Meg Stuart over de Vlaamse podiumkunsten in de jaren 90

Toneelstof is een project van het Vlaams Theaterinstituut (nu opgegaan in Kunstenpunt) dat de geschiedenis van de podiumkunsten in beeld brengt. 40 jaar Vlaamse theater- en dansgeschiedenis, gezien door de ogen van wie ze heeft (mee)gemaakt. 

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Meg Stuart over de Vlaamse podiumkunsten in de jaren 90 (deel 1) · Bekijk in de videozone

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Meg Stuart over de Vlaamse podiumkunsten in de jaren 90 (deel 3) · Bekijk in de videozone

A theatre is not a playbackspace

Meg Stuart

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 RosasJan FabreWim 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 en 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 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 Mark Deputter. 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 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 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 
  • Transcriptie: Diane Bal 
  • Redactie: Eline Van de Voorde
Je leest: Meg Stuart over de Vlaamse podiumkunsten in de jaren 90