things were shutting down.
That was the beginning of the nineties?
Yes, but there was still a sense of community and a lot of shows to see. In New York there is always a lot going on. It's strange, because 'my' New York was downtown, lower eastside, St Marcus Church. Now the geography has changed. The artistic community has moved outside of the city. Now it's in Williamsburg, deep into Brooklyn and other spaces. So even if I would go back to New York, it would be different. The map has moved. The areas are not the same.
You got to Leuven in 1991. How did you end up at Klapstukfestival|Klapstuk?
Tine Van Aerschot went to New York to look for choreographers and young artists to suggest to Bruno Verbergt and maybe invite to the Klapstukfestival. She saw me dance with another choreographer, Randy Warshaw. She contacted me, and came to the studio to see a work in progress. I happened to come to Europe, so I met Bruno Verbergt and Marc De Putter. They were running Stuc and Klapstuk, and they said: 'Why don't you work for six weeks in the Dance Studio in Leuven?' So I did. They came and saw a small solo that I did in The Kitchen and eventually they asked me to show my first evening piece in the festival.
When we look at the reviews of your first piece, everyone seemed to agree that it was the best piece of Klapstukfestival|Klapstuk 1991. Did you also experience it as something extraordinary?
I felt I got strong reactions. To put out your first piece takes a lot of strength. It's important that your first piece is a strong statement. I don't think it should be otherwise. I was just relieved and happy that it made sense.
One of the critics said that the world at that time, in 1991, needed an artist that was concerned with society and said something about the world. They felt that Disfigure Study could answer that question?
I wouldn't say that. I can only say that it responded to something that was missing, but it was also choreographic research. I didn't show an integrated body moving through space; I showed a body in fragments. It is a resistant body that keeps resisting the will of the tour. I show small studies, things cut up. There is a lot of disconnection. I was really proposing this distortion as a physical concept. In a way it was about exposing an interior violence. It was still dance, but starting from the question how we can read movement as it develops.
The disfigurement and dislocation of the body seems related to the dislocated or disconnected world. Or at least it was read like that. Was that intended or were you just concerned with how this body was put on stage?
Of course you were absorbing reality. You absorb where you are, you take in where something is made. It was made in Leuven, but it was also made in New York, so it responds to that. Any artist, who is open and sensitive, responds to their world and how they see it. It's quite a sober work. It's interesting that it had a connection with audiences here in Flanders or audiences at that moment in Belgium. It resonated with the artistic landscape. Half a year later we showed it in Holland, in Springdance, and we got very bad reviews. People were not connected to the work at all.
How do you choose your dancers? Is it a question of technique?
It has developed over time, but they should be technically skilled and able to understand and physically respond to my language and my natural way of moving. I am not interested in working with non-dancers or anybody on the street. There is a certain amount of technique and skill that is needed to release and throw your body on the floor. I like dancers that have experience with contact improvisation. I look for strong improvisers and for performers who can be exposed, transparent and vulnerable on stage, but they don't need a fixed way of presenting themselves. They should have a wide range and should be intelligent movers.
The nineties were a transition period for dance. When I studied dance, you had the masters who had a certain body language and technique, so you learned the style of someone else and interpreted the work that was made. But in the nineties people were looking for new structures, even hybrid structures, and new situations. You looked for new ways to create work, so throughout the nineties dancers became more active participants. They are always active, but more active in terms of how they proposed their ideas, improvisation or scores. The whole politics of collaboration or working together with dancers had to be negotiated. I think things moved in that direction.
Which performance in the nineties was the most important for your development as a choreographer?
It's hard to say, because they're like your children. You can't say: 'That's my favourite.' You can defend the ones that aren't the most successful. You value them even more, because they push you in developing further. You can distinguish certain periods in my work: the first period is my first and second piece, Disfigure Study and No Longer Readymade. That was made in residencies, partly in Glasgow, then in Leuven, and also a bit on the road. It typifies leaving New York and not really arriving in Belgium. It's like living in those in-between spaces and adjusting to a new understanding of me and my work: how I manage my time and who I am. Things were shifting. I think it's about being displaced.
And then I made No One is Watching, which was the first real group piece. That was completely made in Brussels.
Then in the last half of the nineties there was a project about working with visual artists. There was a lot of interest in searching for hybrid forms or new structures, new ways to approach processing. In order to make new work, we had to find new methods of working. We were thinking about how we work and in what way pieces get made, or how they need to be made. These questions really started to surface and instead of starting with the dancers and the movement language, I was interested in starting a dialogue with visual artists. And afterwards meet the dancers through that dialogue and try to work on other ideas. So I looked for artists that I could connect to like Gary Hill for example. I saw his videos and fragmentations of the body: looking at small body parts and creating a body pile in which you don't know who's body is what. It shows a body of catastrophe, when you don't know if they've lost their identity. I got quite obsessed with body piles: the merging of one. That was the faze of working with visual artists and working with Gary and Ann Hamilton. This development was very important.
In 1994 Damaged Goods was founded. What was it like to form your own company in Brussels? What were the conditions in the artistic field in Flanders and how difficult was it to establish your own company?
There was a certain group of people here in Leuven and in Klapstukfestival|Klapstuk who helped with the touring and managing of the first two pieces. Then they said that it would be good to apply for money from the Flemish Community. I guess I was the first non-Flemish choreographer that even tried it. It felt a bit groundbreaking. We decided to try it. We didn't know where we would land, and we didn't know how to develop.
We were rejected once or twice and we weren't recognized as a company immediately, but I did get money for projects, It took a while to get established. For me it's essential that I am not somebody who's just passing by. There has to be a long-term commitment and I have to have time to work all day. It was important that it wasn't something casual, just seeing what would happen next. It was necessary to dig deeper and commit myself to doing research and not feeling like I had to make the next new piece. I could still research and try things out. The company allowed for other types of projects, like Crash Landing. Creating that kind of improvisation project was only possible because of the structure of the company.
Was your work in the nineties, and maybe even now, a reaction to what other dance companies did? You said you gave an answer to something that was missing in dance. What exactly was missing and how did you show that in the use of the body for example?
It's important that the things you show in the theatre space are not simply statements. It's not about showing material and movements that are learnt and just playing them back. It's not a playbackspace. It's a live situation where things can be questioned. That can be about who I am or who I am for the audience, or the relationship between performer and audience, how I experience my body. It's all about asking questions, not just for me but also for each performer involved. Things are not easily resolved. It's not about: 'Look what we can do and look what we have, look what we have trained and learned.' It's about things clashing, things being confronted, things failing, working with resistance, working with an extended period of time. This was very important.
In New York in the eighties everything went very fast and things were rushed. And we thought: 'No! Stop! Slow down, we work with extended time, and you have to look at this. You have to look at this again and again in stretched time until you reflect on this image.' There was a real insistence on slowing things down. Sometimes I would see dance and I would see it flow, but I always thought: 'I don't want to see this, I want to see things disrupted, things getting irritated, stretched, pulled apart, things not flowing.' This was really important and maybe it continues to be important.
One of the critics called the body in your work a deaestheticized body. Can you relate to that description?
You spend years in a studio learning to be distorted or to show disconnected bodies, disjointed limbs, or working with states. I think it's the discovery of working with emotional states. And when you see someone in an intensive state in a way it becomes virtuosic and skilful. I had to convince dancers to do this kind of work, but now if I teach in Paris for example, things go much faster. People have those improvisation skills. It has become a kind of training.
Is there a difference between the atmosphere in the nineties and now?
Now there's more warmth and heart. People are more open. At that time things were more closed. I felt that if my work hurt, it would work.
Maybe it's more difficult to hurt people now, because of all the images they see.
Yes, somehow. We didn't show wild grotesque images just to shock, but there was a lot of internalized tension as a result of what was going on in the world. It was put on the body.
So what was happening in the world was not literally put on stage, but internalized in the body?
