Meg Stuart

The American choreographer presents her improvisation project.

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Meg Stuart answers the phone in Berlin with a series of tiny moans. To be true, she is juggling a lot; her newest work, Do Animals Cry —loosely based on family structures—premiered in April and is currently touring Europe. She is also overseeing the publication of a book, Are we here yet?, about her company, Damaged Goods, which will be available early next year (she describes it as “manual of how to be Damaged Goods”). Beginning November 6, she will appear at the Baryshnikov Arts Center for the U.S. premiere of Auf den Tisch! (At the Table!). The improvisation project, curated by Stuart and copresented by the Performa ’09 biennial, features a conference table, an audience, and a group of carefully selected artists, musicians, actors and thinkers. Joining Stuart for the New York installment are Trajal Harrell, Keith Hennessy, Janez Jansa, Jean-Paul Lespagnard, Jan Maertens, Yvonne Meier, Anja Mller, Vania Rovisco, Hahn Rowe, George Emilio Sanchez and David Thomson. The American choreographer, who has lived in Europe since the ’90s, spoke about improvisation.

We need to talk about At the Table!
Oh. Something that can’t be talked about. [Laughs]

I was worried you were going to say something like that.
But we can try. I am, like, shaking in my boots about it. In the ’90s, I curated this Crash Landing project with David Hernandez and Christine De Smedt, where we all improvised together, and some years later I got asked to do it again. The setup is a big table that the audience and performers are sitting around. There are four microphones. Loosely, it’s a conference about improvisation while people improvise. Basically, what I like about the thing is that there’s a real fluidity between talking and doing. You can walk through all different kinds of voicing—from talking and personal reflection to a speech; you can be talking, and all of a sudden you can become an object or an example. And the audience is kind of flush against the table so they’re really part of the action itself.

What is the meaning of the title?
Auf den Tisch, in German, is to put things on the table. What do you have to put out there? [Laughs] The setup is beautiful because you can be very minimal; you just see somebody ask a question, and then any little movement is highlighted. But, of course, to do an improvisation on this big scale in a festival is totally terrifying. I was kind of hoping to put another little small solo next to it. But because of finances, spaces and whatever, only this table project made it. But I’ve stopped crying about it. I’m up for the risk.

What are some of the ideas in it?
It’s an improv that can also reflect on itself. If you think about improv more openly, all the issues that we experience in life are there in a very heightened way. We can talk about taking risks and what we’re afraid of—for me, improv is crisis. And trust. And finding solutions to unstable situations. Or can improvisation be strategy? Without always using the word improv, there is subject matter in it already, So people talk about that or physicalize that and you can fluidly go from associative speech, to wordplay, to just, “Hey, how are you doing?” to dancing-—let it rip and jump around all over the table. And I don’t know how it’s going to play out! I’ve asked a diverse group and we’re all going to have a proposal at the first meeting. They will all bring [an improvisation] score or say that they want to give a speech. Generosity’s important. And compassion. But what I like is that people have to work things out—they have to come to agreements and it’s intense. It’s good.

Where have you done it?
Twice in Belgium, and once in Austria and Berlin. That’s it. This is, like, the fifth edition.

Does it change?
In Vienna, it was in the context of this Mozart festival—I mean “Mozarteum”-—and they got me to do it because they said Mozart used to improvise. [Cracks up] So we had an opera singer on the table and Hooman Sharifi—it was pretty bizarre. And it was in a classical setting, but it broke right open because the first thing someone said was, “Let’s think about Fitzcarraldo—like doing an opera in the jungle!” I know. It’s pretty woo! What I’m happy about is I’ve done a lot of improv research. I still feel like I’m learning how to do it and also how to guide it. I would be very sad if this was presented as “Meg Stuart’s new piece.” Basically I asked Trajal to help collect a group, and then I propose the setup, the scenario, and we go.

Who are some of the participants?
Keith Hennessy, who I met this summer. He’s quite a politically active--type guy, older. And Yvonne Meier, who I once took a class with, like a hundred million years ago, so I’m totally excited because she has so many strong ideas about scoring. Vania Rovisco who actually does a lot of installations and improv work, but she’s part of a younger generation. She danced with me for five years. I’m totally excited that she’s going to be introduced to New York because no one knows her. And another strong woman named Anja Mller—nobody knows her either. She’s a choreographer and performer and a great actress as well. And George Emilio Sanchez—I don’t know him at all [Laughs]. David Thomson, he’s a gorgeous dancer and I’ve never had a chance to cross his path so I find that a total thrill. I think it’s a mix of people that would connect, but aren’t, like, a cozy group—it’s not people who always work together.

So you’ll meet with everyone a few days before the opening?
I’ll be there already from Monday; we meet Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and the show is Friday. We have time. It’s also what I like to do. I don’t like the sort of one-night improv things.

And you discuss scores?
For sure. And I think what’s important is that it’s an improv that works in this particular setting. It’s not just “Let’s go and improvise”—it’s more like we’re all sitting together. What does it mean to have four microphones and be able to ask each other questions and then let it slip into movement?

The audience never becomes involved, right?
They can. It’s not forcing anything, but they have, at times, been asked questions or interviewed—I wouldn’t rule that out. One time we took all the chairs and put them on the table and there was nowhere for the audience to sit. We’re not roping them up and teaching them how to move or something, but the proximity can’t be really denied.

Why do you return to improv?
I use it as a research for my work and I like putting it all in a performance situation, but I think I’m also interested in how to create conditions for something to happen. Years ago, I would meet people in passing at festivals; this is a meeting onstage. It’s another way of connecting—not just, “What do you do?” but sharing practice. I’m always experimenting with forms. I like that this is not just any improv, but a very concrete thing. The safety valve of this project is that anyone can get on the mike and say, “Restart.” There are a lot of other buttons here—other things can happen here because we have this verbal layer. It’s an interesting setup, let’s put it that way.

Does the space change the context?
I think the composition of people does, for sure. What I really like is that talking can blur and you can have parallel realities. People can keep a very intimate conversation and talk really quietly while somebody’s dancing on a table. That’s what I like in improv. I have a wide palate. I’m quite open to things shifting a lot. But there was one table event in Berlin that I wasn’t happy with. I actually made everyone stop, and then they had to do the whole hour and a half again.

Wow.
I know. [Laughs] I think control freaks are the true improvisers.

And too much generosity is boring.
Somehow. But I think you can also call it instant performance. Not just improvising. It’s like collecting shared interests. We’re talking about improv, and that is very difficult to describe. What does it mean to deal with accidents and unstable structures? If I start talking about failure in improv, it can get very deep. It can be really exciting.

Why is this so scary?
Of course, I like to put myself in dangerous situations where I don’t know where I’m going to land. I’ve had my highest performance moments and my lowest in improv situations and it’s a practice. At this moment in New York, I think people appreciate how brave it is to improvise and what it means and how it’s only in this moment at this time with these people and within this context. I hope we can be committed to stretching; I hope that in all our skills we can really put something strong on the line. I will encourage the group. But it’s not my group—it’s a very unique collection of people meeting at this intersection of time and space in the city. In a festival context, when you’re next to finished work, it’s a little bit scary. You just have to have the right lens. It doesn’t mean it can’t be really strong.

Are there rules? Is there anything that the improvisers can’t do? Uh, uh, uh... [She bursts into laughter.] I guess that means no.

Auf den Tisch! (At the Table!) is at the Baryshnikov Arts Center Nov 6 and 7.

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