Dramatic Images of Society

Meg Stuart’s dance theatre reflects on communication in an autistic society

Ballett International Tanz Aktuell 1 Jan 1995English

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Does Meg Stuart create dance theatre? - is the question posed by Flemish literary critic Rudi Laermans. Stuart is one of the group of American choreographers of the nineties to break away from the formal processes of modern dance to take up issues of how the body experience the destructive and fragmenting processes of civilisation: grappling with the realities of  new diseases, the rootlessness of the modern individual or the destruction of the social network form the material of a political dance theatre that is making a striking contribution to developments in theatre during the nineties.  

It's not exactly an obvious thing to devote formal consideration to Meg Stuart's work at this point in time. Can we, strictly speaking, refer to it as a work or an oeuvre, a relatively closed entity of separate performances that stand alongside each other as echoes of the same unspoken secret waiting to be clarified, analysed and put into words by the critic? Indeed, the work of the still-young Meg Stuart consists at present of two full-length pieces ('Disfigure Study', 1991, and 'No Longer Readymade', 1993) and a guest choreography of thirty-five minutes made for the ballet company of Deutsche Oper Berlin ('Swallow my Yellow Smile', 1994). Two novellas and a short story: hardly sufficient to constitute an oeuvre. If, however, the seemingly modest body of work has been written with a firm hand, without the character of a promising attempt but revealing strong views, then there is justification in portraying what is artistically and intellectually at stake.

Some artists develop their own signature, their own voice by searching and sensing, making small or big leaps, dancing between one work and another. They resemble a strange kind of eternal voyager, exploring different possibilities in the hope of finding a permanent dwelling place, a place to call home. After having been on what outsiders often perceive as the wrong track, they sometimes manage to find a personal artistic idiom, a language that apparently enables them to do 'what they had always wanted to do'. In contemporary dance, this kind of career of ever recommencing is illustrated clearly in Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's whimsical evolution. There is, nevertheless, a small minority. At artists who speak a language that is clear right from the outset and that comes out with a statement (in every sense of the word) that functions as a criterion for all future projects. Together with, for instance, Jan Fabre, Meg Stuart ranks among this well-defined minority. At the Klapstuk 91 Festival in Leuven, Belgium, 'Disfigure Study' stood out precisely because of the obstinacy of the performance, its 'being-different' in a positive instead of a negative way, not in accordance with the familiar 'different from the rest', but instead based on an incomparable difference in tone, scenography, and image and body language.
Artists whose careers start with a strong statement run great risks, as we know: they create an expectation hardly redeemable by their second or third work. A beginner who makes such a statement cannot subsequently stammer or stutter; they have knowingly put aside the possibility of a career carefully seeking their way. After all, the personal signature is not found at the end but at the beginning of the proverbial letter sent to audiences and critics. As such, the self-willed beginner condemns himself more than once to creating a series of variations on his own performance. The original statement becomes self-created straitjacket, the individual idiom of which will soon wear off and, because of the repetition of the same phrases, come to resemble an uninteresting collection of idiosyncratic clichés.
I dare to discuss Meg Stuart's work because the creator of 'No Longer Readymade' has adequately demonstrated that she has not fallen victim to her own scenic language. The three separate performances of which this work consists undoubtably manifest a certain coherence of unity that is not the result of mere repetition or a neurotic urge to ritually reproduce the impact of the 'first time'. To borrow an image from Wittgenstein: these three performances stand in relation to each other as brothers and sisters, as members of one identical language game, for there are striking family resemblances as well as remarkable differences.
What follows is a discussion of some of these relationships and, as such, an attempt to characterise Meg Stuart's personal dealings with the basic facts of contemporary dance: the human body, the surrounding culture and its socially sanctioned codes and conventions, the relationship between stage and audience, and the notions of dance and choreography. My considerations are based on the premise that nowadays each work that is merely 'pure dance' is as such almost undeniably irrelevant to the present and to contemporary art. Pure dance can amuse and entertain, stimulate the senses for a shorter or longer period of time and can transform an admiring audience into a collective gazing machine, but this also applies to TV-programmes and pop music. Unlike the language of dance, the scenic language in Meg Stuart's repertoire achieves more than this. Indeed it says something about our times, about our bodies (or rather about our body realisations), and about what Kant called the 'ungesellige Geselligkeit' of society. It also takes a position on the art of dance, on the relation between stage and audience and between physical presence and visual representation, and on the actions that turn movements into dance.