Yes, what was happening in the world was internalized. It was trying to digest it. I thought a lot about loss, dealing with loss, dealing with absence, letting go of things, things falling apart, and so on. That's how we worked, how the absence marked our body. We also worked with issues of trauma and working with body memory: how that forms us, and our presence. We started to research all of that and it could only happen because of the research into release and opening and going into virtual spaces as you lie on the floor. Only when the body is open and not in front of a mirror learning movement, when it starts to work in the imaginary space, you can travel back into a body state and body memories. Not just private memories but also collective ones.
Were specific events ever used as an inspiration for your work, like the war in Iraq or Rwanda? Or were you more focused on the body itself?
For me, going more direct with the body started in 2001. But we didn't read or look at specific things.
Was the difference between performance and dance important to you? Is it relevant, because there are different terms like dance-dance and dance-theatre...
It was a search for hybrid forms. The Crash Landing project was very important because improvisation was shown for the first time in Théâtre de la Ville for example. Artists came together in a state of emergency. I talked a lot about improvisation as crisis. We come together and we don't know where we are and we don't know what we are going to make. It's not about shared agreements, but disagreements. We had different kinds of languages that we brought together. We didn't have live musicians working with instruments, but working with electronics. This electronic music was very important. We forced things together and we insisted on finding a new language. But we still wanted to improvise. In this way you can find out how artists can meet and can cross over. It's looking for new ways to collaborate and new ways to create structures where it could be either more like an art piece or more like a concert. For me these issues about dance theatre for example were not that present at that time, it was more about taking information from the visual arts and looking at how we could work together. In Crash Landing bodies were often shrink-wrapped; they were installed. We worked with objects and looked at how we could improvise with certain situations.
It didn't matter if the result was more like dance theatre or performance?
Yes and also we didn't try to create a singular event, or a singular proposal. There was quite a lot of excess. We allowed it to be an instable object, or an instable event that had different readings and different entrances, different ways of interpreting. We changed a lot of things in flux and we changed the space every night. We didn't want to get too comfortable; we didn't want to get fixed on something. We wanted to keep working with instability. If I have to go back and talk about the nineties, I would say that there were a lot of unstable proposals.
What were the most important influences on your work in the nineties, maybe collaborations or things that you saw?
Artists like Nick Cave, but that is in the eighties, PJ Harvey, experimental music. I don't know. It's hard to say.
It wasn't that relevant?
I can say what I was looking at. But it isn't like Francis Bacon or the work of Mike Kelly was an influence. It's hard to say what influenced me. You can name some points, but it is never specific.
You talked about the performance Moeder & Kind, but were there any other performances that you saw that were striking to you? Are there some choreographers you feel related to in Belgium?
I think the early work of Alain Platel was very important. There was Moeder & Kind and then the next one Bernadetje, with the bumper cars. These first works were very striking.
If you look back at the nineties, what is your overall feeling of the decade?
Things were very tense, but there was still a great amount of energy. It was before 9/11. We still believed we could find a new way to make pieces, a new way to improvise structures, and create new understandings of what choreography and performance can be. It's not optimistic at all, but there was room for things to shift and move. We didn't think it had all been said. There was no question about why dance? We were focused on redefining dance and thinking about what we were saying with our movement and dancing.
The individual was important and the person behind the movement. Where is that person and how does he position himself in the world, and how is he related to the world. Where do we put this internal space, thoughts and feelings when we move? How do we embody that? And next to that, how can we embody feeling disconnected or not present? Where does that have a place? It's all about the moments before you move. All the thoughts and questions you have inside your head.
Do you feel something of this openness is lost nowadays?
These things are very fractured and splintered. There is a lot and it's very hard to track, and there are many mini tracks. There are so many different small points of view, but it doesn't feel like things are lost. I think that artists of my generation are more open and there is more generosity and connections between the artists.
Interviewer Bart Magnus
Transcription Diane Bal
Editor Eline Van de Voorde
Meg Stuart answers the phone in Berlin with a series of tiny moans. To be true, she is juggling a lot; her newest work, Do Animals Cry —loosely based on family structures—premiered in April and is currently touring Europe. She is also overseeing the publication of a book, Are we here yet?, about her company, Damaged Goods, which will be available early next year (she describes it as “manual of how to be Damaged Goods”). Beginning November 6, she will appear at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for the U.S. premiere of Auf den Tisch! (At the Table!). The improvisation project, curated by Stuart and copresented by the Performa ’09 biennial, features a conference table, an audience, and a group of carefully selected artists, musicians, actors and thinkers. Joining Stuart for the New York installment are Trajal Harrell, Keith Hennessy, Janez Jansa, Jean-Paul Lespagnard, Jan Maertens, Yvonne Meier, Anja Müller, Vania Rovisco, Hahn Rowe, George Emilio Sanchez and David Thomson. The American choreographer, who has lived in Europe since the ’90s, spoke about improvisation.
We need to talk about At the Table!
Oh. Something that can’t be talked about. [Laughs]
I was worried you were going to say something like that.
But we can try. I am, like, shaking in my boots about it. In the ’90s, I curated this Crash Landing project with David Hernandez and Christine De Smedt, where we all improvised together, and some years later I got asked to do it again. The setup is a big table that the audience and performers are sitting around. There are four microphones. Loosely, it’s a conference about improvisation while people improvise. Basically, what I like about the thing is that there’s a real fluidity between talking and doing. You can walk through all different kinds of voicing—from talking and personal reflection to a speech; you can be talking, and all of a sudden you can become an object or an example. And the audience is kind of flush against the table so they’re really part of the action itself.
What is the meaning of the title?
Auf den Tisch, in German, is to put things on the table. What do you have to put out there? [Laughs] The setup is beautiful because you can be very minimal; you just see somebody ask a question, and then any little movement is highlighted. But, of course, to do an improvisation on this big scale in a festival is totally terrifying. I was kind of hoping to put another little small solo next to it. But because of finances, spaces and whatever, only this table project made it. But I’ve stopped crying about it. I’m up for the risk.
What are some of the ideas in it?
It’s an improv that can also reflect on itself. If you think about improv more openly, all the issues that we experience in life are there in a very heightened way. We can talk about taking risks and what we’re afraid of—for me, improv is crisis. And trust. And finding solutions to unstable situations. Or can improvisation be strategy? Without always using the word improv, there is subject matter in it already, So people talk about that or physicalize that and you can fluidly go from associative speech, to wordplay, to just, “Hey, how are you doing?” to dancing-—let it rip and jump around all over the table. And I don’t know how it’s going to play out! I’ve asked a diverse group and we’re all going to have a proposal at the first meeting. They will all bring [an improvisation] score or say that they want to give a speech. Generosity’s important. And compassion. But what I like is that people have to work things out—they have to come to agreements and it’s intense. It’s good.
Where have you done it?
Twice in Belgium, and once in Austria and Berlin. That’s it. This is, like, the fifth edition.
Does it change?
In Vienna, it was in the context of this Mozart festival—I mean “Mozarteum”-—and they got me to do it because they said Mozart used to improvise. [Cracks up] So we had an opera singer on the table and Hooman Sharifi—it was pretty bizarre. And it was in a classical setting, but it broke right open because the first thing someone said was, “Let’s think about Fitzcarraldo—like doing an opera in the jungle!” I know. It’s pretty woo! What I’m happy about is I’ve done a lot of improv research. I still feel like I’m learning how to do it and also how to guide it. I would be very sad if this was presented as “Meg Stuart’s new piece.” Basically I asked Trajal to help collect a group, and then I propose the setup, the scenario, and we go.
Who are some of the participants?
Keith Hennessy, who I met this summer. He’s quite a politically active–type guy, older. And Yvonne Meier, who I once took a class with, like a hundred million years ago, so I’m totally excited because she has so many strong ideas about scoring. Vania Rovisco who actually does a lot of installations and improv work, but she’s part of a younger generation. She danced with me for five years. I’m totally excited that she’s going to be introduced to New York because no one knows her. And another strong woman named Anja Müller—nobody knows her either. She’s a choreographer and performer and a great actress as well. And George Emilio Sanchez—I don’t know him at all [Laughs]. David Thomson, he’s a gorgeous dancer and I’ve never had a chance to cross his path so I find that a total thrill. I think it’s a mix of people that would connect, but aren’t, like, a cozy group—it’s not people who always work together.
