3t Design:
Products of Play

Henning Skarbø GUI Design
Distance "Corrupts" and Establishes Intimacy

- an interview with Meg Stuart

Jedrt Jez

Ivica Buljan wrote in Frakcija magazine (No. 10/11, 1999) that "when it comes to Stuart, we cannot speak of postmodernism anymore, but of a rough return of modernism". With the looks of an artistic Madonna, Meg Stuart represents the generation X icon in the field of contemporary dance. This statement is supported by Theo Van Rompay, director of P.A.R.T.S. school with whom I talked in de Singel garden in Antwerp late last summer. He observed that the dance school is resolving Rosas' existence, which is being successfully accomplished by younger choreographers led by Meg Stuart. Their students are namely, rushing into Stuart's embrace, as they are not impressed by the tradition of names and poetics that have propelled the Belgian boom. For her, the point of identification is the cyber-iconography which brings out distortion from a seemingly loose body (Meg Stuart: "Distortion is a way of seeing and grasping beauty", Frakcija No. 10/11, 1999) and evokes the unspeakable by dissembling brutality. After inaugurating the territory of the body, allowing the perspective and the break-in of the artists who don't identify with dance (Crash Landing, Insert Skin, Splayed Mind Out), she made a step forward with Highway 101. This production that travels through European cities doesn't offer the same performance to each place: they first let themselves to the city and only then create a new leg of Highway 101. The Vienna leg (ImPuls Tanz 2000) was a hangar on the outskirts of the city centre (presumably torn down after the conclusion of the performance), under the cross-section of the underground, by dilapidating buildings on the one side and a new shopping centre on the other side. Space-wise, the performance was divided in several sections. First we watched rather than listened a neurotic confession of a woman on a video through a glass wall (double distance), then went on to a space furnished with sofas, TV screens, drinks - in other words, the comfort of a living room (falling into the safety of the intimate environment). The dancers, choreographically minimized and in immediate vicinity, initiated a one-way communication with phrases like "You are beautiful today" or "Come with me, caress me, lie with me". There was virtually no space and time for a reaction. I had the impression that, in the Èpoque of radical body art and cybersex, this attempt of provocation was extremely innocent. Ron Athey touched us infinitely more, along with reaching into our perception and body with his both rhetorically and literally throbbing speech in Kapelica gallery. Perhaps Meg Stuart's answer is again marked with distortion which this time pointed to those sensitive parts that piercing and similar punctures did not manage to wound. Reaching into the bloody, dismembered body and, in spite of this, extracting those parts that the bloody puncture did not touch? Leaving the safe shelter, we surrendered ourselves to the long highway corridor where the dancers merely lead us to a video projection/mirror wall, which, by zooming and defocusing, extracted the image of spectators standing simultaneously on the highway and by the wall. A comment on the Austrian political present? In front of the third space and part, Meg Stuart sat in front of the camera without cameraperson, relaxedly answering the question that she herself asked. The third part condensed and further developed the known image of Meg Stuart's poetics, with the difference that the body was this time "merely" the means of distorted image instead of the territory that has obsessed her until now. Positioned in a space that reminded of neighbourhood voyeurism (when the lights go down, we can check on the neighbours across the street), the rushing bodies gave out at first a real picture that approached the territory of our time with radical but increasingly deviant refraction: the literary postmodernist inability to communicate that rushes into the cyber-image of schizophrenia. We left branded: one by one, through the narrow slit of the glass door.

Have you seen David Lynch's movie Lost Highway? Perhaps this is a superficial question: there is a similarity in the titles and in the atmosphere.

I certainly saw Lost Highway. And although I like David Lynch a lot, I'm always scared of his movies.

Where does the idea for the performance that rushes through European highways derive from? You began in Brussels and continued in Vienna, which is not the last station. Up to now, we mostly encountered you in black Italian boxes where you invited for open improvisations not only dancers but also visual artists. It seemed that the body was the territory of your main interest. Is this a sort of spleen hunting, an exploration of the city?

It began with the desire for different spaces for one performance, a creation of different spatial choreographies for the same performance, which is not the same. A dislocated choreography. We found some spaces, some huge black boxes - stages, that is. The audience would move around the space, the room, it would be compelled to move. Similar to the highway, where everything usually passes by with great speed and we don't have time to stop. The main idea derived from experiences in work with visual artists; I liked the idea of "travelling performance" that would use the space or adapt to it, only that it is not really about adapting to space but rather about answering to it. I wanted us to stay in every city for a longer time and devote ourselves to it.