Why is it that, during Klapstuck 91, there emerged in the corridors and also among critics a rather swift and positive consensus about 'Disfigure Study'? Why did the German critics appreciate 'Swallow my Yellow Smile' so much more than the guest choreographies of the two other American artists, Molissa Fenley and Karole Armitage, which were shown on the same evening? The public comments on both of Stuart's pieces, as with 'No Longer Readymade,' were about a seemingly hard-to-identify quality, a not directly nameable scenic atomsphere or 'Stimmung.'
Desolation, alienation, coldness - these and similar vague terms were and are used in foyer talk or criticism to describe the emotional tone of Stuart's performances. They indicate the impressions that Stuart's work imprints on the audience's gaze and the connotations and interpretations it evokes. At the same time these terms underestimate what is most evident in Meg Stuart's work. Impressions and interpretations ignore the materiality of the text, which feeds the meaning and the connotations: the scenic representation of the human body as a disabled body, as a body that is either crumbling or disintegrating or that has the status of a helpless, handicapped puppet. Stuart's repertoire actually contains 'dansant'-like passages but the most powerful stage images revolve either around the movement of one or more limbs or around the human body as a whole which does not even seem capable of anything like normal movement. Isolated limbs making seemingly meaningless gestures: a spinning head (opening scene of 'No Longer Readymade'), squirming arms and legs, hands or feet in the other performances; handicapped bodies; human puppets rolling across the stage, crawling, shuffling, stumbling, their ability to move is curbed, obstructed.
One can link the double articulated body language of Meg Stuart to two or more general body images, the tic and the handicap. The scenic emancipation of limbs, like arms or legs, has a familiar counterpart in daily life: a tic irritating to others; the often unconscious reflex actions of feet or legs, the pointless fiddling of hands and fingers with one's hair or clothes, the uncontrolled shuffling of a child on the edge of a chair. In a tic, part of the body goes its own way, so to speak, apart from individual consciousness and common standards of behaviour, withdrawing itself from personal styling and social conventions. Just as in a laugh - Begson's famous analysis comes to mind here - one or more limbs become mechanically autonomous, they not only do as they please but seem to find a perverse pleasure in the repetitive release of motoric energy. Physical tics inadvertently remind us of the libidinous, Freud called it the polymorphic perverse, child's body that finds pleasure in the compulsive reproduction of identical movements and gestures that to outsiders often appear painful. In her work, Stuart isolates them as an aspect of the  human body that is experienced as either insignificant or irritating. As a symptom of anatomic power, they can never be tamed by civilisation or self-control. Meg Stuart puts the tics she has seen unchanged in her productions, analyses and stylises them, and as such develops an individual body language that shows humans as alienated from themselves. Or better, she stages the human subject un-subjectively, yes, acephalously limbed.  
In other scenes of Stuart's performances, the normal locomotion of the human body is restrained, chained and muzzled. Here, too, there is a well-known equivalent to be found in daily life. A certain figure, in the meaning of the Latin word figura, is isolated and stylised. Crawling across the floor, moving legs with one's hands, carefully shuffling through the house or on the street - this is what invalids, Aids patients, and other motorically disturbed people do. The ways of moving of the chronically ill or the crippled, which are considered abnormal in daily life, are normalized in Stuart's performances in the strict sense of the word; they appear normal on stage because they are performed by normal people.
This normalisation of the abnormal, which Stuart once strikingly called "dancing with an immobile body", recalibrates drastically the notion of dance art. While traditional ballet and also so-called contemporary dance glorifies and idolises the human body by presenting it as 'more valid', Stuart holds up to us a not-so-flattering image in which body and limbs are continually presented as invalid, where the body-artist posesses not more but fewer capacities to move than an everyday body. Thus she implicitly recaptures a fundamental reflection on the medium of dance that has become rare in the last few years. The renowned Judson Croup (Paxton, Rainer, Schneeman et al) have, since 1963, enlarged the vocabulary of dance by introducing banal movements and gestures and, somewhat later, by the contribution of the real physical body, the body as we know it from anatomic pictures and medical information that can bleed, sweat, ejaculate, suffer, die. The performance art of the 70's, a period in which dance became artistic (and also artificial) again through minimalism, radicalised these experiments about the edge between scene and daily life, between fiction and physical reality. Stuart puts questions like, "What is a body?" or "When is a body dancing?" in the centre of dance art again not by  going back to what in the end were only representations of the banality of reality but by isolating a body language known from everyday life as irritating or embarrassing. This requires a good deal of courage and obstinacy in our era of subsidised dance entertainment.