So you’ll meet with everyone a few days before the opening?
I’ll be there already from Monday; we meet Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and the show is Friday. We have time. It’s also what I like to do. I don’t like the sort of one-night improv things.
And you discuss scores?
For sure. And I think what’s important is that it’s an improv that works in this particular setting. It’s not just “Let’s go and improvise”—it’s more like we’re all sitting together. What does it mean to have four microphones and be able to ask each other questions and then let it slip into movement?
The audience never becomes involved, right?
They can. It’s not forcing anything, but they have, at times, been asked questions or interviewed—I wouldn’t rule that out. One time we took all the chairs and put them on the table and there was nowhere for the audience to sit. We’re not roping them up and teaching them how to move or something, but the proximity can’t be really denied.
Why do you return to improv?
I use it as a research for my work and I like putting it all in a performance situation, but I think I’m also interested in how to create conditions for something to happen. Years ago, I would meet people in passing at festivals; this is a meeting onstage. It’s another way of connecting—not just, “What do you do?” but sharing practice. I’m always experimenting with forms. I like that this is not just any improv, but a very concrete thing. The safety valve of this project is that anyone can get on the mike and say, “Restart.” There are a lot of other buttons here—other things can happen here because we have this verbal layer. It’s an interesting setup, let’s put it that way.
Does the space change the context?
I think the composition of people does, for sure. What I really like is that talking can blur and you can have parallel realities. People can keep a very intimate conversation and talk really quietly while somebody’s dancing on a table. That’s what I like in improv. I have a wide palate. I’m quite open to things shifting a lot. But there was one table event in Berlin that I wasn’t happy with. I actually made everyone stop, and then they had to do the whole hour and a half again.
I know. [Laughs] I think control freaks are the true improvisers.
And too much generosity is boring.
Somehow. But I think you can also call it instant performance. Not just improvising. It’s like collecting shared interests. We’re talking about improv, and that is very difficult to describe. What does it mean to deal with accidents and unstable structures? If I start talking about failure in improv, it can get very deep. It can be really exciting.
Why is this so scary?
Of course, I like to put myself in dangerous situations where I don’t know where I’m going to land. I’ve had my highest performance moments and my lowest in improv situations and it’s a practice. At this moment in New York, I think people appreciate how brave it is to improvise and what it means and how it’s only in this moment at this time with these people and within this context. I hope we can be committed to stretching; I hope that in all our skills we can really put something strong on the line. I will encourage the group. But it’s not my group—it’s a very unique collection of people meeting at this intersection of time and space in the city. In a festival context, when you’re next to finished work, it’s a little bit scary. You just have to have the right lens. It doesn’t mean it can’t be really strong.
Are there rules? Is there anything that the improvisers can’t do?
Uh, uh, uh… [She bursts into laughter.] I guess that means no.
Can you tell me a little about how you came up with the concept for the piece?
I started with family but not necessarily family as we know it, rather the word familiar: intimate spaces, private spaces, the attraction of people close to us. I was curious to compose a group that would change roles. They would have tendencies, one person could be mothering or childish or whatever. That evolved, they wouldn’t be fixed but shifting roles. I knew I would have a closed group but also an ‘outsider’ that would effect the group or change things.
Like a social experiment on stage?
I’ve been interested in social choreography for a long time, the unspoken rules of relationships and how that effects the body. Like when you’re going to greet people, do you kiss them or hug them? Also I found it very exciting to work with the notion of family, a close knit group, but without having to tell a set story.
What methods do you engage with in the studio in order to set your material? It seems to be highly choreographed but still retain a freshness.
For the most part I propose very open situational scores and we improvise daily, sometimes with a task and sometimes I just ask questions. Sometimes it’s more open: I can ask them to pant and see what happens…or I ask them to work on exaggerated motions and I put on music. I often improvise and then we learn segments of the material back from video. I would say to them something like, ‘I want to make a family portrait’ and I work on this concept and all variations of this. Then when I’m ready and I know how the theme will develop, I have them learn fragments of it from video. So for the most part it comes from them and I sort of encourage them along. Of course I like the real time things that are happening now, when it looks like they’re working things out and when they’re questioning themselves during the performance.
I think that integrity in performance was really clear, especially during some of the solos…I wondered how much of those particular parts are left open to the performer? Is that movement in any way improvised?
For Adam’s solo (the outsider) I identify a quality in a character, almost character traits in him: he’s young, sexually adolescent and overwhelmed with emotion. We describe a kind of portrait and then I identify movement material before deciding, ‘I think you should do a solo’. I set up a situation and then slowly it develops… he gave a lot of input but by the end it becomes fixed.
It sounds like the dancers very much play a part in the creative process and I wondered how long you have worked with that particular group?
Half of the dancers I worked with on other pieces before and half of them are new. I have preparation workshops, I try out ideas but I’m also looking for dancers. I think it’s important that there is the right balance of energies depending on what work it is, but mainly that they’re all individual so they can work together as a collective - as a whole. They should be very technical but also able to improvise, have a lot of imagination and be open for experimentation.
Who would you say your influences are?
For this particular piece we watched a lot of movies together in the studio: ‘Festen’, ‘American Beauty’, ‘Teorema’ by Pasolini, ‘Happiness’ by Solondz plus a lot of other independent movies. We also looked at Caravaggio’s paintings. In the piece we have these family portraits at the table and I wanted some sort of classical element to the work. I think I draw from a lot of different sources and then I filter them through into the process.
There was a lot of sound coming from the performers in the piece either through their own voice or by creating sound, like when the ‘mother’ character is bashing on the drum kit.
I try to expand the notion of dance, dancing and choreography. So they can breath, they can sing, they can scream, they can dance. I’m not limiting it to one kind of way of presence or vocabulary. They shift a lot, their style is always changing. It’s about expanding the range.
There seemed to be a lot of space within the work, this idea of waiting for the right moment, and I wondered how deliberately you feel you are manipulating the audience’s perception of time and their awareness of place?
I mean I normally work with a flow of time, or extended time, that’s typical for me. I think this ‘everydayness’ or waiting…..It’s not always about the event, but also sticking together in hard times. It’s about the daily times, almost the boredom of things. Like meeting each other at the kitchen table. I wanted to play this out somehow. I think theatre is a place where you can take time, you have a different notion of time. I know I challenge the audience but I think it pays off in the end.
The set design by Doris Dziersk and music by Hahn Rowe seemed totally integral to the work, seamlessly fused into the body of the piece. How did you approach working with these elements?
The composer wasn’t always there because he was in NY but he was involved from the start and was making music right up till the last moment. The stage was built really early on it the process. Not at the very beginning but we started rehearsing, had a deadline and it had to be made. We wanted to make something vast, animal, cosy and bright but also something that suggested there’s no way out, that you hide secrets in this tunnel.
It looked to me like a beaver’s house. One moment that stood out was when the performers were running through the tunnel. Just seeing the different layers, the textures as the light changed. What is your approach to working with those materials?
The running is important because it addresses the stage directly, a way of trying to make sense of the space. There is a house or a safe place, but it’s a dog house and it’s way too small. There aren’t a lot of elements, but it’s enough to give it a sense of home. A home gone wrong or something.
What’s the life span of the work? Are you coming to the UK?
I would love to! You know I haven’t shown my work much there. We’re going to Canada in February and we’ll be in Belgium and Holland. We’ll be keeping it for a while.
Cristiane: I would like to start by asking you to talk about the improvisational score and more specifically about how you establish the sequence of the improvisation. How do you work on that structure?
Meg: For this table project or generally?
Cristiane: Specifically for this work [Auf den Tisch!].
