Meg Stuart is an American choreographer and dancer based in Berlin and Brussels. Since almost 30 years she has been creating dance and theater pieces, installations, site–specific performances and video work.
I had a chance to talk to Meg Stuart after the performance of BLESSED in Antwerp (DeSingel). In a presence of a cardboard house, palm full of attitude and a thoughtfully looking swan, Meg Stuart talked about the time of the past, ideas for the future and her special attachment to BLESSED. The piece, which she herself refers to as a jewel, was premiered in 2006 in Ghent. 11 years later BLESSED remains extremely actual, a work of and for now.
In January this year, Meg Stuart was awarded Golden Lion award for Lifetime Achievement by La Biennale di Venezia.
Congratulations on the award! An award on Life Time Achievement must have a different weight to it.
Thank you and yes, I think the aspect of time, it definitely does something…
The name of the award also carries something of a conclusion to it…
It surely makes me think about how to continue. It makes me reflect on the past but it also makes me very grateful… I have this dancing life and have worked with all these amazing people. And you know, you work and you make another piece and then another. The time goes by and you don’t realize that that has been your life, that this is what you do. So yep, this ‘life time’ part makes me look back at that time… I also love the work of Marlene Monteiro Freitas (laureate of The Silver Lion) so to be next to her is really, really great.
Many creations have been created and I am curious about the very starting moment of each new work? What is needed for you to start creating?
I think there are few different parts. There is the impulsive part which relates to what I just came from, a response to a personal experience. Then there is a more technical part, like a material I want to work on.
What do you refer to when you say material?
It is some sort of territory that I want to address but which I don’t know that well. There must be a sense of unbalance, a problem that I don’t know how to solve, something unknown…
In Until Our Hearts Stop it was about lines and space. I had an image of people working in an industrial way and that intrigued me. With Celestial Sorrow it was the voice I was interested in. In BLESSED I wanted to make a solo on Francisco Camacho. Together with the set designer (Doris Dziersk) we were interested in rain, its feminine quality and the effects it has. A state to which I want to get to is often also another part but most important is that there is an urgency. That there is a drive to dive into somewhere, a need to figure something out.
Is making work a way a of finding answers? Do you end your process with a solved problem?
It might take a while but I hope to find a path, a way through that territory. I search for a structure, an approach within the unknown, a movement language of it. Also, for transitions, for how things will develop. Would they lead smoothly to one another or do we need more short cuts. It is only when I understand the overall structure that I can navigate within it.
Your latest works such as ‘Hunter’, ‘Until Our Hearts Stop’ or the most recent ‘Celestial Sorrow’ all seem to be looking at the territory of memory, ritual or trauma. A sense of healing is also present. Is that an intention behind these works?
I think dance is healing. Not healing only in a sense of making us feel better but it also allows us to move into darker places and realise that it is fine to do that. To do it together, with other people. To realise that life is not only about what is comfortable but that it is also about challenge and the uncomfortable. I realised that I am interested in both healing and in art and I was wondering about the connection between the two. I think that art physicalizes things that cannot be easily expressed. It puts questions and different issues in space and lets them talk to the subconscious. I really believe it does something..
Can it cure?
I think there are so many influences we don’t know of that come through our genetics, past relationships or through actions in space. I think things are loaded with meaning and it is only now that we are slowly starting to be aware of that. I am interested in diving into this idea. How what we do is affecting us. How do seemingly disconnected elements connect to each other? I just believe that we are in a deep connection with all sorts of things. With art, practice, people that are here or not… That fascinates me.
You say dance is healing, that doing things together is healing. But what about the viewer who experiences the ritual from a very different side, very often in his own bubble?
I am very much caring for the audience. If things get too private in between the dancers I myself don’t find it interesting. Generosity is important to me. I try to find a way to allow the audience to enter into the work and to in a way, be part of the liveliness of it. It is not only about dancers moving, they are also moving in relation to the audience and that is a practice of the work, the practice of how to be with people. I don’t tell dancers how to relate to the audience because I want them to feel in charge of this connection. Not everything is, of course, improvised but there is always a space for creating the experience which happens between the performers and the viewers.
And how about BLESSED where the material is very much set? What is the practice of this work?
In BLESSED Fransico Camacho has given me a beautiful gift of patience. In many other pieces, dancers kept on moving and giving ideas where Franciso would often just wait for me.
Wait for you to propose the material?
Yes, and also just wait for me to make a decision. He would improvise if I asked him to but he would not go for hours. He would propose something and then stop. I found that amazing. Comparing to the last project in which people would share tons of materials and ideas I feel that Francisco had given me an amazing gift of space, time and patience.
Did the work change at all throughout this 11 years?
I think the world has changed. Our relationship to material, to struggle, to surviving and also to softness has changed. And thus the relation to the little story of BLESSED has shifted but the work itself, strangely enough, has not changed at all.
Did you ever want to change it?
