Interview with Meg Stuart

Movement Research Performance Journal 1 Jan 2008English

item doc

Contextual note
This interview was done by Trajal Harrell. Trajal Harrell is a NY based choreographer-dancer working primarily in the U.S. and Europe.

Performance Journal: Where are you now as you write?

Meg Stuart: I am participating in an amazing ten-day project called Flying Circus where artists from Asia, Europe and the States are invited to present their work and exchange ideas with each other. We started in Singapore, and we are now in Hoh Chi Minh City. Motorbikes zoom past as I write this.

PJ: Where would you call home?

MS: Never easy to answer as one of my recurring issues in my work is the dual experience of feeling at home everywhere and nowhere. I live in Berlin.

PJ: You are American-born and have primarily developed your work in a European context. The story of you being “selected” by Europe to come be the next hot thing is obviously a construction of certain people’s storytelling skills. Could you explain your work – who, where, when?

MS: I choreographed quite a bit in NYU and after I graduated I continued to make work, dance for others, take workshops, and tons of restaurant jobs to survive – a typical New York story. Though I must say I was very happy in New York at that time. I didn’t try to push my work in the scene in any way but I would show a piece on a showcase when I had the time and the possibility…I was crushed when I was rejected for Fresh Tracks. Tine Van Aerschot, a playwright in Belgium who was looking for interesting young work in New York saw one of my rehearsals and from there got me in contact with Bruno Verbegt who invited me to create my first evening-length piece for the Klapstuk Festival in Leuven, Belgium. This was a huge step for me as I had no reviews of my work and had never made a piece longer than 15 minutes. I accepted, not without a lot of doubts. This first piece, Disfigure Study, was very successful much to my awe, and led to touring in Europe and residencies for a second work. I made No Longer Readymade two years later. During that period I met many artists at festivals and in projects like Skite in Paris where I collaborated on many small works. At a certain point, I realized I was spending much more time in Europe than New York; and more that I was becoming part of an international artistic community, and in order for my work to develop and in order to research movement in an intensive way I needed time and space to work which seemed only possible in Europe. In 1994 with the guidance of the producers in Klapstuk, I established the company Damaged Goods and became the first non-Flemish choreographer to apply for subsidies. In the beginning, we received grants for projects, and then were given structural support as a company in 2001.

PJ: After you attended NYU, you were in Randy Warshaw’s company, who danced with the Trisha Brown Company. How did this experience influence you?

MS: Anytime you start working with someone over a period of time they become a model for you. Not only watching them make artistic choices and participating in these choices but all those other decisions — How much rehearsal time to make a piece? How to prepare a group before the show? How to keep up older works? How to audition dancers? I worked with Randy for 5 years and we lived together for part of this time so I was very close to the work without much distance. I loved his classes — the floor technique and the Contact classes. I am still impressed by Randy’s logical sequencing and that for some work he created it move by move from the beginning to the end. I am more cut and paste with my work – quite chaotic. For one piece we learned our individual improvisations from video, every single detail without any corrections. I found this very difficult at the time but I still use this method in my own work.

PJ: Who else was in the company at the time? Jennifer Lacey? Did the company give you a sense of community and belonging that in those days many people found or believed they could find in “the company”?

MS: Here were really brilliant dancers and choreographers that worked with Randy at different moments — Joseph Lennon, Jose Navas, Allyson Green, Iréne Hultman, Susan Blakensopp, Bill Young, and others. I learned a tremendous amount from all of them from dancing with them: how they structured their lives living in New York, their views on dance and so on… I was always the youngest one, then Lacey joined the company and she became the young one.

PJ: How did that experience influence your development of Damaged Goods as a company?

MS: We’re a project-based company, although I often work with dancers for more than one project. I like to create an open structure where dancers are independent and have the opportunity to be involved in other projects. Unfortunately, because the performers create the work, it is not easy to replace them or tour the older pieces. It is equally important that I create company works that are on different scales. Some larger, some more intimate. And for each piece I try to find new methods of working and to give the performers experiences that will inform that particular work. The casting is very important and the projects and issues are very connected to the performers’ own identities.