Meg: The first thing is the set up, which is a very clear proposal and has been in every edition of Auf den Tisch!. So the set up is not a general improvisation, but indicates that it is a conference. There is a guideline that we are in a conference situation and these four microphones before us are always the starting image, the starting point, which indicates to the performers that dialogue, exchange and debate are as important as movement. I started asking each performer to come with something, either a score, a proposal or a stand which they want to put on the table, and we have some rehearsals. We met on Tuesday (Nov 3rd) for the first show, which was on Friday (Nov 6th) and we met audience for the dress rehearsal when it became clear what the issues of the performers are. I would say with that there is a kind of loose score that melts people together.
Cristiane: So you do not establish a sequence from the scores every performer brought to you during the rehearsals?
Meg: No. Not at all.
Cristiane: Things just happen?
Meg: I think they happen by dialogue because there are intentions others put out. We want intimate conversation, we want to talk about certain topics, and things are expressed in this rehearsal period, which are at hand to be accessed by people during the performance.
Cristiane: That’s interesting. So, each performer has to understand the moment to bring his/her specific issue to the table... There is not a sequence, at all?
Cristiane: What made me think it really was? I really thought it was.
Meg: It is the beginning. And I forget to really stick to that beginning because I think it signifies a listening and everybody is talking about the body and it is talking about a shared body and a shared body of knowledge… It kind of tunes the audience for all that kind of democratic space, because we are all in that listening space, and we are already expressing that. The audio input is as important as the visual input. And that is kind of put that way right at the beginning. I think that is a very clear start.
Cristiane: Yeah. It is the kind of project that relies a lot on the ability of listening and perceiving the right moment to bring things out, change or shift what is going on. How to perceive that as a performer and how to deal with this kind of information?
Trajal: It is very specific to the framework of the conference. I think this is such a strong proposal because it is being in a conference. I think we really try not to play conference. We are in a discussion, we are developing a certain way of thinking about improvisation, a certain way of improvising and we are conferencing, so listening is inevitable and inextricable to having the conference. And for the performers, it has to be negotiated through listening and through speaking and through performing, and all those things require a level of history that we develop through rehearsals as Meg was just saying. I think when it comes to the listening it is not radical because it has to be, you have to listen if it is going to function really.
Meg: I think if you bring an international group of performers and improvisers and you put them together and say, “Okay, now we are going to perform”, this sharing of knowledge and these negotiations, this meeting, diverse languages, being in the moment, listening and responding, it is all already present. Somehow we are just making it more visible. It is becoming visible because of the way the space is delineated, but it is already present when good improvisers are together. We are tuning or amplifying that, so it is more present. I think there is one layer for the audience but there is another layer for the performers where they have a chance also to point out, to reflect, not only to dance but also to have a shared discourse about improvisation, another subject...
Cristiane: I thought that was very interesting because even though it is implicit to improvisation listening to the other’s body and in this case to the other’s speech too, we tend to consider more important to speak than to listen. I felt it was an interesting negotiation you allowed us to experience together with the performers at the moment they are dealing with that. Talking about performers, how did you arrive to this specific group of artists? I am talking about the cast for New York.
Meg: I wanted to have some people from New York and some people from Europe, and not necessarily a comfortable group, but a group that are somehow connected or that I felt connected to. Yvonne Meier, for example, I met twenty years ago and even studied with her a little bit and I was very interested in her approach to scores. Keith Hennessy I just met recently and he took my workshop in a very intense short meeting. I wanted to have also a very mature group and a group where there would be a certain amount of tension because it would be different ideologies, different practices, different kind of approaches meeting each other. I also wanted dancers/performers that I knew very well—Vania (Rovisco) has been in my work, and we’ve worked together for 5 years. But she is another generation, she is improvising on her own. And then Anja (Müller), is now in my current work (Do Animals Cry - 2009) so she is someone I just spent a year improvising with everyday in the studio. Personally I was interested in different kinds of approaches, different histories for me to cross. I wanted people that were as much thinkers and that feel very comfortable to speak and that can very fluently go between action and reflection, between talking and doing.
Trajal: I think it was also my input knowing the New York scene a bit. I was trying to find different people who had a relationship to improvisation but who come from a different point of view or different ideologies or methodologies. I think that was essential because, of course, David, Yvonne and I are quite different. Yvonne has a strong legacy of improvising in New York and she is a certain symbol of the history of improvisation in New York. And David Thomson is someone who is quite well known as being this incredible dancer in New York, but he also has been seen improvising a lot. He comes from the Trisha Brown history in his body, and he has worked with Ralph Lemon, among others. I think improvisation has being a good part of his practice working with these choreographers. George Emilio Sanchez I know as someone whom I have heard speak a lot and who is very opinionated. He also has a very direct relationship to this history and scene because he has been a chairman of the board of Movement Research and he performs a lot in shows that are in the dance world. So I thought he would be someone who would bring a very verbal acuity to all of this but also would relate, because he has a relationship to the stage practice. Myself, I studied improvisation more as a very young student in theater, much more so than now. I mean, only now is it starting to kind of be a part of my research and the way I compose. Because of wanting certain possibilities in the work, improv is a way of inviting a different kind of texture in the work. I think many choreographers today are using improvisation in that way… but I have to say my strongest sense of improvisation comes from being a very small child in the African-American church and the sense of the extraordinary vocal and physical language that happens there. This is what I remember so much. When I heard about improvisation, I was “Oh, this is very related to what was going on in my kind of Southern culture”. Even my grandfather singing on the porch. My grandfather sang blues all the time on the porch. He had a group and they would sing when they got together around his house. It was very normal. And sometimes kids on the street would start teaching a new dance and it was always improvised. But in my artistic practice, I never really dug deep into improvisation or contact improvisation. Although I looked at it a lot, it was not a part of my studio practice.
Cristiane: I think there is a division and a kind of conflict between work that is rehearsed and work that is improvised, but as you were saying, many dances are improvised; it is a natural thing to improvise. In street dances people relate to that in a more natural way. And bringing that to a performance space – again, there is a whole history in improvisation -, but I think it is an interesting thing to put that in a conference where people can look at it from a different angle and discuss it or watch a discussion on improvisation in a maybe – more formal way, since a conference is something that is very formal in relation to a form that is somehow opposite of this kind of established structure.
Trajal: Yeah, it is very difficult. That is what makes Keith really interesting because he has also been writing his Ph.D., I can’t say exactly what his Ph.D. thesis is on, but I know that he is doing a lot on improvisation in different ways—and that is very clear when he engages in dialogue about improvisation at the table. It’s very clear that he’s been developing an intelligent way of thinking and writing about these issues. But in general I think the language of how we talk about improvisation is still being developed and still being argued, and that it is still in a kind of discursive problem area. Even to say improvisation is rehearsed is questionable for some people. It is not something that is not rehearsed just because it is not repeated. We are rehearsing; we are going to rehearse now.
Meg: I am trained in contact [Improvisation], and I felt it came very easy to me and I enjoyed it because I felt very comfortable somehow. But then I realized that there was a big gap between what I wanted to show in my own work which is about the problems of communication, things that block people from being together, and I did not want this… For me things aren’t equal necessarily, it is not like “I roll on you, you roll on me” and we have this shared agreement. Normally there is much more tension, and I wanted to also pull out this tension. So I was always trying to figure out how I can push contact by taking some of the principles and either moving into other fields—like Contact with visual artists, Contact with musicians or space—or in what way can we work with different languages and, not disagreements, but things becoming more jarring, pressing up against each other. This has being a kind of ongoing search for me in all different ways.
Cristiane: One of the things that I am interested in is the tension between the spontaneity of speech and movement and the relation of a certain kind of pressure in saying the right thing or the coherent thing to start a movement, action or reflection or disrupt it. So how does it work while you are performing? How do you deal with this tension between spontaneity and pressure?
Meg: I do not know quite what you mean in terms of pressure…
Cristiane: Basically… (Looking at Trajal’s face) You know what I mean, right?