Are you tired of "the black box" with three real and one open wall?

No. I am used to it. Space was always of secondary importance to me. Body has always been of first and foremost importance. Body is a kind of territory, the inner and the most determining territory. The conversations and the collaboration with Stefan (Pucher, dramaturg of the performance) brought me to another perspective. Stefan always comes up with an image in space and goes on from there. It seemed exciting and challenging to continue in that direction and create more extreme situations, which would sustain more than a one-sided view. This should abolish the distance. I like the idea of spectators watching the performance closely, through the glass or on TV screen, through something that, paradoxically, both "spoils" and establishes intimacy, despite the obstacle. In Brussels, we made the performance in a four-storey building. At one point, the spectators found themselves on the third floor and had to watch down. I like a lot this play with perspective. Or the spectators had to lie down and watch the performance from down up. I like intermixing perspectives and distances. Here (in Vienna) everything is more in white. Everything is more distanced, I like the travel through spaces. The distance is greater regardless of the closeness, and I prefer that.

Did you have in mind images of a ruptured traveling performance or its - at least movement - structure from the very beginning?

No. I get an image only occasionally, then each further scene or place produce a new notion, trigger a new picture, feeling and structure. Reflection and interactivity do their own work.

If I count out the dancers, the overview of the wholeness of Highway 101 will therefore be available only to those privileged ones who will travel with the performance... Perhaps the diaries written by "locals" in each city will provide the totality?

(laughter) Artists from various fields join us in every city and each one of them comes in with their own idea of the city. One of the aspects and "disturbances" are the diaries that are being created in each city. These are not intimate diaries, well; perhaps they are to a certain point. They contain sociological and political images of the city, newspaper stories... The title of the Vienna diary is Swamp. This is similar to the improvised project Crash Landing - every now and then I like to stop and open the performance in a way that deprives me of constant control, when the intensity of my point of view loosens and I open the structure to the others... everyone leaves a trace, inadvertently falls into the performance for a while. These are side stories that are part of the performance for a while, then... Such experiments are very productive for my further work. Artists enter in here as we enter real highways.

So, the Vienna performance is the reflection of its current climate? During the performance, I had one clear impression, especially in the long corridor, when the dancers were luring us to the final wall projection, which zoomed and defocused us from the bird's eye-view... A one-sided view of today's Vienna? In that sense, the diaries perhaps transcend the performance since they delve to a greater or lesser extent into the themes that you merely grazed.

I think this kind of determination is necessary. We debated extensively about that before coming to Vienna. Is it right to go to that city? Are we being correct, is it better to ignore it? The picture is blurred in its very center; the more we move away from the center, the more layers the picture reveals. The signs of the swamp have gradually shaped themselves, without our direct reading from the environment. But we did gain distance. And from this distance we became aware of people's fear of what bad is still to happen to them. Their fear is like a swamp.

Vienna offers a paradoxical image. On the surface, one notice sterility, order, discipline, and no extrovercy; yet all of it is burdened with the weight of history and, it seems the seizure of tradition.

History still clinches them. Under the surface are the emotions, chaos...

The first room, whose interior reminds of a living room, gives an impression of domesticity, intimacy. At the same time, the dancers entice us (merely rhetorically?) "Dance with me...You are beautiful today...Do you feel well...Kiss me." A soft provocation in an intimate interior. But they didn't give us time for reaction. In the Èpoque of body art and cyber art, your provocation seems too soft; we don't "fall for this" anymore.

True. But in spite of this, it is very new to me. To be close to people and to the possibility of being overlooked and rejected. I have always wanted that closeness. There is an offer, a request, the audience is at hand's reach... but in the end, you don't get anything. We are both confused. I am thrilled by the mere thought of how far we can go.

And if we would really react, follow the "instructions" that you softly whisper to us...

Some people really react here and there. Although it is not impossible, it always surprises and excites me. It all depends on the individual decision, as everything in life. We could round up this performance; we could take more time and go till the end. We would drink, sit in armchairs, smoke and lie down, touch each other, kiss... That would really be something different. We would obtain a new perception on watching.

