Meg Stuart’s oeuvre is an atlas of emotions. Each choreographic work charts a new territory, within which shifting affective
and physical states play out. Bodies come together in ecstatic moments of connection and alienation; tensions build and are
released; momentums are followed and fractured. Made through a process of improvisation with an ever-evolving community of collaborators – be they dancers, visual artists, musicians or dramaturges – movement rather than dance might best describe her medium. She uses this to follow her restless lust for exploring the mysterious depths of human experience and relations. Her agility is reflected in the trajectory of cities through which she has passed: born in New Orleans, raised in Los Angeles and trained in New York, it was in the early 1990s in Leuven, Belgium, that Stuart found critical acclaim; today she splits her time between Berlin where she lives, Brussels where she leads her company Damaged Goods and the network of international cities to which she frequently tours. Her flow of responses to what appears each moment is mirrored in her speech patterns, as in the below discussion on how we might meet each other differently through dance.
Susan Gibb: Originally I had planned to start by asking, ‘What makes you move?’ But when I thought more about the idea of sensuality – something that is often imagined as an extroverted quality – I was struck by a comment that I read in an earlier interview with you. You introduced yourself as shy. It made me think of the hesitation before action that comes with being shy. I am intrigued to know how you relate to shyness. How might this play into or effect your work?
It’s a bit of a paradox between wanting to absolutely put myself out there, to be bumping into things, and then the hesitation before that act...
Meg Stuart: I’ll start with what makes me move and see if that leads me to shyness. To answer what makes me move, there are many things: imagination, desire, unknown forces, music, other dancers, not in that order – and the audience, perhaps. How do I relate to shyness? I don’t know. I think that has developed over time. Sometimes it’s more that I don’t want to be pinned down, or it’s because things are too complicated or complex to express. It’s not necessarily about being shy, but more about doubting what is integral or what communicates. So that is what makes me shy, being misunderstood or trying to prevent a misfire. But I think it has developed; I see myself as someone who is brave and puts herself into the fire, into uncomfortable situations. It’s a bit of a paradox between wanting to absolutely put myself out there, to be bumping into things, and then the hesitation before that act, being confused with doubt. How I address this is by throwing questions. As I make a move or as I do a dance, I pose a question as a way to come to terms with it.
Susan: In watching the bodies in your work, there seems to be a movement between the inner and outer, a dynamic play between inward feeling and its outward expression. The bodies seem to be constantly cycling through different emotional states, say, shifting from conflict to tenderness, from unabashed play to exhaustion. It makes me wonder what it is that triggers you to begin a working process.
Meg: I just wanted to add to my previous answer that there is something about not giving everything away. Even when I’m moving or dancing or making or being, there is always an embracing of mystery. Not everything can be articulated – it is played out.
Susan: With this mystery in mind, I’ll rephrase the question slightly. As a choreographer you often move between directing from the outside and performing in the work. How do you negotiate this movement between being within the action and seeing the action from the outside?
Meg: I lay out some keywords or a field of questions for my dancers and my collaborators, and I allow them to push me along, or I follow their impulses as much as I lead them. I often feel my dancers are pushing me or saying, ‘What about this?’ or ‘Let’s do it this way.’ It doesn’t go in one direction. We are not always agreeing. We are in a collective learning and discovery process. It’s important also that anything I ask of my dancers is something that I feel I could try myself, or that I have tried myself, or that I would also put myself through… but before that you asked about how a piece begins.
Susan: Yes, and I can be more specific now. I was thinking about feeling and intention. Extending upon what moves you, the reason I am fascinated by the question of where movement begins for a choreographer or dancer is that to allow oneself to move, or to decide to move with intention, is a complicated thing. I always wonder, what is the thing that pushes someone to move into that process, to take that risk, to follow that desire? For example, it might be in response to something that you find visually attractive or an internal sensation. I was interested to know what might trigger a new work to be made for you.