Trajal: Yeah, I experience this a lot in performance. I think it has to do with risk and experience. I mean, the best improvisers are very attuned in some ways. [To Meg,] And you are very good at this because I have learned a lot by watching you do this. It is a level of being in tune with yourself, what’s going on with yourself, and also knowing the whole so well… You have an impulse: is it the time for that impulse? Of course, if you think about that impulse too much it kills it… so it is an attunement and a constant calibration of things… it is playing an instrument, you are both playing the instrument of your individual performance and the instrument of the whole performance. And that is what the best improvisers do, they are able to take those risks, not worry, trust, go in, deep in, you know… They are able to play with that. It is a challenge, it is hard, it is hell. I mean, that is the thing. Of course, you have a huge amount of pressure to do something, to make the thing work and you can’t just be “doing” all the time.
Meg: Yeah… I think restraint and not doing is a big action. That is a very powerful, very important choice. And also just always remember the context. I mean, like where you are so you are not just carried away by the moment and also know that it is on a timeline. It is an event that it is marked in time so there is a difference between the first minute and the tenth minute and the thirtieth minute. There is also somehow trying to keep track, so it’s not just passing through a reel but somehow there is like, “OK, this event has happened, this event is happening, this person is here”… so you just really have tuned in with the timing of the whole thing as well.
Cristiane: Have you ever had audience members who spontaneously came up to the microphones to speak or on the table to perform with you?
Meg: Not spontaneously, I mean even in the dress rehearsal we invited two audience members to dance at the end and at the end we asked some questions. I thought it was quite interesting. We talked about “is there discourse in New York or not about improvisation?” And then one of the audience members says there is no discourse in New York. Point. And then some of the audience members added their thoughts about that. So I thought it was quite exciting when they get involved in the discussion, but for the most part we have not had a kind of sabotage action or somebody who is pushing and I think they have been quite respectful. I mean, it does seem they are open but they don’t sort of like jump right in without a kind of gesture or invitation.
Cristiane: How do you act as a moderator of this conference with the time of the action? Last night you didn’t interfere so much, right?
Meg: I’m not the moderator in that sense. I mean, I had the set up and we together [with Trajal] chose the cast, but I have to have a profound trust in them and also the nature of improvisation. The agreements are made by the group—this specific group—and they are discussed: how much structure we have or not. And there is a certain amount of trust, so somehow, at the point of the show, I am also on pretty much equal ground. Because I think if you start censoring in the midst of that it can be quite dangerous. I mean, there is a way to say like “OK, this is missing, I will put my input in or this thing is to take off, or on a certain level I want to see this”, but not to sort of cut people off or sort of clip their impulses because that can cause a real blockage to expression in the group.
Cristiane: I like to think about this political body on that space and at the same time to think about the political or activist speech and how in certain moments it appears in the dance work. Many times I keep asking myself why to dance or why to watch dance, or why to write about dance, and somehow for me, personally speaking, the biggest thing about dance is the political act of moving the body in a freer way. How do you relate to that when you bring this kind of political speech to the table, and of course, it comes from different people and their specific issues, but how do you perceive this political speech and why this is so important right now?
Trajal: I think for myself there are three ways I can answer that question… one is that the personal is political, the choices we make, the things we put on the stage, the way we create the conditions, the practices that we develop around work…
Cristiane: The choice of being in it.
Trajal: This is political. For me, doing this project is political. I step into it fully because I believe it is radical and it is important that dance have a voice, especially in New York, and it is like someone said that night, there is no discourse in New York. Well, it is true, there is no discourse and it is quite marginalized, which we know about dance in New York and many of us who are working in dance are constantly trying to solve this. Number two, I think within this context of Performa, it is very important that we talk about this form. It is not at all a protest, but it is a great political testament to have it in this festival, and for people to begin thinking about it and to see its value and to read this interview about it… because that is what is incredible about this form: there is a limit, let’s get real, you know. Balanchine said there are no stepbrothers in dance. And I always remember this because it is really true. Unless you say he is the stepbrother it is really hard to make a movement to figure out that that person is a stepbrother, okay? And I think stepbrother is very important because of course, “step” is not just about being the brother, it is about the politics of marriage and divorce and blah, blah, blah. So, when we think about this kind of form, it allows for another level of approaching dance, of politicizing dance, thinking about these cultural, social issues around improvisation. Like Meg said before in another answer, it amplifies them in a way that makes it visible for an audience. Three, I think in this context of New York has such a political function, and I am not just talking about education and making people think that is good, but I think we really have to re-evaluate the role of the arts in culture and society. Meg asked the question the other day “do soldiers in Afghanistan improvise?” I mean, that says it all right there.
Meg: I think also it is a crossing of forms, I mean there is improvisation and performance, but you could also see it as a kind of extension of this renewed interest in the Movement Research [Performance] Journal and also, somehow the practitioners themselves can own their own discourse. And it’s bringing discourse back to the body. It is not like there are not experts talking about what they are doing, or critics saying what dancers and choreographers are doing, what are doing, but they are also with themselves saying, “hey, we also want to discuss among ourselves, we want to have this kind of platform for ourselves”. I think it is interesting that everyone that is on this table as a practitioner is also sharing the same risk. Sometimes I find it hard when people make work and then a critic shows up or an expert shows up, but [here] I love it …I think it is political that we are all risking in all senses, even the ones asking the questions, the ones answering, the ones lying on the floor, the one getting naked… and we are all put on this shared level, I think that’s very critical as well.
Cristiane: It is very interesting to see this political aspect more and more in dance, because theater has a long tradition of political theater, and dance is getting more and more political not only in a thematic way, but in its action. This work is an important platform to reflect that through this crossing of backgrounds and issues. I am also intrigued by the NATO conference picture used to promote your work. I can see a couple layers of significance in that, but I would like you to talk a little bit about the decision of choosing that picture…
Meg: Yeah, I think everyone can immediately have some sort of image of it, it talks about the people on this table are experts, but I think also there is a whole series of translations and different points of view. There is much understanding, but there is also misunderstanding and miscommunication and lobbying. … Let’s say people have issues… yeah. I think I just put it in another space rather than show a picture of a dinner table or other kinds of tables with large groups that you can imagine. And also you get clearly this idea of conferencing and that there are things to be worked out.
Cristiane: And NATO is an organization about security and you are talking about risk…
Meg: It can be also, yeah. I think crisis and emergency are often a given when you talk about improv.
Cristiane: I like to think about how the dimensionality of things can completely change our perception. I really felt affected by that huge table and the way its image could become a stage but also flows to the image of a celebratory space or a conference table… So, you created a space that could become many spaces. Do you have something to say about that flow between the political, the stage and the celebratory aspects of it?
Cristiane: (smiling) Maybe it is just my personal reading.
Trajal: I think it is pure potentiality. (pause) It is all there…
Meg: I would hope that when there is an action – I do not even want to call it physicality or movement - on the table, that it is also another way of perceiving it… even if it is not defined or it is not framed by those speaking, even if it is just silence, I mean, movement with music, it feels like that is speaking, it is expressing… you know, you don’t say “Okay, here is the dance part”. But I hope also kind of makes you perceive it differently because of the context. I mean, for me I often see movement as text, I see it as authoring, I see it as expressing. I work with the intelligence of every single part of the body and how it can express someone and what else it is expressing between languages or beyond language... and I have a lot of faith in the body and the movement as well! Yeah, that is also another part, a kind of platform for this. It is part of what we want to push as well.
Cristiane: The light and sound cues were also improvised? I mean, it is clear there are cues, but do they choose what to use in specific moments?
Meg: They are improvising, it does not mean they are not preparing, I mean, all day yesterday Jan (Maertens) was here, they were following our meetings and our sessions and both Jan and Hahn (Rowe) I worked with - I mean Hahn for a very long time but Jan for many productions - so, they were improvising with the experience of the kind to find tune and awareness… for Jan, he has been following this Auf den Tisch! projects, but there are no set directions … I mean, they discuss, Jan discusses his concept with me, but they are making their own choices during the course of the evening.
Cristiane: Is there something important you would like to say about the project that we did not
Cristiane: Information about the future of this project you would like to share?
