Focus Meg Stuart (Eng.)

Kaaitheater bulletin Sep 2003English

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‘Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. (…) “What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.’

(Don DeLillo, White Noise)



The American choreographer Meg Stuart (b. 1965) created her first major work, Disfigure Study, on commission to the Klapstukfestival in Leuven in 1991. In 1994 she decided to settle in Brussels and develop her own working structure: Damaged Goods. She is not the only American performer who has opted for the more art-friendly European cultural world with its wider range of opportunities. It is often said that Meg Stuart is an ‘un-American’ American; however, despite her choice of the European location for her work, she still has several distinctly American roots.

1. In his book Amérique, which appeared as early as 1986, the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard explored several fundamental differences between the European and American continents. On the USA he wrote, ‘l’espace y est la pensée même.’ Anyone who lives in such a vast country, where one can often see the horizon 360° around, anyone who lives in a city without a centre, where skyscrapers even occupy the airspace, cannot but have a feeling of space thoroughly different from that in Europe. It is probably true that what intrigues us about the work of The Wooster Group is that in their shows they structure space before anything else, much more than they do time. Baudrillard also writes, ‘nous (Europeans) sommes libres en esprit, mais eux sont libres de leur gestes.’ The way Meg Stuart handles space and movement does indeed display an ‘aisance corporelle’, an ‘aisance de l’espace’ that is unfamiliar to us.

2. In addition, Meg Stuart also undeniably has roots in the dance history of her native country and one may consider her to be an heir to such dancer-choreographers as Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer, the Judson Church group (New York,1962) and the Grand Union improvisation collective (1970). Together, these people introduced several principles: the rejection of hierarchy in the working process, regarding both the people and the materials; the importance of improvisation and unprepared performance; the introduction of ordinary, unstylised movements; the incorporation of movements from the most varied of origins (sport, martial arts, children’s games, etc.); the fact that any movement is allowed, that every part of the body is equally important, etc. Dancing and choreography became an exploration of movement. All these principles have been developed in an intelligent way in Meg Stuart’s work.

3. However, her artistic roots are not limited to dance history. Stuart’s second piece, in 1993, was entitled No Longer Readymade, referring directly to the ‘ready made’ conceived by the French Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp who later moved to the USA. Everyone has a ready-made work of art at home: we all at some time or other pick up a stone, a shell or a piece of tree root that we like the look of and put it on our mantelpiece or window ledge, possibly next to other works of art. The basic idea behind Duchamp’s ‘found objects’ is the realisation that the definition of what is art and what is not is in fact the result of an intellectual decision which may or may not then gain social consensus. Duchamp’s ideas had a huge influence on art in the sixties, especially in the USA, and of course they also include a political dimension, namely the idea that ‘anyone can be an artist’.

4. With all these roots and influences, and many others, Meg Stuart works in a highly individual way, constantly asking questions. By developing her work in the European context she does not make things easy for herself. In Europe, past views on art seem to hang on more stubbornly than in the USA. These include such concepts as: art as beauty, art as an imitation of reality, the artist as an individual of genius, art work as a result of inspiration, art as something that should come from the heart and not from the head, the work of art as a clearly defined autonomous object, the preponderance of the inside (in an existence) over the outside in art, etc. This is only logical; in Europe the weight of tradition (in philosophy, the arts, etc.) is so much heavier. One cannot change a paradigm – a collection of concepts that fundamentally defines our thinking for a long period of time – overnight. After all, how many decades or even centuries did mankind need before he could accept that the earth was round and not flat – ‘one of the boldest steps in the development of human thought,’ says the astronomer Professor De Jager. Just consider how many years or decades of work by innovative artists are needed to change the idea of art as beauty or imitation into that of art as exploration. Meg Stuart’s work plays an important part in this process of change.


The work

‘I have always thought of choreography as studies of the human figure or statements about physical presence – as opposed to simply a sequence of movements. In this way I have always been seduced by the visual arts.’ Meg Stuart’s words in a letter to the Spanish artist Juan Munoz (1953-2001). If we take a chronological look at Meg Stuart’s work we see that the thread running through it is the exploration of movement (rather than of dance) and the relationship between movement and the visual and other arts and life itself.