PJ: You once said that your work always refers back to the traumatized body or that subconsciously you draw from this idea. Perhaps this is a misquote, but can you correct the quote and does Damaged Goods refer to this?

MS: I see the body as a container of memories and impressions we have from our own past, but also from contemporary life. I filter these experiences through movements. I’m not so interested in the accidents, in the traumatic event, but how someone recovers, how people continue on, adapt to new situations, and reintegrate themselves into the world. Often the movements also express things which aren’t stated, which are difficult to express, so there’s a lot of slippage between the interior world and the outside reality. ‘Damaged goods’ was the last line of Burt Supree’s review of Disfigure Study. I am not sure he meant it as a compliment.

PJ: Most recently you have been doing different configurations of projects based more on collaborations with other choreographers such as Philipp Gehmacher, Benoît Lachambre, and Francisco Camacho. Is this a new direction and what does this foretell for the future of Damaged Goods?

MS: I’ve always had a history of collaboration. I like to create work in dialogue, to dance with them in a conceptual way. In a way they help you define yourself, but they also disrupt you. It’s also an irritation, they take you to places you wouldn’t dare on your own. I think there’s something important to say about the circularity; all the people I’ve worked with in the past. People aren’t just passing through me; I’m re-experiencing relationships, looking through my history again; revisiting all the links and connections I made with people I’ve worked with before. The work is continually evolving, and I simply enjoy the conversation with artists that share similar ideas.

PJ: As a young choreographer making work in New York, how did you perceive your work in the context of downtown dance at the time?

MS: There was so much going on and work to see, I think I saw three shows a week. It was difficult for me to be away and miss anything. I was quietly very involved. Alhough I think we all carry our issues and obsessions wherever we go, they’re certainly affected by working inNew York. I was moved by the AIDS crisis in the late 80s and early 90s. There was a very, very strong sense of supportamong the artists, but I’d only been makingsmall pieces, and I don’t know howthey fit in. How can you fit your work into a context? What does that mean? I would never know that.

PJ: Also, a few people who were around during the time you began choreographing have said that you work was not well received by the scene here and that people were somewhat shocked that you were invited to Europe. Was that your perception, as well, at the time? Or is this all poppycock?

MS: I don’t think that was the case. We had a very strong response when we showed Disfigure Study at The Kitchen and sketches for Readymade at P.S. 122. I think most people didn’t even know that I made dances because I didn’t promote myself, and were surprised that I was given the opportunity to make my first work in Europe. I agree; I do think the Klapstuk Festival took a big risk presenting my first evening-length piece. I would like to think that other European presenters would have so much trust in young artists today. What do they have to lose? I have to say that there was a very virtuosic, complex dance scene that was shown at that time. And for me, it felt like that I was interested in dance that was more vulnerable, that was more fragile, that questioned itself. I wanted to slow movement down, to let images linger. There was a kind of continuation of movement and speed in the work that I saw and I wanted to arrest the flow. I choreographed a series of images to affect the audience in a more emotional way. Like Francis Bacon, to appeal to their nervous system.

PJ: How did this European context change you as a choreographer? And how did you have to adapt as a choreographer in this new context?

MS: I think often choreographers in New York talk about the difficulties of making work and in Europe people talk more about the work itself. It’s true that when we were talking about the dancing in New York, it was very immediate, very movement-based, and all of a sudden there was a chance to think about the total experience, to work with a whole set of production values that I didn’t have access to in New York. My performances stopped bringing dancers onstage. They started becoming people. And I started to investigate theatricality and how to translate choreographic ideas into other mediums and forms, using choreographic strategies to compose text or to collaborate with artists in video and sound.

PJ: Disfigure Study was the piece that brought you to large international attention. What were the conditions for making this work?

MS: The budget was rather limited. I had the theatre two weeks before the premiere and worked with the dancers in residency in Leuven and rehearsed as well in New York. The whole piece was an accumulation of two years of work. Hard to remember, it was so long ago.