Meg: There are no future plans, though I feel it was the right project in the right time at the right place, let’s put it that way. I felt I was really happy with the response of the audience last night. With the dancers, it is not about liking or not liking or having a good evening… it was like… I think it ran quite deep and made people really think about what they were doing, think about the kind of dialogue they were having and I think it is a big meeting. You know, I have this vision this table could stay in New York and other people could improvise on it or work on it. I feel there is a need for this… I am curious how that is going to move things in relation to exchange and improvisation in New York. I hope it does.
Cristiane: How it is going to echo…
Meg: Yeah, the echoes. I’m interested in the echoes.
Cristiane: Thank you.
Meg: Thank you.
Trajal: Thank you.
Meg Stuart returns to DTW with another duet about love and loss - this time, opposite Philipp Gehmacher.
During her last visit to New York nearly two years ago, Meg Stuart performed a duet with the Canadian dancer and choreographer Benoit Lachambre, Forgeries, Love and Other Matters, at Dance Theater Workshop. Never mind that after F01'geries she created at least three other dances, including It's not funny, a group comedy; Blessed, a political solo; and Maybe Forever, a melancholy duet with the Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher, which will grace DTW next week.
"It's weird that it goes from one duet to the next," Stuart reflects in a telephone interview from Berlin, where she resides. "But whatever. The only thing you can say is that it's another collaboration with another choreographer. Maybe it's still about love and loss, but Philipp and Benoit are totally different. The atmosphere is totally different too."
And Americans have missed so much of Stuart's work since she relocated to Europe in the mid '90s that it's hard to be picky. Unlike Forgeries, a cinematic work set on a mountainous terrain of shaggy brown carpet - a comedy of manners shaded by catastrophe and science fiction - Maybe Forever is stripped down. The tender, melancholic piece, which embraces themes of disconnection and separation, is a portrait of lost love, where movement, more than theatrics or text, is of overriding importance. While intimate, the production is hardly plain; in addition to Janina Audick’s set-somewhat reminiscent of a concert hall - Maybe Forever also features the Brussels-based singer and songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, who will perform his ballads alongside the dancers.
"The work is really sculptural, and as much movement as there is, there is also stillness," Stuart says. "There's a painful quiet within the movement itself. It's not like, 'Oh, I want you to be there!’ There's not a struggle; there's an acceptance of absence in this shifting relationship we have with each other. It's really the about the gesture and the phantom pain we experience in relationships. Or all the ghosts we bring with us when we meet someone else."
But Maybe Forever, which flips back and forth through time, also reveals much about the connection between Stuart and Gehmacher, an established European choreographer who will ne making his New York debut at DTW. The pair met at a workshop taught by Stuart in 1996. On the surface, they have little in common-Stuart deals with theatrical concerns, Gehmacher with formal ones - but their performing chemistry is legendary. "For me, this is very much about the joy of being onstage with another strong individual," Gehmacher says. "That was one of the reasons I really wanted to do this piece - it allowed me to be challenged in a different way than when I work with my dancers. So on different levels, I feel this chemistry, and I understand more and more what she is about. For me, the strongest quaIity about her performance is that she hovers between absence and presence all the time. Why she embodies or enacts certain things in a certain way, and if it's a place where I feel like I should join her, I try. Chemistry is all exchange in a way."
Stuart is curious for audiences in New York to see Maybe Forever because of the way it focuses on the gesture and minute movement-her fascination with what the body can say by itself, without affectation. "I feel like the roots for that have been laid out in the States, and certainly in New York," she says. "There's something quite clean about the work. Forgeries was so messy in so many good ways, you know? Everything was spilling, and here you just see every little glance and detail." In Maybe Forever, she is influenced by Gehmacher, who is known for creating rigorous dances with few movements; for all its severity, Stuart finds his work touching. "I remember watching a performance a couple of years ago, and I thought, I want to be in there," she recalls. "I think this is a return to a trust in movement, a return to a kind of simplicity. Looking atone single gesture on an empty stage-I wanted to do that."
New York, Brussels, Zurich and Berlin have been the stations of your career. Add to that the fact that you moved 27 times before your 27th birthday within the United States alone. How has that affected your work? Do places influence your art?
Sure. On the other hand, it always amazes me how much of my inner world I take with me. Of course, another studio, alone the route to get there through the respective city streets - I feel affected by that. Just as it heightens my appreciation of my own needs and desires. I have my interests, my questions, my obsessions. They are not connected to one place. I think that the idea of always being on the road, having just arrived, getting ready to go again - this kind of displacement has always appealed to me.
Apart from that, I have always been interested in Berlin as a city. My guest performance of Disfigure Study in 1992 was, as far as I know, the first dance performance done at Podewil. I remember how I ran through the streets. It rained. I observed the people from a distance. I could feel the energy. I was very moved. The people here are very direct, almost as if they are looking for conflict. That is hard, but also refreshing. You get to the point fast.
You were born in New Orleans. What do you remember about the city? And where in the USA did you live before going to college in New York to study dance?My birthplace was flooded by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005. The house was washed away, or so I was told. What do I remember from back then? Well, I remember a hurricane. And a Mardi Gras parade. My father was working on his Ph.D. at the University. I was still very young. My parents gotdivorced when I was seven years old; later I lived with my mother in Los Angeles. She taught at the California Institute of the Arts. We lived in a house in an open community of artists, and there was somehow no question that she would take me with her to several courses that she taught. Film, theater, fine art, dance, it was all already a part of my life. San Francisco was another station. And then I went to Boston. A different lifestyle, a different way of thinking, more open in any case. I started to become interested in foreign films; I dipped into a kind of subculture.
Were you already dancing at that point?
I started with ballet around the age of six; at the same time I was also becoming familiar with character dance. I liked that. Later modern dance became my focus. But ballet always belonged to my idea of dance and what it meant to be a dancer. Then, at some point, I started running and training for middle-distance races.
How do you develop your movement vocabulary? Does that also have something to do with daily life in the city?
I just love watching people, in every imaginable sense. When people don't know what they should do with their hands, or when two people meet and are at odds whether to greet each other with one, two or three kisses. These kinds of irritations inspire me - on a 'microscopic' level. On a higher level it's phenomenon like: what, for instance, starts a trend? Life-changing events. Current events. Or the way in which the media overplay our emotions; how our wants and interests are, at times, determined by photographs alone. A work often starts with an animated image. It takes on its own qualities and possibilities, but is otherwise quite simple.
Could you describe that with an example?
With REPLACEMENT, for example, it was an installation from Bruce Nauman: A boy beats a drum, and a mouse runs through a labyrinth. It is about the relationship between the two. That is the image I held in my mind as I thought about the new piece. I wanted to install a laboratory together with my dancers and workers, and in the process was thinking about an experiment, an experiment on people. Theater as an experiment. We started by grappling with the idea of the body of the future. What could that be? As far as
genetics is concerned, cyborgs, monstrosity. Based on that, the piece developed over an eight-month period. The word 'replacement' is the key. I see the piece revolving around that concept of replacement, as well as the fear that is tied into that. The fear of losing your job alone, as people are replaced with technology. And then there is the replacement or removal through a new generation, through history. Or the change to a new city. You have to adjust to a new culture and new surroundings. And then there is the scene where a woman starts to chase her own video image. It is meant to be a little ironic, to imagine being replaced by a video. But I think you can stretch it to cover theater as a whole: we are meanwhile used to seeing medieval pictures. What more can the theater do? What is the theater replacing? And how can the theater compete or even deal with the media?
The concept of control seems to suggest itself. To have a position under control, to lose the control - doesn't this notion play a general role in your work?
That's true. The idea of control has always fascinated me. A tricky matter however when it is a question of movement. I force the body to the edge of the loss of control, although, we do rehearse it for a long time beforehand. The result is a highly brilliant 'romp out of control.' I am interested in physical states that cannot be controlled. Shaking, fever, sweating, ticks, movements that we cannot hide. Apart from that, I also think about the power and control in relationships between people, which I then play out in
physical scenes. The situation in REPLACEMENT is obvious because there is a stage on the stage. An experimental arrangement. People on the outside observe and control the people on the inside. But in the course of the piece, the room explodes, the arrangement shifts. At some point you no longer know who is watching whom. There is no safe place any more. On the other side is an open and democratic room.