A surprising fact: the human bodies shown in Meg Stuart's performances hardly talk. The actors do not really communicate with each other or the audience. The bodies have grown silent; their movements and gesture and even their mere presence are cleared of all direct symbolism and are stripped of every directly recognisable intentional meaning. This gives rise to the new and strong tableaux vivants, to configurations of living bodies that are most certainly related to each other in space but whose relationships of closeness or distance touching or rejecting, are not filled with meanings connected to everyday life.
In normal human interaction, the physical gestures and positions of bodies always possess a well-defined and, of course, culturally relevant meaning. Walking towards somebody, touching another body roughly or feeling it with one's fingers, remaining alone for a long time a short distance from a group – all these merely physical interactions are meaningful in our culture and therefore also 'typically human.' In her work, Stuart shows us many immediately recognisable reactions but only in their directly physical aspect, 'depersonalised' and therefore strongly dramatised. As such, it is no longer possible to interpret, for example, an intimate touch as an expression of tenderness or the close proximity of two bodies as a sign of solidarity. The human body is stripped of meaning and becomes pure flesh. This continuous striving to stage the physical zero degree of human interaction and to reveal its naked truth is staged by the sustained negation of every sign of recognition and of every action in which the bodies involved symbolically and also literally face each other In Stuart's performances, the relations between the human bodies never really become 'human' and negate the existing images of human interaction. This is because the dancers have no visual contact with each other (the rule) or look at each other completely indifferently, as if their eyes did not meet a person that might look back but a resigned and faceless body (the exception).
Within the context of the present performing arts the German Tanztheater, in particular Bausch, Hoffman and Linke, has continually explored the area of tension between reality and its cultural encoding. It incessantly plays on the boundaries between body and body symbolism, presentation and representation, form and content and between the staging of movements and gestures and their everyday meanings. This kind of body art always implies the existence of a collective body language, fixed codes, and conventions concerning the emotional meaning of the movements and positions of the body. What is shown on stage explicitly or implicitly always alludes to knowledge existing outside of the theatre. In dance theatre, art dialogues with the culture it is surrounded by. The artistic effect is a parasite on a preceeding cultural context, on a self-evident discourse that is topicalised in the performance. Women staggering high heels, men making broad arm gestures, women and men touching each other in a pub, kissing, hitting - all these 'typical Bausch scenes' are, in the eyes of the spectators, immediately loaded and meaningful, so much so that a little play, a little latitude, with the bodies present on stage is sufficient to create strange and alienating scenes. In short, dance theatre is a stage art that articulates and disarticulates the omnipresent gap between gestures and common meanings. It separates the material body from the cultural-body language, enlarging the distance between them. In this chasm, the surrounding culture is sometimes criticised (when body and dominant body language overtly come into conflict with one another) or also ironically reaffirmed (when actors act in a predictable way, when their bodies behave too emphatically in accordance with prevailing clichés).
Does Meg Stuart make dance theatre? Is her repertoire closer to the large oeuvre of Bausch than to the since canonized choreographic works of Cunningham, Brown or Childs? These questions need a nuanced answer: qualifications that are all too straightforward will not do here. Most certainly Meg Stuart is making body art on the verge of theatre and is indeed playing on the boundaries between movement and meaning, gestures and interpretations, art and culture. But, at the same time, her performances distance themselves unmistakably from German tanztheater, simply because they always radically 'enlarge' and broaden the possible gap between movements or gestures and their general meanings. They contrast them. Especially in 'Swallow my Yellow Smile,' where Stuart took as the basis of the same time, her performance the constant division of physical relations and the general meaning or symbolism, whereby the scene looks like a dehumanized world rather than an inhuman world. Bodies approach or move away from each other, a woman and a man touching, someone is standing still while others pass by, seemingly indifferent – nearly every scene of this performance implicitly alludes to the possibility of a social intimacy being explicitly denied in what is shown, especially because no one looks at anyone else. Only the audience attentively, and in this collective gaze the stage changes into a society without a face, a social world in which people interact with each other without really caring about each other.
This world is very much related to the one presented in Beckett's plays. Everyone is waiting for Godot, for a never to be given sign of recognition, for a rescuing look- for words that really give a reply to what's been said. They recognise in the impossibility of describing the blue, green, or brown of the speaker's eyes ethical demands that cannot be put into words and an obsession for humanity that - as also Levinas emphasises - can never be commanded and therefore transcends every Law. In Stuart's performances, the dancers behave like the characters in Beckett's pieces, like autistic people who can only communicate their shared loneliness by movements or gestures that do no more than reaffirm the rupture of the social, the fundamental lack of community. Does this scenic sociality represent the prevailing sociability? Is this work confronting us with an image of ourselves in which each 'self' of the 'us' symbolises, as a separate monad in complete physical isolation, the real distance between the 'I' and the 'You' and this in spite of the words, the language, the shared symbolic order? Our society as a community of loners? Our collectivity as an autistic collectivity? Asking these questions is more important than answering them. And for this reason, too, Stuart's work is relevant to us - to the audience of separate and isolated spectators.