Meg: Ideas for pieces come before I articulate them. A voice inside says, ‘pay attention to this,’ or I collect text or I hear something. Then slowly, before I get in the studio, I feel like there has been a gentle accumulation of images or ideas. So there is a collection and then there is an urgency, and then after that I start to see what happens in the studio. Usually there is also a kind of contradiction or a sensation. Or it’s related to what I have done before. I like the idea that I can do something completely different – if I have done a solo, I want to work in a group; or if I have just worked with memory, I want to work with presence. I’m always constantly circling around fields of interest, and then I criss-cross.
Susan: That’s a bold move!
Meg: But it’s particular, because I don’t have a studio for myself. So in terms of choreographic interest or what keeps the choreographer going, there is performing or being on tour with the company, but nourishing choreographic ideas really happens in between – on the street, on the train, watching people, observing, observing my own state, how I am reacting, thinking about presence, about when people are being really present or absent, or how they are relating to their emotions. I use a lot of inputs from the world, from daily life, life as is. Then there are dreams, associations, poetic symbols, things that have no ground in daily life, things that live in the air between, and in the soil, and in thoughts.
Susan: It sounds like you are very sensorially attuned. How do you avoid being overwhelmed by the potential abundance of these inputs?
Meg: I think that in order to make work I have to set limits. I have this tension between my love of improvising when I’m alone in the studio, and improvising with others. But I’m constantly trying to say, ‘Only this, and not that.’ It’s always a reduction, like, ‘Now I will work only with gesture, with my hands, or with a segment of my body.’ I try to not have this open ‘everything is possible’ approach. It’s rather that not much is possible, and now what can I do with that. Or I have one single action, like rocking or shaking, and then I create just within that one option using repetition. It’s as much about a distillation, a reduction, a ‘not that’ as it is about potential. Every piece is quite different, because there are only a few things that form the base of the work, and each time it can be different.
Susan: Could you provide some examples of this difference?
Meg: In Sketches/Notebook (2013) there is a collective of artists sharing together, every day coming up with new ideas, not being attached to ideas. The performance is very much an atelier with these artists coming together, creating by sharing things together. Or Hunter (2014), which was a solo, was really about picking through my own dance archive, my own movement in all the solos I have ever done – going through them and studying them, going through the things that influenced me, the artists. Every piece is built on a slightly different process in dialogue with the artists involved, and then that shapes the development of the work.
Susan: Collaboration is very central to your work. You have often returned to certain collaborators over time, such as with Philipp Gehmacher in Maybe Forever (2007) and the fault lines (2010) – works in which you appear as a couple exploring each other’s bodies through love, loss, conflict and connection – while also working with new collaborators all the time. What does it mean to work through these relationships during the making of a work or on stage?
Meg: It’s a true entering into another’s world. It’s a kind of release. You don’t put so much stress on your own work. I enjoy that intimacy. You are entering another person’s body. You enter into their state, their experience, their thinking. In my most recent piece Celestial Sorrow I worked with an Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto. I can’t even explain how things appeared. There I was talking about light, and how to transform the darkness into light, how to bring things into light. And in Jompet’s work, he was very much interested in the history of Indonesia and the time of the dictatorship. It’s just like a series of conversations. I don’t try to control; I really allow people to bring in ideas. Sometimes there is certainty, but I don’t very often say, ‘I need this’ or ‘I want this’ or ‘Can you bring this?’ When I’m directing, I’m improvising. The dancers are moving and I’m giving live direction in reaction, as if I were dancing. All the work of improvising in a studio alone – I apply that to the group. If we head down the wrong path I say ‘stop,’ and we reset and then go again. The studio is a place where there is a lot of heat, as if it’s burning feverishly with the dancers in the moment. And then it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s go further. Let’s try…’ I’m really very particular about the conditions of what makes things appear. This also comes from teaching. Often when I’m in the studio teaching, I shout ‘change!’ The people I’m teaching then drop what they are doing and try something else completely. Or I tell them to hold a gesture and then to move it to another state or to transform it. These interruptions oddly create a lot of trust. Sometimes I even ask the other dancers to try it, to try the method, to call out suggestions while we’re dancing. These interruptions while improvising often create surprising material, though sometimes it is quite overwhelming.