PJ: As you gained prominence with this work, how did it change your perception of the work and yourself as a choreographer?

MS: Don’t know.

PJ: As a choreographer you have not settled into a large institutional practice and structure, is that something you would desire? Or would you say your time in Zurich was that possibility?

MS: I have a dual interest in both the need to construct work to practice the art of composition with different ideas or starting points, such as monstrosity, fanaticism, ghosts, absence, loss, and build a world with others from there. But it’s equally important that I have time for process to exchange with other artists, such as the project I am in now, so that I can continue movement investigations. I wouldn’t want to just play in these larger and larger houses but equally for the audience to experience the work in more intimate settings. In Zurich, I was able to meet Christoph Marthaler who was older and more experienced than me — to see the actors interact and change roles from night to night, to share a space where other people were making work, to watch them build the set, to see the costumes being made, to see different artists and designers work in the same house. I loved that.

PJ: Improvisation is a large part of your background training and practice, as well as the impetus for projects such as the Crash Landing series and Auf den Tisch!. What role did your American education and training play in this? In a way, you also seemed to be a part of the force that brought this focus on improvisation to Europe, no?

MS: Taking risks, enjoying the discomfort, seeing artists trust each other, bringing artists together and people that under different circumstances would never improvise has informed me about how I dance; but also about how to meet the world trying to find the bones to get to the deepest of contact or connection with another in any situation. I was frustrated that improvisation seemed to become for me stale at one point because I am passionate about the form. I have many questions about improvisation, so in collaboration I have tried to ignite the practice by involving other disciplines and creating settings where improvisation can be discussed as a form. Together with Myriam Van Imschoot, I created Auf den Tisch!, an improvised conference that includes the audience.

PJ: Teaching is also a part of your practice; this too seems to hark back to the American modern dance tradition where teaching and choreographing are inextricably linked. It seems less so in Europe. Can you comment on these thoughts?

MS: I try to teach what is most burning for me at the moment. I share my questions, my investigations, and open up process with my students. I expose myself very much when I teach. I usually teach improvisation and often I improvise when I teach. It is part of my own personal process… Ultimately, language is the most important thing for me — expanding the possibilities of what we express in movement and seeing movement as text laid out in spatial time. I do think it takes an extraordinary amount of research and time to make breakthroughs in one’s own movement language whether it be improvised or set movement.

PJ: It is nice that your work is coming more frequently now to New York after an absence of many years. How many years between Splayed Mind Out at The Kitchen and Forgeries, Love And Other Matters at DTW? Although you performed some smaller pieces at Judson and at the MR Festival too, no?

MS: More than seven years. Yes, it is very important and special for me to perform in New York. It was here that I learned about contemporary art and performance, and I learned how to dance here. Yes, I guess I am very nostalgic about my time in New York.

PJ: Perhaps Americans feel that they have a special lens on your work. Some of the images and movement play on our subconscious repertoire of American iconography and metaphors, yet this is rarely addressed or fully comprehended in Europe. In Forgeries… the American West, in It’s not funny, Hollywood and Las Vegas, and perhaps in BLESSED, Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps this is just a projection onto your work from an American perspective, but then again, it seems that like perhaps Henry James and James Baldwin, you are addressing American culture from both inside and outside.

MS: I guess I feel comfortable talking about American culture because it is a lens, a way of looking at the world that I can understand, reflect upon, be critical of, but have affection for as well. With the political climate being what it is and having the distance and the perspective of being in Europe, I think one can’t help but reflect on American issues. I haven’t always felt so comfortable being an American in Europe, but knowing certainly I am not German nor Belgian and never will be. I was born in New Orleans. It was terrible being far away and watching the trauma of Hurricane Katrina with my mouth wide open, shocked, and feeling so helpless. BLESSED is, personally, perhaps, one of my most important works that I have made until now.

PJ: Isn’t it a trip to bring the work “home” so to speak?

MS: I can only answer yes and no.