1. In her first three works, Disfigure Study, No Longer Readymade and No One is Watching (1995) the influence of such artists as Marcel Duchamp and certainly the painter Francis Bacon are clear to see. Stuart shares with Bacon an interest in ‘distortion’, ‘disruption’, ‘violence’, the fragmentation and dehumanisation of the body, and the handicapped, damaged and lost human. Just as Bacon ‘sculpts’ the figures in his paintings, Stuart ‘sculpts’ bodies on the stage. Bacon speaks of ‘armatures’, armour and casings around his figures. From the beginning, Meg Stuart has been equally fascinated by the exterior of the body, the skin, which forms our boundary and limit and from which one can read an entire life (memories, scars, experiences, traces, history, etc.).
Whereas in classical ballet the dancers hardly touch each other, except for functional reasons (as in the portées when the men lift and carry the women), Meg Stuarts’ work concentrates on the tactile, on touch as our most important sense. It is by means of touch that she enters the emotional world, stepping from man’s exterior to his interior. In this sense, her work appears akin to that of Pina Bausch (however paradoxical this may at first sight seem): both these female choreographers are in search not of movement but of being moved in all senses of the word.

2. In the second phase of her work, Meg Stuart developed several performances under the umbrella title of Insert Skin (1996-98) in which she converts the influence of visual art into far-reaching collaboration with artists. In the working relationships she entered into in the course of this project, with Lawrence Malstaf, Bruce Mau, Gary Hill and Ann Hamilton, the various disciplines were not placed alongside each other, and there was certainly no dominance of one discipline (e.g. dance) over the others. The collaboration was on equal terms, in a mutual and continuous exchange; the disciplines slotted into one another, as if the artists were absorbing each other.
Together with Christine De Smedt and David Hernandez, Stuart started a series of improvisation performances called Crash Landing (1996-99) which ran largely in parallel with Insert Skin. These performances also had an open structure (structure in the skeletal sense, with the fewest possible prior arrangements) in which a whole series of artists from widely varying disciplines were invited to participate: Steve Paxton, Kate Valk from The Wooster Group, Jan Ritsema, Jérôme Bel, Boris Charmatz, Xavier Le Roy, David Linton, Hahn Rowe, Lawrence Malstaf and many others. Crash Landing was in addition a ‘nomadic’ project; it was not only the participants that changed, but also the location; versions were set up in Leuven, Vienna, Paris, Lisbon and Moscow.

3. The nomadic structure of Crash Landing was at the same time the link to the third phase of Stuart’s work, which comprises the several versions of Highway 101. The first Highway 101 opened at the Kaaitheater Studios in March 2000. While painting, sculpture and every possible sort of ingredient of visual art played a determining role in the initial periods of Stuart’s work, in Highway 101 she essentially brought her study of the human body face to face with architecture – with every possible spatial parameter – and with all sorts of new media, so that temporal parameters (e.g. the confrontation between prerecorded visual material and live or real-time filmed material) played a part in defining the complexity of both the performance and the audience’s viewing and listening experience.
Just as in her collaboration with artists on Insert Skin, in Highway 101 space and new media are fully absorbed and integrated. The whole of the Kaaitheater Studios were an intrinsic part of the performance. In each of the later versions in Vienna (Emballagenhalle), Paris (Centre Pompidou) and then back in Brussels (Plan K) a new performance was created which used, breathed in and sucked up the available spaces. In this context the spectators defined their own use of space and time; they walked around in the performance as if in an exhibition.

4. In her most recent performances, ALIBI (2001) and Visitors Only (2003), Stuart replaces the freely explored space with a theatrical setting. In the meantime Christoph Marthaler has invited her and her company Damaged Goods to be artists in residence at the Schauspielhaus Zurich and they also work at the Volksbühne in Berlin, two major theatres that give Stuart the impulse to explore the more traditional theatre architecture, with its division between stage and audience space. In parallel with these spaces (perhaps inspired by them?), other theatrical elements are also appearing in her work. Texts are being integrated into the performances; the performers do not act out roles, but nevertheless create the suggestion of characters, though these characters’s identities are not fixed, but rather fluid, constantly changing from one state to another.
In addition to the physical damage done to man, as was to be seen in all her early works, we now encounter his psychological damage, the disruptions of his perception and his memory. Man is not the master of his own body, and not even of his own mind. It is as if Meg Stuart has taken a route from the outside of the human body to the inside, from the twisted body to the disoriented mind. In parallel, Anna Viebrock, the designer of these two performances, literally constructed interior spaces: a house with rooms in which none of the characters feels at home.

Painting, visual art, architecture, new media, theatre... Meg Stuart continues her systematic exploration of movement, art and reality. Like a meticulous scientist she demands the freedom, together with others, to ask and carry on asking every possible question, with no taboos, on the basis of criteria which must each time be defined or rejected.


(translation: Gregory Ball)