Susan: It’s electrifying to imagine the liveness of the bodies in the studio as you describe them, the visceral sense of heat and sweat from the collective activity and the playfulness of switching roles. In contrast, this makes me curious to hear about your use of the camera as another type of eye through which we view bodies, one that is more mechanical and distant. I am also interested in how you relate to the camera’s ability to montage, fragment, focus, zoom in, etc. What made you move towards using the camera in your work and within your making process?
Meg: The camera is a witness and a neutral observer. We put the camera on, and then we can relax, because it doesn’t choose what is important or not important, it just records. Then we play, we get into it, we get into a state or a searching. The moments before it’s happening or even when it isn’t happening also get captured on tape, and sometimes they have a value we couldn’t see otherwise, something that can be integrated. Over the years I would sometimes use things like ‘pause,’ ‘rewind,’ ‘foreground,’ ‘background,’ ‘blur’ to direct movement. Right now, I try to rely a little bit less on the camera. Maybe it’s just because of this overuse of taping and taking photos that’s happening nowadays. But I think we can learn ways to write down what has potential or what is important, or to be a witness for each other or provide eyes for each other. But of course the camera is a very useful tool, because my own notebooks are indecipherable. I can hardly read my handwriting. I have a very good memory. When I’m taking notes in a performance, I scribble them down, and I can never read them, so I just have what’s in my mind.
Susan: Could you typify one of these moments that you might want to notate – what quality might make a moment exciting to you?
You know, when you’re doing something and you haven’t dissected it or named it – when things don’t have a name, when things are not called out.
Meg: There is the thing of the first time, which I’m a bit obsessed with. You know, when you’re doing something and you haven’t dissected it or named it – when things don’t have a name, when things are not called out. Something is appearing and you know that there is something, you’re onto something, and there is a question, there is something that’s clicking, there is a connection. It’s kind of uncanny and subtle, it’s hard to say, but often it’s there the first time. It has been a process of really relying on the camera and then also not wanting to go home after a rehearsal and watch hours of video. I’m really obsessed with how we can be very hyper-present and work with sensation.
Susan: It sounds like the moment you realise you might have feelings for someone, that physical sensation that sneaks up on you before you clock it in your mind. Thinking about this hyper-presentness alongside improvisation, what happens with a dance piece that will tour and be re-performed? How do you negotiate this inevitable repetition of things with this desire for and surprise of the first time?
Meg: We make the work so that it looks improvised, but I give a lot of attention and care to make sure you see people making choices in real time. It’s happening only because people are watching, because of the moment, because of the time. There are often spaces inside of solo parts of the work that are improvised. Improvisation is just writing what is appearing in the moment. I try to keep giving notes, and I keep working on the pieces so they don’t get too comfortable. Performing is where the real study of the work begins. Often you make the work, but you don’t understand all your choices, and that’s the beauty of it. I continue studying the same subjects while we’re on tour because I feel I’m still discovering. It’s not like you work on a piece and then it’s done. Dances are never finished for me. They’re constantly unfolding and in resonance with the time. And you go through time with them, because often people perform the piece for five or seven years, and a lot of life happens in between. Somehow that alters our experience of it and the meaning of it. Or often the work echoes what’s happening in the political climate of the time, or it is actually pre-empting something. So it’s like you write the text seriously because there is a deadline, and then after that you keep breathing it like, ‘Oh wow, this. This is it.’ ‘Oh wow, I didn’t think of it this way.’ It is definitely living afterwards.
Susan: Having had such a long engagement with dance, and with the thinking through the body and movement that comes with it, how do you think this has affected the way you relate to the larger social and political world and to other people? From dance you get such a particular knowledge of the body, how its senses connect to cognition and how bodies relate and are affected by each other. I wonder how that has influenced your life outside of the studio, or do you see each as a very distinct realm?
It has to do with how the body carries the weight of complex social expectations and situations, how we absorb images.
