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Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods

In the 1990s, the concept of dance expanded considerably due, for example, to experiments on the boundary with visual art, through which performance art acquired a performative aspect. Meg Stuart was one of the first choreographers who explored this 'new' dance. She was also one of the first who explicitly questioned the medium of dance, thus adding a reflexive dimension to it. This also gave rise to a critical view of society. Meg Stuart often collaborated with other choreographers and artists such as Philipp Gehmacher, Benoît Lachambre, Stefan Pucher, Jorge Leon, Gary Hill and many more. Their contribution had a decisive impact on the nature of the work itself, which meant that her productions were highly diverse in nature. Yet there is a constant. Stuart often departs from a study into the vague areas in which the physical and mental converge. She assesses blurry zones of our experience that are difficult to describe clearly, but nevertheless seek a way 'out', demanding representation.

To this very day, Meg Stuart makes an unmistakable stamp on the development of contemporary dance in Flanders and far beyond. Since 1994, her work has been produced by her company Damaged Goods and has been awarded a long list of prizes worldwide, such as the New York Dance and Performance Award (2008), better known as the Bessie Award, for her oeuvre as a whole. In Flanders she received the Flemish Culture Award in the performing arts category that very same year.

Stuart often departs from a study into the vague areas in which the physical and mental converge. She assesses blurry zones of our experience that are difficult to describe clearly, but nevertheless seek a way 'out', demanding representation.

In her first European work Disfigure Study (1991), the American, based in Belgium since then, focused her work entirely on a study into the image of the body. In this endeavour she comes close to the work by the painter Francis Bacon.

In Disfigure Study the bodies of the three (bald-shaven) performers are seldom seen in their entirety. Through the use of clever lighting you only see, for example, a back. A cramped hand crawls over it, as if trying to understand what this object is. When the hand approaches the coccyx another hand suddenly pushes it away. Although you can clearly see that the back and both hands actually belong to the same body (that of Stuart herself), they don't seem to take this into account. As a result this body appears to find itself in such an extreme state of alienation that it no longer recognises itself.

Stuart shows us the amazement, astonishment or the horror silhouetted on the body and the face of someone who is about to encounter an incomprehensible disaster, but she doesn’t show the disaster.

Disfigure Study clearly demonstrates that Stuart's images depart from a specific physical state, but rarely provide a 'normal' image of the body. It's as though the movements' 'control' is different from those we experience as successful or agreeable. The self-evident connection between a self-image and the expression thereof in the acts often seems utterly lost or interrupted. As a result the performances acquire a dreamlike or even fearsome quality. In Stuart's work you never obtain the source of this 'fear', only its effects on the performers' bodies. Stuart shows us the amazement, astonishment or the horror silhouetted on the body and the face of someone who is about to encounter an incomprehensible disaster, but she doesn’t show the disaster. Thus she convincingly evokes the mental and physical vulnerability of people. The oeuvre makes a powerful appeal to the spectator's imagination and intellect to complete the story he sees. Each spectator will interpret the circumstances differently. This is, in fact, the basic definition of postmodern drama, but also the basic principle of performance art: the spectator's presence is an essential element of the work.  

Highway 101 from 2000 is one of Stuart's most significant works. It played in diverse locations and was rewritten for this purpose each time. The work was based on one of Stuart's memories from her youth: After their divorce, one of her parents would drop her off at a particular point along the motorway where she had to wait until the other one picked her up. The audience is led through a building such as the Kaaitheaterstudio’s in Brussels or the Centre Pompidou in Paris. During the walk, members of the audience encounter themselves in bizarre ways and gradually find out that some of their co-audience members actually are performers, when they crop up in video later on. A typical way of achieving this was doubling the real bodies using video images. With this piece, Stuart departs completely from the traditional stage. This allowed her to visualise the sometimes highly ambiguous relationships between the spectator and the performer and to push the institutional and actual boundaries of theatre. Highway 101 went so far in this game that the difference between a performance and visual art was virtually eliminated. Remarkably there's a scene in which Stuart interrogates and issues orders to a man that we can only see on a video screen. The trial is almost obscene due to the objectifying gaze at the person on the screen. This makes the spectator acutely aware of how great the divide can be between the image that we have of ourselves and our inner self and the image others perceive. Here we also see how that difference ever increases due to the omnipresence of security cameras.

This video of the fault lines (2010) depicts one of the collaborations between Stuart and the Austrian choreographer-dancer Philipp Gehmacher, also with a decisive contribution from the Russian videast Vladimir Miller. There are occasional serious collisions between the two performers, as well as tender moments. Through Miller’s projected images you see the same action also from a different perspective, so that the meaning appears to be dramatically different at times. Here too the performers' bodies seem to be poorly controlled, so that their interaction never appears to succeed in a conventional manner.

Stuart continues to develop these themes further. In doing so she gave her performers an ever-greater role. A recent project such as Sketches/Notebook (2013) can thus be read almost as a collective improvisation on themes that are close to Stuart's heart. It is noteworthy that in recent years, she revealed some autobiographical elements in a solo like Hunter (2014) or a group performance such as UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP (2015), naturally not as anecdotes but as images that demonstrate how even the most personal memories can become confused, layered and finally even inaccessible in their original form, and must be constantly recreated.  

Author:
Pieter T’Jonck

Pieter T’Jonck is a civil engineer-architect and publicist for De Morgen newspaper and diverse publications at home and abroad. He writes about dance, theatre, visual art and architecture. T’Jonck is also an adviser to DasArts in Amsterdam.