But in the third space some kind of schizoid cyberpoetics barges in; back to the future, a denial of the real and the comfortable of the first part...

When creating that part we discussed a lot on the new body, the body of the future. On memory. On cyclic memory that incessantly repeats and acquires new appearances with repetition... In the end, we let you out, but the feeling one has is more of the kind, "I'm free at last" (laughter), "but alone".

Your performances make me think of the questions of continuity, poetics, attitude. Disfigury Study - No Longer Ready Made, solo for Arlene and her Colleagues XXX, Splayed Mind Out with Gary Hill... Body as territory, collaborations with visual artists, pronounced attitude towards critical negation and glorification of the border between arts and ethics...

It is all about the cyclic. I see a strong connection between my performances. A new performance is very often a powerful response to the previous one. When I would make a pure, fragmentarised performance, it would be followed by a performance that would continue that line but, at the same time, would also be very different. I think I cultivate a recognizable vocabulary; the movement material is that with which I delve into more extreme explorations. When I make a group performance, it is inevitably followed by a solo. I feed on what made me hungry in the previous performance. Thus I maintain a complex whole and develop it processually. This makes me stronger. I preserve the complexes and obsessions that accumulate in me in very long processes.

You mentioned obsessions...

Those are powerful images that constantly appear in unrecognized shapes. I am currently trying to deal with hazards, rethink them and put them in order. I am organizing the chaos. I find it difficult to talk about it at the moment, as I am in the middle of the process, but I am striving for the vague images of hazards to harmonize and arrange themselves.

Do you watch performances of other authors? Most choreographers and dancers claim that, while working on a new performance, they find it hard to watch the work of others.

Of course I watch them. What I find difficult during the creation of a performance is to read theoretical works.

Interesting. I have always had an impression that you were very curious in that direction.

(laughter) In the flood of creation this is difficult and, I think, also unnecessary. Validating the work of others, a different kind of immersion into the matters with which I deal in the performance... it is almost impossible. I think that, at that point, it is even senseless. But I do watch others' performances whenever I have time. I like to come across performances that explore that which is of my interest in a different way. True, this inhibits me at first, causes a frustration but, in time, the freshness of difference prevails and gives me the feeling that my work is interwoven with and embedded in the world.

The performance Splayed Mind Out seemed to me more relevant in the field of the visual, that is, in the connection between the body and visual arts.

In that case, perhaps it is true. But the dilemma always concludes with how much you show, how much slips away from you and how much you hide.

You often worked with dramaturgs. What is your experience in working with them? Do you think that the dancers need them? Is the dramaturg constantly needed or he/she should have an insight and awareness of the whole?

I am practically insisting on dramaturgs being permanently present. They usually have a complex image of events and the whole. More than ever before. The dramaturg carries the idea and the significance; better than anyone, he/she can doubt; implementing the principle of thesis, antithesis and, above all, synthesis, he/she can establish the picture by razing it. The dramaturg is guiding us with constructive questions. I would gladly be "just" a dramaturg in some project. Concerning the dancers: although I work with the best ones, if they are not capable of following the whole process, if they are imbued merely with the joy of dancing, then they cannot work with me. It is true that there are still many dancers that fit into the old ballet notion of "machines for producing beauty", which nowadays seems to me very questionable.

You live and work in Brussels. By origin, you are American, but everybody speaks of you as a European choreographer.

I am a stateless being. I am everywhere and nowhere. I still occasionally teach at Judson Centre in New York; back there, the position of contemporary dance is very feeble. Clearly, their educational system is still the best. But there is always a problem with watching performances, I always have to explain them everything; on the other hand, they are very open, susceptible. Brussels is certainly the centre of contemporary dance. It seems that this was created - and still is - by a smaller group of individuals who focused worldwide points of view into that part of Europe.

Have you ever been jealous while watching someone else's performances?

Jealousy is an interesting and funny word... Let's say that I admire a lot the work of Emio Greco. Visually and movement-wise, he is extremely strong and pure. Jerome Bel always "touches" me. I feel very close to everything that Vera Mantero does.

Intervjuet er oversatt av Katarina Pejovic. Intervjuet har tidligere stått på trykk i det slovenske teatertidsskriftet Maska januarnummer 2001.