Meg: I feel like dance moves conver-sations in situations that are sticky, where there is no movement. This is because dance works on multiple layers. I think what I’m dealing with in the studio is about spatial questions, making them physical and allowing everyone to be multiple and complex – to contradict themselves and to dive into the colours of emotions (emotions are an energy with a colour) or to go into things that are not moving through the body (say, if you have furious hands, a forgetful neck or a hopeless back). It has to do with how the body carries the weight of complex social expectations and situations, how we absorb images. Often things are not just personal, we take on energies, forms, states and suggestions from each other. I feel like dance is a really healthy process, it’s a huge construction site for transformation.
Susan: Could you provide an example of how this transformative potential of dance could take effect?
Meg: On one practical level, I’m really interested in artists coming together – the meeting, the encounter, the sharing and trying to be active. Right now there is a project I’m working on in Dresden. It’s a congress for 500 people – dancers, choreographers, artists, dramaturges and curators from all over – so it’s a real social experiment [Tanzkongress 2019 took place from 5–10 June in and around HELLERAU in Dresden]. It will try to bring discourse, embodied practice and movement closer together. It’s an opportunity to see how conversations will change, because people will do exercises of smelling each other, sharing the same breath, sharing weight, looking at each other and working together. And we will see how all of this impacts the ways we are together, the ways we share space, and the ways we can be there for each other and shift normal patterns of behaviour. Say, instead of dealing only with borders and affectations when we meet people, we can look at how habits and unspoken rules can be moved through in order to have other kinds of conversation.
Susan: It’s amazing to imagine such a space of relating and how people might become undone and remade by giving over to their senses, allowing themselves to be guided by an attunement to their experience rather than knowing before they begin.
Meg: Well, everything is movement, everything is shifting, everything is vibrating, and we are in a field, and we are creating every moment. You can read that, you can think that, or you can study that, but I think dance is a real way to know that. Through dance I know that parallel realities exist. I know this from dancing or from observing others. I’m not just an observer: my presence and how I’m witnessing others affects what they are doing, even if I’m passive. The audience can say, ‘I don’t know about that show,’ but they are also creating the performance with their presence. From dance, I feel I have learned many things about reality and experience – it’s very precious. Through dance, we can be physical in a way that is not competitive. I really think dancers work well with attention and games and structures without explicit rules. We need attention and awareness, and we need presence, and out of that we can really participate with each other and play and collaborate and cohabit and really be together.
Susan: To finish, I am interested in asking about your beginnings in contact improvisation. How has this early training influenced you, or how do you relate to the idea of contact and touch? Have these questions changed over time?
Meg: In my development, it was really super important, but I just wanted to ask more questions. I loved the form. I first studied it when I was fifteen, but at one point I was like: Are we still in contact when we are not in the same room? How important is touch? What does it mean if we use our hands, or not? Why does that make it sensual or sexual or not? How can we take contact and apply it to visual material and other things that are not human? Contact improvisation was always about finding the deepest connection and putting weight to the bone, so I used that as a frame for trying to find the deepest connection to a collaborator, for example. I tried to transpose some kind of understanding of what contact was onto other ways of connecting to people.
Susan: Could you elaborate further on those connections to other people?
Meg: I found that contact often assumed that we were equals. But often things are not equal. So I wanted to disrupt it as much as honour it. For instance, by insisting on someone who is exhausted, tense or tricky or in a state of spilling. So really working with very different intensities and qualities together, qualities that are in total opposition and don’t necessarily cohabitate or easily synchronise. How do they come in contact? What is contact for a body that’s highly charged or over-wired? In a world with so much urgency, how do bodies that are in crisis get into contact, and what do they get into contact with? So I took contact as an absolute question and then tried to ask more questions, and to be around people asking those questions. It’s an exhaustive questioning that makes the work. It’s more about asking the questions, then coming up with the answers. Then a lifetime passes because you keep asking questions. And then you meet other people, and they have questions! It keeps spiralling! What are the unknown forces that move you, and what are you in contact with? And so on and so on. I think as an artist, you just find your seed, your filter or viewfinder, and that can give you the key to how you can interface with your own practice, and then the world. Contact is something that has been accompanying me for as long as I have been dancing.