On Disfigure Study

Looking back at Disfigure Study

Nieuwsbrief Dans in Limburg 1 Jan 2003English

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What is the significance of watching Disfigure Study at the present time, in 2002? When the work was first performed in October 1991 during the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven, it was the public’s first view of a Meg Stuart performance. This American choreographer was at the time still entirely unknown, so no one knew what might take place on stage. A good eleven years later things look completely different: Meg Stuart has for several years now been a hallowed innovator in contemporary dance. This means her work is seen against a completely different background, both when it comes to the new creations with Damaged Goods and with regard to the revival of Disfigure Study.
In 1991, Disfigure Study was the first piece by a certain Meg Stuart, now we are seeing the first piece by the Meg Stuart. The symbolic aura that now encircles this internationally-known artist and her work has an inevitable effect on the performance and the way we see it. However, the decisive factor is the body of work itself that has been gradually created. It has, like a native landscape, provided the standard for all the individual productions and has also retrospectively included Stuart’s debut too - or, probably more exactly, has ‘imprisoned’ it. Indeed, by reinterpreting Disfigure Study on the basis of the later work, this debut is no longer what it once was: an unexpected work of art, an unforeseen enrichment of both the concept and the history of contemporary dance.
It is nowadays almost inevitable that one sees Disfigure Study in the context of Stuart’s entire oeuvre. But there is a price to pay. We thereby ignore both its actual historical status and what it signified as an artistic event at the time. This unexpected event made history. It struck a new vein in contemporary dance by implicating ‘writing with movements’ in ‘the live creation of movements’. This performance tied in with the sixties work by Judson Church which by 1991 had almost been forgotten: Stuart reactivated the interaction between choreography and performance. At the same time, Disfigure Study made reference to both theatre and the visual arts. Stuart incorporated the particular desolate tone that one spontaneously associates with Beckett, and was also able to transpose a specific painterly tradition of ‘disfigurement’ of the human body into the performing arts. The name Francis Bacon was often heard after the opening of the piece. He represents a long list of names from the history of painting and sculpture. Bacon’s bodies, twisting apart at right-angles, would have been inconceivable without the work of Goya, Kokoschka, Picasso and also Lucian Freud. This is why Disfigure Study has a particularly fitting title.

Studies of the body are a canonised genre in the visual arts and are an obligatory stage to be passed through by every aspiring artist. The reason for the break from academic painting and sculpture was therefore a specific ideal of the body. In the academic tradition, the representation of the human body had to literally live up to such values as beauty, harmony and virtue. Even in modern art, the human body remained a locus of truth. But it was of course a completely different body: the modern tradition entered into an alliance with ‘the truth of the ugly’ - of the twisted and mutilated, of the diseased or otherwise physically weak body. In Disfigure Study, Meg Stuart successfully transposed this tradition to the performing arts. It was also the right time for it, and not only because Aids was still a controversial topic in public opinion (not unimportantly, it also robbed the New York dance scene of much of its talent).
Disfigure Study also registered the general social spread of the aspiration towards the smooth, youthful, perfectly functioning body of a model. The performance lodged an implicit protest against this new narcissism, without ever crossing the boundary of physical obscenity. In 1991, this was also, deliberately or not, an unmistakable statement against the ‘power dance’ of the eighties. This piece did not give us boys and girls with well-trained bodies performing elegant movements in unison, followed in the next scene by nimble manoeuvring through dangerous situations. One was struck, rather, by the restraint and the numerous still moments in the movements, which gave the performance a highly visual, even sculptural character. Disfigure Study sometimes appeared to find its unrevealed film-like foundations in a strange melancholy longing for physical normality.
Up till now I have used the past tense, and not without reason. For after Disfigure Study, work involving physical impotence and images of a ‘broken physicality’ very soon became widely established. The vogue for showing isolated bodies thrown back on their own resources is of course not all due to Disfigure Study. Nor was it only this production that redefined the stage as a virtual space that only becomes real via live movements. But Stuart’s debut was in the front line of the conflict - which in fact was not at all clamorous in its pursuance - for the broadening of the performing arts in the direction of both performance art and body art. In the meantime we have already seen all this. Nowadays the pioneers of contemporary dance are exploring the relationship with the audience, sometimes using video and other digital resources. Stuart and Damaged Goods have helped shape this development too, not least in the location project Highway 101. In ALIBI, her last production, this new artistic trend reached its first definitive milestone.

At the present time, Disfigure Study no longer awakens the audience from the dreams of a dance that entertains by its beauty. In the light of the many later performances about (rather than ‘with’) the disfigured body, what is now most striking is the diffidence with which this was staged in Stuart’s debut. Disfigure Study continues to convince primarily because of the originality of the movement material: lots of poses (lots of still moments), and above all lots of micro-movements - plenty of dancing fingers, arms, feet, eyebrows, backs, etc. (this, we now know, is the hallmark of Stuart’s choreographic vision). The movements are shown without a great deal of emphasis, and therefore also without the suggestion that we are being shown the ‘truth of the body’ by way of the unusualness of the movements made. Directness and emphasis are entirely alien to this performance: Disfigure Study does not present ‘disfigured’ bodies, but scene by scene unfolds images of the body that resonate with much harsher images in the minds of the audience. In this respect too, Stuart’s debut piece is a premonition of later work. In the imaginary resonance between the physical images on stage, possibly including video images, and the audiences’s mental images, this oeuvre has attained an aesthetic axiom which previously only art and film had been able to employ reflexively.
So in 2002 we see a different Disfigure Study than in 1991. Between then and now stands another cultural climate, a changing dance and art scene and above all Stuart’s work itself. I have tried to explain something - not very much - of the original impact of Stuart’s debut. This undoubtedly also relied on the presence of the performers of the time, including Stuart herself, and the musical score by Hahn Rowe. The revival is by three other dancers. They do not perform the piece any better or worse than eleven years ago, just differently. Their movements sometimes seek out the safety of the original, but are fortunately never able to find it. Stuart has rightly given the new performers the freedom to appropriate the basic choreography and thereby give it an individual character. Rowe has also updated the score, and literally so. In 1991 the harsh guitars sounded contemporary, now they would be referring to a musical idiom that has seen better days. The new soundtrack surveys the musical developments of the past decade with a superior gaze that reveals the ear of the trained musician. Hip hop and trip hop, glitch or ‘broken music’, lounge and postrock: it’s all there, but filtered by an eye that has taken a new look at Disfigure Study and will once again do justice to the performance of ten years ago.
The new score sets itself up much less against the performance, which in 1991 was the right choice. It attempts, rather, to translate into sounds the inaudible movement-score of the performance, especially the imaginary sound of the countless micro-movements. This changed approach displays much wisdom. In 1991 Disfigure Study was still a statement that also needed a musical gesture, but now it is a work of art that is sufficient in itself. Rowe’s musical helpfulness captures the proverbial essence of this revival of Stuart’s debut piece: his contemporary soundscape articulates the non-contemporaneity of the performance. The fact that its appeal continues in 2002 only goes to show that the Meg Stuart of that time was already able to relate artistically to that strange inhumanity that makes a human being of every spectator.