Disfiguring dance, refiguring the human
– Memories of Meg Stuart exchanged in correspondence
As I write I am in Hammerfest, Norway, improvising in a festival with Latvian, Norwegian and Russian dancers. The skies completely darken here by 1:30 pm. So I am in a strange Nordic dreamlike state as I travel back in memory to 1989 when Meg Stuart and I were both working in the Randy Warshaw Dance Company. Dancers learn much about each other by moving together; an intimate conversation built of trust and shared experiences that form our homes on the road and in the studio. Our bodies become containers of memories that have settled into our bones. I close my eyes and I can still see Meg darting forward in the opening movement phrase of Randy’s “Fragile Anchor.” Meg’s dancing was (is) at once fierce and tender, determined and vulnerable. In fact “fragile” and “anchor” are apt words to describe her performance. My memories take me inside Randy’s studio on Wooster Street. I can still feel the reverberations of a quartet created with Meg, Jennifer Lacey, Susan Blankensop and me; exacting hours of recalled improvisation to acquire minutes of set material. I treasure a gift photo of a duet with José Navas, with Meg watching from behind; it keeps us three dancing in a fleeting moment captured in black and white. We were all weaving our lives together in and out of downtown studios, and trying to make ends meet. Fellow striving artists were creating magic in the lofts of Soho, long before it transformed into a high-end shopping mall. We formed our chosen family during a time that became marked by the AIDS epidemic. Too many loved ones left us far too soon. The grief gave us a determination to keep creating, to keep moving, to keep working for long hours into the night. Nothing would stop those of us left behind. Meg would soon catapult from fellow NYC dancer to a renowned European creator.
In 1991 American choreographer Meg Stuart premiered her first evening-length piece at the Belgium dance Festival Klapstuk. Titled Disfigure Study, it was a quiet, dark, somber and deeply moving hour-long trio that immediately created a stark contrast to the highly theatrical and hyper physical dance that informed most of the European dance scene at the time. Indeed, Disfigure Study truly disfigured expectations of what a New York based dancer trained in the traditions of release technique and contact improvisation was supposed to present to an European audience in 1991. The piece was minimalist without being formal or abstract; profoundly affective without being theatrical or expressive; deeply technical without relying on one identifiable technique; highly visual, and yet, mostly taking place in shadows, penumbra, and darkness. Where one would expect integral bodies and fluid movement, Stuart offered a stark sense of post-AIDS melancholia, turning dancing bodies into incoherent (and yet very consistent) collections of partial body parts. Whereas the piece was directly inspired by Francis Bacon’s art, Disfigure Study did not explicitly refer to any of his paintings. Rather, it tapped into Bacon’s main aesthetic principle, what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called Bacon’s “logic of sensation.” Disfigure Study’s disfiguration of series of cliché images of avant-garde dance at the end of the 1980s was a refiguration of what it meant to desire movement in the wake of so much death.
I remember our excitement for Meg when she was given the commission to create “Disfigure Study.” It was remarkable in those days to get such support to spend time in the studio, and then to present in Europe, hurrah! Watching the last rehearsals, I knew she had created something special; a new and distinctive voice that spoke to how we were all recovering, adapting and moving on. She had discovered the seeds for what would blossom over the next years. I remember trying to encourage her to trust when her work was ready to be seen, but she had so many doubts at the start. The pressure was great. I recall watching as André quietly offered insightful collaborative dramaturgy that grounded and amplified Meg’s visual, physical and conceptual explorations. Meg was building a new chosen family and “Damaged Goods” seemed exactly the right words to name her fledgling company (taken from the last line of a review by Burt Supree). A few years later she would teach me one of her solos, to add into an evening work of mine entitled “Recuerdo: Passing Back through the Heart.” There was a specificity of form in her direction that was precise, emotional, and intimate. Rooted on the spot, the repetition of percussive movement, “oh yeah huh,” right shoulder jutting forward, still reverberates in my core.
