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.