How do we watch? Fascinated or irritated, completely immobile or impatiently shuffling on a hard bench in a small avant-garde theatre - in any case at a safe distance. In 'Swallow my Yellow Smile,' Stuart stages very ironically this detached relation to the stage. The audience in the hall is also presented on the stage: raised high above the floor, dancers observe from two high rows of pillar chairs what their colleagues are doing, Sometimes they show some interest, but more often than not they look away, indifferent to what happens below. A hyperbolic allusion to the non-communication between stagehand auditorium, artist and audience? But still the question remains whether the staged situation really caricatures the actual relations. For even if the audience is watching politely and even if the majority is fascinated by the performance, only a few will have lasting memories of what they have seen and will give it a place in their lives and stories.
Watching is one thing, experiencing what one sees another. The former demands little more than a bit of civilised behavior and some artistic education. Experience, however, is only possible when the observing is motivated by a particularly strange desire to learn a decisive truth from art and even from each individual work of art, to have a sudden flash of insight into –yes, into what exactly? The one who has this experience says, "My eyes have opened." And as Ingeborg Bachman once rightly remarked, "We don't say this because we perceive a case or an event externally, but because we understand what we can't see. That's what art should bring about: opening our eyes in this sense." But mostly our already-opened eyes are closed in the theatre or dance auditorium. We watch and have at best a purely aesthetic interest in what is shown and so we will have forgotten all about it by the next day. In 'Swallow my Yellow Smile,' Stuart ironises this prevailing behavior of looking, but she also, as in her two previous works, engages in combat with it: no beautiful pictures, no pure dance moves, and especially no obvious shock effects.
The primary visual relation between stage and audience is a basic motive in the work of Meg Stuart. Sometimes she visualizes this relation explicitly and literally brings it into vision, as in 'Swallow my Yellow Swallow' but mostly she incorporates this implicitly in the way she makes dancers show their bodies to the audience, and her manner of exposing them to gaze, to our gaze. One or more bodies, for instance, stand stock-still stage front, as if they wanted to say to us: "You are watching, we know this and therefore we give you the time to watch attentively." This conscious, reflexive dealing with the inner visual space that both connects and separates stage and audience, is also responsible for the characteristic time structure of Stuart's performances. Simply put, Meg Stuart takes her time to build up a scene. Slow, explicit moves, often repeated or broken up or transfixed with moments of immobility or delays - in this way the scene changes into a series of tableaux vivants. Each move lasts, in a manner of speaking, a bit too long and, in this time lapse, the spectator not only becomes aware of what he watches, he also experiences the watching, but at the same time the show-like character of what is being shown is stressed. Movements and gestures visibly become public movements and gestures, made for the audience that is watching.
In his art criticism, Diderot developed the opinion that people act theatrically from - or better, at - the moment they start to pose and their gestures and body postures are consciously guided by the fact that one or more people are watching them. Or, as Goffman put it more recently, theatricality, in the theatre as an institution as well as outside of it, is synonymous with self-presentation and 'impression management,' with the reflexive construction of a bodily image that has to inform the spectator(s) about our identity, or rather, about the usually flattering self-image that we want others to believe in. Thus, theatricality is basically re-active: one reacts actively to the existence of a visual relationship. Meg Stuart also does this in her performances, which merely by the remarkable structuring of their duration topicalise the basic facts of every art performance. The originality of Meg Stuart's work is in more than one respect closely related to its specific theatricality. On the one hand, it revolves around the construction of a particular body image, the 'disabled body', also a not to be misunderstood deconstruction of the popular representation of the body (the body as eternally young, as a limit that needs to be transcended: consider 'the beauty case', 'the health craze', the striving for a perfect body). On the other hand, Stuart's work revolves around the representation of the act of presenting, the simple fact that on stage, one or more bodies expose themselves to the anonymous gaze of unknown others. This is also why Stuart's work differs from contemporary dance theatre:  the bodies never change in recognisable, meaningful characters, but are only theatrical in as far as they go along in a reserved manner with the visual relation that is constitutive for every form of theatricalisation. And this relationship, as Stuart keeps repeating, is essentially an unequal relationship imbued with power. That is also why the spectators in 'Swallow my Yellow Smile' are sitting meters high above the scene: they are looking down on what is happening.