Since then, Meg Stuart’s work has metamorphosed into all sorts of directions: large improvisational events gathering visual artists, composers, philosophers, dancers (Crash landing [1996-9], or Auf den Tisch [2005-11], to mention two examples); intimate interactive installations (for instance, Intimate strangers 2009-11]); large group pieces (VIOLET , or the extraordinary Built to Last ); sound projects (the LP Until our Hearts Stop); publications (Stuart’s Are We Here Yet? 2010); films (Study of a Portrait ); and series of solo works performed by Stuart herself (most recently, Hunter ) – these are just a very small fraction of all the titles comprising Stuart’s impressive and multifaceted body of work. In each of these manifestations of Stuart’s unique artistic impetus, we can find the poetic force of sensation at work. We can sense the logic of corporeal affects being made to operate by this indefatigable choreographer/dancer/performer in singular and powerful ways in order to deliver to her audience not only new images, but new imaginations: of the flesh, of modes of existing, of ways of moving, of entangling, of touching, of choreographing. Affects-as-imaginations exuding from the trembling body, or erupting through the animal quality of a very human howl, are what allow Stuart to consistently and logically move her dance and dancers across the most disparate disciplines, spaces, bodies, in delirious images and through lysergic sounds. Stuart’s works are events aimed at attacking (sometimes rather unceremoniously), and at redressing (sometimes quite touchingly), her audience’s affective field.
From then our journeys led us into different directions that would cross from time to time. We would see each other in Europe, in New York, in class, in performance, in improvisations, and I loved to see her explorations in both big productions and in intimate settings. Each of us would grow into roles as creators, teachers, leaders, curators, and writers, and still we are always asking questions and pushing through doubts. I was always frustrated that I never got to see enough of Meg’s company in New York. I have continued to find her work to be profoundly moving, with haunting visual, sonic and physical images that linger in memory long after viewing. Her book “Are we here yet” has become a bible of choreographic methods loved by multidisciplinary artists in many countries.
Choreographically, Stuart approaches the dancer’s body (including her own) as an impermanent collection of independent, autonomous, distorted entities, as if each limb, each body part, was moved by a desire of its own. Compositionally, her pieces gain consistency by the ways Stuart meticulously saturates the scenic space with highly affective forces that she draws from her dancers-collaborators. Dramaturgically, every scene links to the next by relentlessly affirming the constitutive ambiguity inherent to every single situation in our lives. Thus the haunting effects in Stuart’s works. They are unparalleled in contemporary choreography, simultaneously requiring from the audience a capacity to attend to the most poetic micro-details as well as to endure the most violent spasms in a dancer’s moves. If there is any violence, it is always under the project of highlighting a deeply touching understanding of the ultimate fragility of living.
I am grateful that we have improvised our way back to crossing again in New York, to the NYU Skirball Theater just blocks from that studio on Wooster Street. My path led me to become the dean of the Tisch School of the Arts where as a student Meg first began to choreograph so many years ago. And André offers his eloquent words once again, now in his role as distinguished author, curator and Chair of Performance Studies at Tisch. Who would have imagined that in those early days? I wait in anticipation to see Meg’s work. Passing back through the heart, our next memories will refigure my bones.
Co-written by Allyson Green and André Lepecki in travel between November 6th and 9th, 2017 in NYC, Hammerfest, Norway and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Allyson Green is the Dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. André Lepecki, Ph.D., is the Chair of Tisch’s Department of Performance Studies.
Ramsay Burt, Ungoverning Dance (New York, Oxford University Press, 2017).
Göksu Kunak, Meg Stuart: Make the First Move (Berlin: mono.kultur, 2016).
André Lepecki, Singularities: Dance in the Age of Performance (London: Routledge, 2016).
Jeroen Peeters, Bodies As Filters (Maasmechelen: Cultural Centre Maasmechelen, 2004).
Meg Stuart and Jeroen Peeters, Are We There Yet? (Dijon: Presses Du Réel, 2011).