Isn't it a kind of Matrix, with the idea that everything is just an illusion and in the end a higher power controls everything?
I think we do touch on that idea; we flirt with it.
REPLACEMENT simulates an experiment on people, an interference with nature. Do you also have images of man-made disasters and catastrophes possibly in mind, whose images we are confronted with day in and day out? Environmental disasters, or even wars, and the fears and dread attached to them?
To be consistent, yes. I think that when we talk about these kinds of fears, it always means that we are confronted with death. Relatives die, family structures dissolve. These are all side-effects of our surrounding circumstances. I don't think that I propose a catastrophe so much as a modern Frankenstein scenario. We looked closely at the history of human experimentation, and the monstrosity of the science industry, with their partly inconsistent statements, from all sides. On one level, the horror should have been presented as realistically as possible - which is why the video images play a partly superficial role here. There is a lot of fiction included, but when you think about the concept of hybrids being part human and part animal, or even that we are able to put the aging process on hold, you start to question the possibilities. How far do we want to go? Do we seriously want to interfere with evolution?
Do you see your choreography in a particular tradition?
I can't really say. I don't think it is my job to assign myself to a certain frame or tradition. I know that I am of the second generation of Trisha-Brown-American-Dance-Release-Technical-Tradition, but I am actually totally fascinated with theater, which is why I am constantly searching for meaning in movement.
What does the phrase 'dance theater' mean to you? Especially now while working in Germany?
I think about Pina Bausch; she is definitely one of my heroines. Plus she has had a huge influence on my work and the direction that my work has taken, once I saw her for the first time, that is. However, I would not really considered myself to be a 'dance theater' choreographer. I would say that everything I do is dance. I put the dance under pressure and force a confrontation with other media. It is something that has happened over many years in a discourse with fine art. Paintings were and still are very important to me, but I have chosen the theatrical stage. In the context of the structures I have been working on over the past few years, at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich and the Volksbuhne, my work is now in a discourse with the story of the theater.
More so than your time in Brussels?
Theater interests me. And where theater cannot reach, dance begins. I am especially interested in working with actors, performers who move between dancing and acting. It is a different process. I still cannot get used to the idea of working from a script or text. That is far away. I don't know if it will ever come to that. My work is constantly developing. I still experiment and play around with form. We'll see how far I can stretch and draw out the dance.
Up until now, Disfigure Study is the only piece that you have taken up again. How do you see the piece 15 years later?
Oh gosh! It is somehow so rebellious and difficult. It is so severe and full of rejection. I feel much more open today; my work is much more open. The look at the body is really forced into new channels in this piece. The steering of our attention, observing others and ourselves, surveillance, even through the camera lens, have remained central themes of your work. I think a continuous motif in my work is the theme of exposure. Here exposure is about the unveiling and displaying of relationships in contact
with others. This kind of questioning keeps me busy. It is often about a love-hate story. I flirt with it, distort it. The theme of identity is also touched upon. However fragmented it all may seem. And that always has
something to do with observing situations. How we see ourselves. What picture we have construed of ourselves. And what of that we are willing to reveal.
Would you consider your approach to be psychological? Are you interested in psychoanalytical questions?
Sometimes yes. Shift in awareness and the distortion of perception do interest me. It gets me thinking, anyway.Loss is a central theme. Relationships are, for me, first and foremost, about distance, about the ghost that hovers. A reminder of something that is over and done with. And sometimes you still have the longing.
What exactly characterize the obsessions that affect you?
It is the pictures that always come up again and again. Images of bodies that have to recover, or of foreign creatures that make it into a house where they don't belong. And then there is a dream that I had as a kid: I am in a film with my family and friends that is being shown in an empty theater. And suddenly I have the desire to climb down from the screen to watch myself.
Are you working on a specific language or style?
I am actually trying not to get stuck in one specific language or style. My intent was and still is to reassess the language for each respective piece. For example, 'ALIBI' came into being in the style of sport, but it should look more casual and not stylized. Sure there are established connections throughout all of my work. But I have not defined the one way to be present on the stage. Voice, trembling, walking - it can be anything.
You talked about the inspiration of fine art. In 1997 you were even invited to Documenta X in Kassel with 'Splayed Mind Out' created in collaboration with the American video artist Gary Hill. What was most special for you on that work?
My collaboration with Gary Hill made me work very abstractly and seemingly reduced, more or less to go from gesture to gesture. It became a very airtight piece, in contrast with the subsequent work, 'appetite' with artist Ann Hamilton, which was much more physical, more open, and clearly theatrical Ð one of the most intensive collaborations I had had up to that point. The piece had the character of an installation. At one point a projection of a huge face passes over the back wall of the stage, while two dancers are making minimal gestures. The presence of the video became actual action, and the dancers became the installation. A kind of reversal takes place. Of course, it was wonderful to be invited to Documenta. I felt very honored. Most of all it was exciting to see the artists busy with preparations just days before the opening. I was not 100 percent satisfied as far as my contribution was concerned. I was just about to finish with Splayed Mind Out and was therefore not in the position to prepare something special for the occasion. I also wanted to do a small sample of my work with Gary Hill. But to see that kind of work at 1:30am at the end of a course and a long day of exhibits is difficult. The context was not perfect. Apart from that, I do enjoy showing my work in museums. I like the crossover, the resonance not only of a dance audience, but of a contemporary art scene as well.
Hahn Rowe and Paul Lempe are composers with whom you have worked repeatedly. Music certainly acts as a device to create atmosphere in your work. How important is music for you on the whole?
Music is important to me. It shouldn't be too dynamic, but still engaging and rhythmically complex. Hahn Rowe is very sensitive to the dancers. At the start of our work together, he simply put on a cassette. Whereas for FORGERIES, LOVE AND OTHER MATTERS he created a suggestive sound and with
that an atmosphere directly on the stage, even though he did not actually personally perform. In 'ALIBI' with Paul Lempe, I wanted a sound that echoes the shudder of the performers so that even the audience would sense the tension within their own bodies.
You take a lot of time for the development and rehearsal of a piece, earlier up to nine months. Is that still the case? Or have you developed a new strategy through the years that speeds up the process?
I have become noticeably more aware of my patterns and my reaction to the process. I can feel the distinct warning signals when a process is too rigid or too open. Yet I do attempt to tackle each project in a new way. I am still experimenting with the process itself. I certainly have more techniques at hand today to stimulate the process in my dancers and bring out the material.
I give them pictures paired with physical references and instructions. With that I try to bring the dancers into particular postures. I make video recordings that we then watch together and discuss, or I'll work with eyes closed and let the dancers reflect sensuous reactions on a physical level. Reactions to a smell, to a touch.
Improvisation plays an essential role in your work. At one point you spoke of improvisation as life's plan.
Did I say that? That is a considerably passionate matter for me. Group improvisation has always been a part of my work. I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how musicians and fine artists can improvise with performance artists and dancers. That is valuable knowledge.
Is the improvisation work that you initiate reflected in your choreography?
I think so yes. Quite a bit of my work strictly adheres to my own decision-making. In comparison, Improvisation is more open, more for the studio, for investigation, in the meantime. Still intuition and the kind of 'stunt' feeling of a free fall are essential elements in my work. I have determined that I like when my work looks improvised, immediate, and natural, and in that way more daring. I want to feel how the dancers discover the moment.
How did the improvisation project Crash Landing together with dancers Christine De Smedt and David Hernandez come about back in 1996?
The idea for the project came about from a wish to establish a deeper bond to certain artists with whom I had always wanted to work. The fulfillment of a dream, you could say, to bring artists of various branches together. It is about the exploration of improvisation as a form of performance. A one-night-stand experience. I was looking for people who were not exclusively settled in the improvisation scene, but for whom improvisation plays a significant role or is incorporated into their work. Vera Mantero for example. 'Crash Landing' started as an experiment in Louvain. The uppermost requirement was working outside of a hierarchy; decisions were made together by everyone.