People who are familiar with the work of Meg Stuart Might object that my considerations pass over her dance language, as if it were uninteresting or unimportant, a blot on what is still rather lovely. Indeed, Stuart's performances always contain a few 'dansant'-like passages. One should realise that they, even purely quantitatively speaking, are only a small part of each of her works and also that they are 'dansant' in a very specific manner, as if they are saying: "Look, look! We are dancing! (That is what you came for, dear audience, isn't it?)" And even so - dancing? The 'dansant' effect is primarily based on meticulous coordination, making two or more bodies move entirely simultaneously. The movements themselves do not refer in any respect to the language of ballet or modern or postmodern dance. Two movements dominate: the falling, throwing down of the body to the floor with great force and - once on the floor – the raising of the body half or fully with the support of stretched arms or feet. These are not particularly artistic or aesthetic movements ennobling the human body. Stuart reduces dance art to its most minimal parameters, to that necessarily vague line between dancing and non-dancing human bodies: simultaneously moving bodies that find their rhythm in an inaudible but visible melody, a strict time structure (the well-known counting).
At first sight, the pure dance passages in Meg Stuart's repertoire are not essential. Their limited duration alone usually events memorisation by the spectator, even though they simultaneously anticipate the audience's desire to watch, an audience that presumably expects 'dansant' scenes in a performance announced as contemporary dance. Nevertheless, these dances have a well-determined function within the context of each performance and so can certainly be called necessary. They suddenly show an entirely different type of corporeality than the disabled body which dominates her work. As apparent counterpoints, they break through the atmosphere of alienation, bodily defects, and autism, even though they do not immediately evoke anything like amusement or dance pleasure.
Falling full (throwing one's full weight to the ground) and then raising oneself from the floor, and this more than once, in a repetitive, serialised manner, are series of movements that do not seem to be much fun to do. They are rather reminiscent of physical labour and hard work, a reference heightened by the dance passages in Stuart's work being completely aimless, senseless and, yes, literally insignificant because they lack any narrative context and even seem to be standing outside the performance. Ballet, in the everyday meaning of the word, is, in more than one respect, synonymous with the hiding of effort and the simulation of a light and gracious body that, smiling orgiastically, can apparently effortlessly, but of course, only due to the effects of vigorous training, escape the laws of gravity. Stuart's dance language turns the sweet appearance of common classical dance upside down and signifies all the choreographic labour preceding the training of body and limbs. The dance passages in her performances resemble more the tiring repetitive drill exercises in a fitness centre than the elegant lightness of a ballerina metamorphosed into a flame or of a Cunningham dancer.
Again, the 'dansant' passages in Stuart's performances relate to the other scenes as external, outward events, as seemingly misplaced moments of rhythmic harmony and physical simultaneity in a world marked by chaos and alienation. They interrupt the stream of images, they serve as entr'actes within staged tableaux vivants and in these intervals there is, as I noted, a lot of falling. Is this a coincidence? Maybe I only imagined that, in her work, there is a close connection between the falling and the falling silent, between the staged 'dansant'-like physical movements and their position in the context of each performance. In any event, in Meg Stuart's work, presented as contemporary dance, dance itself occupies the paradoxical position of the interruption of the dance performance. Perhaps this is why her repertoire is an outstanding example of contemporary dance.


.... Silence
"Alors on y va?"
Ils ne bougent pas
Samuel Beckett, En attendant Godot
Leuven - Florence, August 1994

(Translated from the Flemish by Annabel Francois)