No, for me this piece is like a jewel. I don’t remember much of how it got created but it is one.
Do you treat it differently to other works?
I realized that I made it into a dance piece but it was created in a theatre context. We had a premiere in Ghent in 2007 but the creation happened in a City Theatre in Germany where there was a whole team of people always ready to help us, to try things out. This mix of contexts makes it special.
Sounds like you have still a strong attachment to the work.
To the relationship with Francisco while making it, yes.
You once said that you like movement because It does not give solutions. What else do you like movement for?
I think I have a very wide understanding of what movement is. I have also given myself a lot of allowances when working with it. And even though my body has its habits and movements it prefers over others, I am still fascinated by the whole spectrum of movement and its possibilities.
I prefer the word movement rather than dance because I am not so interested in dance styles or phrases. Though I can borrow some ‘dance’ here and there I don’t like having too much of it. With movement, you can put something into it, add, erase. I am interested in how movement speaks about our personalities, how through movement do we meet the world and how the world meets us. Celestial Sorrow was more about voice but also about the breath, how we digest, how we take things in, how we express. For me all that is movement. I like how movement erupts from different states such as joy, discomfort or how it behaves within a controlled or uncontrolled body. I feel like there is so much unexplored vocabulary there and I am still not done with it.
What about the difficulties of working with movement, are there any?
Sometimes I feel like people are moving around and I don’t know why. When I don’t know what is the reason, intention or task for it.. At times I have this desire for movement to be more exact and clear with why it is there or what it means.
There is also challenge in how to give it to the audience. I know I watch a lot of dance performances because I dance all day but if I wasn’t I would look at movement very differently. I often wonder for the people that don’t dance themselves, how they read it and if movement is the best way to connect with people…
You have premiered your first piece in Belgium in 1991 but you started to make work before that. Since then you kept on creating. I wonder if working as a choreographer is something that can be mastered throughout the years? Are there some challenges that keep on appearing along the way?
I never had a stable company, a space or a theatre to work in. Not that it was a big challenge but I never had dancers for a longer time, that we could live and work together with. That has somehow never appeared…
Did you ever want that?
I did not claim it but now I think, it would not be bad.. (laughter) but I don’t know if it was the challenge or maybe that is just the time of the past.
Thinking about challenge I often wonder which of the territories I worked with such as installation, theatre or film have been most challenging for me. I still don’t know. I am also curious about some spaces l never really went to like ballet or opera, I wonder how interesting that would be. On that level, I will now organise a dance congress in Germany in 2019 and that is for me like super new and challenging.
Will it be some sort of dance festival that you curate?
Yes, it will be 5 days long theory/dance situation but it is still very much in the making. Sort of curation but I still don’t know what it is going to be exactly (laughter). In a way, I am getting some air which is a good thing. I still have touring but other than that I will have some space and time to just see what is happening. I think that improvised movie would be amazing but, again that is nothing concrete.
So, for now, there are no plans for a new creation?
No! Nothing planned for a year but then, of course, I would not know what else to do so something will happen. Maybe something related to a school but it would have to be with a different than usual approach to teaching. I already have some ideas, still very fresh but present.
Could you share them or are they still in a very secret stage?
I would like it to be something more mobile, something you cannot just learn in a closed studio of HZT or P.A.R.T.S. I have these ideas for more of a mystery school where you would go to, let’s say, an older person to teach you his truths and experiences. Where in small groups you would be intensively handed down knowledge of the world and then have breaks. Instead of just taking things from, you will learn through being in a presence of a person. Like this, your soul and body would have physical experience rather than imagining it or watching it on YouTube. Some of it could be exotic but not only. I just believe that there must be a knowledge that can be thought but it does not exist right now. To create some sort of bank of experience where you can be in, that would be great.
That does sound very interesting…
I am so curious! I want to just do that now! (laughter) Now you have heard it as first, so it will go out into the world…
Just before you said that for a year you have no plans but after you probably won’t know what to do so you will create. Is that some sort of breathing for you?
It surely is not as easy as breathing. The last pieces were really challenging and made me question a lot of things. I also have to think about my life that I missed when I was in a studio. I now question a balance between all this. I never stopped so I don’t know how long it will take for me to need to create even if on a smaller scale. I honestly don’t know where the borders are.
That might be a bit personal but I don’t find myself a dance teacher or even a choreographer until the moment I enter the studio. Then a click happens. Or now when I talk to you, I feel I am in it but when you would switch the recording off, it would immediately feel different. In my mind I don’t live or feel like an artist. When I am in the studio something happens and I can guide and of course, I sometimes have to think of what I will do in the studio but that is not very often. When I am outside of the studio I am not thinking that I want to make art, I am not really busy with it. I guess If I would analyse it I would do much less.
But then it means the work really comes from the inside?
See, I really don’t know…. It sounds a bit romantic but it is just, you know, it is something strange.
And has it always felt like this for you?
Yes, kind of yes..