Do you have a favorite memory of an improvisation session?
1998 in Lisbon. The theme was 'time.' One day we started at 10pm, the next day at 1pm. On the third day, some of the one-hour performances were extended to eight hours (9pm-5am). It was interesting how many shapes and forms the extended performance took on and to experience what performance can be. Occasionally it was like a party or rather is was a party: it was someone's birthday at midnight. Techno music played. And then it resembled a dance performance with solos, duets, and trios. One part of the improvisation made up a kind of installation, another part shifted to the outside. The audience came and went. Many stayed for the whole eight hours. At times nothing happened. The performers wrote letters and messages on a computer, which were projected on the wall. The musicians launched into a song based on one single note. And then, I remember, how David danced a wonderful solo at 4:30 in the morning. Calm, awake and very physical.
Crash Landing is now being replaced by Auf den Tisch!
Auf den Tisch! is an improvised conference that is less an improvisation itself so much as a reflection of the improvisation; of the connection between movement and talking about movement; the connection between movement and text. It is an investigation of experiences, of spontaneity and control. A discourse to uncover shared interests. Clips from artistic points of view. It is a direct way to come face to face with others. The presence of an audience ensures a grade of risk.
Recently you have been experimenting with trance techniques. What new insights have opened up for you since then?
I became familiar with the work of Bargus through an acquaintance, a Balinese shaman. It is a form of energy work, a shake meditation that can last up to eight hours. In Alibi I use this imagine to shiver in a trance. An image of energy flowing through the body, crossing borders. I am fascinated with the idea of dancing without a body. It is an inquiry of perceptions. I have no real ties to one specific philosophy or belief. However I do like the idea of healing someone through music and dance. In REPLACEMENT we applied holotrophic breathing techniques - sporadic breathing, panting, hyperventilating, in order to experience various states and memories in the trance.
With REPLACEMENT, your first piece produced in Germany, you were then invited to Tanzplatform Germany in 2006. Do you identify yourself in a kind of national context?
Dance as an art form needs supporters, attention, and respect. When so many people come together who are interested in spreading the art of dance, I am proud to be able to show my art in such a context. As long as it is about choreographers and dancers who live in Germany, and I have the fantastic opportunity to belong, I am proud of that. It is a meeting of great artists. I am not participating in a sporting-event where I play for Belgium, America or Germany. I simply create my art.
Do you feel like an American? An American in Europe?
I feel that my work definitely stands in an European context. I am in a discourse with American choreographers, who, like me, show their work primarily in Europe for financial reasons and because of performance set-up. As well as with choreographers such as Jerome Bel, Xavier Le Roy, Sasha
Waltz. It is a dialogue that surpasses nationality. Of course, I feel the tension and the horror circulating in the United States at the moment. That has an effect on my view of the world. And I address that in my works. Europe, where my work has been supported for the past 15 years, has become a kind of artistic home.
Do you see your work as political in any way?
I would rather not answer that question. The decisions that we make concerning how people treat each other on the stage says a lot. That carries weight. I think my work raises many questions.
In 1995, you definitely took a stand on Arlene Croces's article 'Opferkunst,' on the occasion of Bill T. Jones' piece 'Still/Here,' with your solo XXX for Arlene and Colleagues. That was quite a political act, wouldn't you say?
I simply had to react to it. I found it unbelievable that a critic wrote about a piece that she hadn't even seen, let alone that she could say: 'I do not want to see any piece on that subject.' It shouldn't be the business of the critic in reaction to such contemporary work to downright ignore the artistic relevance, and in so doing to maintain a conservatism that would like to prevent art from being produced, being made available, or posing questions. My work also places an anti-virtuous, unheroic body in the center, and reveals very human efforts and strains. It does not wish to command sympathy, but rather is movement, created as a metaphor for a language, that makes a statement about problems and situations, which the viewer can participate in.
What kind of relationship do you have with the critics?
Critiques are often written in languages that I cannot understand. I make an effort, though, to have them translated. Now and then the view from outside conveys a new understanding. Although, I am only receptive in the first month after the premier, and only in that time do I make any changes. I do not expect everyone to love my work. It is controversial and challenging; I am always looking for risk. I only wish for well-though-out reactions.
Your work is sometimes considered to be depressing and hopeless. And yet, in FORGERIES, LOVE AND OTHER MATTERS, you allow us a glimpse into a sunny future. Does utopia exist for you? What do you believe in?
Hmm- a big question. The first thing that occurs to me is our ability to regenerate, to heal ourselves. I think in FORGERIES, LOVE AND OTHER MATTERS, it is about hope, even when the love story is an illusion. I basically believe that we all play every role, that we are all responsible. There is no 'us' and 'them.' We are all participating; everything is inside of us. What grows out of that is what I would call sympathy.
Choreographers Stuart and Gehmacher together at Kaaitheater.
The American Meg Stuart, in spite of her very own vocabulary, often collaborates with other choreographers and dancers. She just made Maybe Forever with the Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher. As from tomorrow to be seen in Brussels.
The first time Gehmacher and Stuart met each other dates back to 1996. Gehmacher: "I took Megs workshop on body images at Impulstanz in Vienna. I think she inspired me more, than vice versa. I got especially interested by her qualities as a mover, how she could embody a theme. Only years later, in january 2005, her interest was aroused by my 'Incubator'."
Gehmacher is not just any old choreographer. He has been developing, imperturbed since 1999, a very obstinate and unruly choreographic language. Time and again he uses the same contorted, frozen bodies that hardly put sparse signs on the bare stage. Those are silent, self-absorbed, almost autistic images. That is exactly the reason why the least sign or gesture or hazy singing create a huge emotional impact. Gehmacher's very personal voice was quickly spotted. Since a couple of years he has been present on just about every prominent European stage.
At first sight there is no greater difference than between the frozen, bare images of Gehmacher and the agitated, feverish dreams of Stuart. How can one link such disparate worlds?
Philipp Gehmacher: " Your work can look very different, but still have a deep connection. Our cooperation is a typical example of that. Meg starts off with the physical and mental state somebody is in. This creates movement images. Her choreography is built with that kind of images. My starting point is more the idea of dance as a language of signs, that can be used to communicate, even if that proces is very laborious. But we find each other on the underlying level. We share the same ideas about corporality and the source of movement. And there is a certain affection, we also affect each other.
The piece is also an encounter.
Meg Stuart: "And about how fascinating and strange that is. You ask yourself what direction it can go, or what the ground is for it. That's why you have to understand the history of the other. That double history is very present in this performance. You will notice that both our histories will merge. That is the way in which we create a situation that we both don't recognise anymore. The usual, the everyday suddenly becomes very uncomfortable and strange because we can't rely on our habits any more. But that's also why the piece is full of discoveries that we never would have made on our own."
Gehmacher: "We don't try to stick together two kinds of dance. We are looking for new aesthetics, something that goes beyond the sensitivities of the two separate bodies of work."
Stuart: "The performance turned out to be sober and a little melancholic. We tried to create a situation that would enable us, without any external influence, to get as close as possible to ourselves. Trying to see what our own self amounts up to even before the question is asked how to present that to an audience. That's the point in which we meet in the performance.That's why there is a lot of emptiness and uncertainty in this piece. It is in fact an impossible task."
You have already worked together in Vienna in 2005. What you showed the audience then was the first result of your improvising together. Is improvisation still the base of the performance?
Stuart: "No, the performance is more or less set now. Moreover, we're not alone on stage. The Belgian musician Niko Hafkenscheid sings his songs live. He sings about love, loss and encounters. Songs are very powerful: they can very effectively summarize a situation. They offer a view on the past, in the way photographs do. But looking back often implies a certain loss. Things nevertheless always get irrevocably lost. That kind of melancholy is certainly present in the piece."