Jonathan Burrows
Interview with Meg Stuart
Interview with Meg Stuart for Conversations With Choreographer's, a series of interviews for the performance As it is at The South Bank, London, 1998.

Luna Café, Brussels, March 12th 1998.

Meg Stuart: So!

Jonathan Burrows: Tell me something about the solo that you're bringing to London.

MS: I made this piece for a special occasion for a Judson Church event in New York. I was working on some material which I had developed for a workshop with Susanne Linke - which is interesting because it's the first time I took a workshop in years. And I read an article written by Arlene Croce in the New Yorker called Discussing the undicussable, and it was about a performance by Bill T Jones called Still Here, which she hadn't seen and wasn't interested in seeing. Her reason not to see it was that since Bill T was HIV positive, and working with teminally ill and HIV patients, there was a kind of sympathy demanded on the viewer before it started. She used the term 'victim art' to describe it, and she lumped together not only his work but the work of Pina Bausch and Mapplethorpe, and maybe other kinds of things that were happening in New York at that time. So I felt that I needed to respond, given the history of my work, and I wanted to do it by showing not an adrenalised, virtuosic body onstage, but by showing more frailty, failure…to show people trying to get up and not making it. It's the first piece that I've made in response to something, and it's a bit ironic. The piece is called XXX for Arlene and Colleagues. In a way it's an extremely personal piece for me.

JB: It seems you're very clear about how long things happen for. Some things end before you expect and some go on for longer than you expect, but it's never predictable. Are you conscious of altering the sense of time during performance?

MS: That's a very good question, I don't know…what do I want to say? I think in general I have a quite slow use of time. For me personally I need time and I give the audience time, even if it's a bit uncomfortable at moments. What's characteristic of my work is a kind of suspension or extension of time. To see an image and then to re-see it, to experience it more than once, to go beyond the first impression so that it becomes something completely else to you than it was when it first flashed by. Often I work with a physical task or problem and stick with it over an extended period of time, so that the audience is really connected and engaged with it, but I'm also interested in making a lot of different jump cuts as well.

JB: How do you know when to stop something?

MS: It's personal. I think timing is very personal, it's a choreographic signature. How you structure your material is the essence of choreography.

JB: And on the micro-scale? For instance the movement process you're working with in the solo XXX: I love your sense of timing in that and I have a feeling that it’s quite structured, but the structures seem always in the process of falling apart. How do you do that?

MS: I have an overall task I give myself. It's divided into sections, but for most of the solo there's one overall task of trying to fly; and I'm just engaged in this action and the task is to complete it, but of course it’s impossible. It has a very tight structure, but the solo is improvised, so that each movement is not set in rigid form.

JB: Do you work with known phrasing before you reach that point?

MS: I have to say that from the beginning of my work I've always rejected dance phrases. I hoped to eliminate the word or concept of phrase altogether!

JB: Really! I've just started making phrases again. I love phrases.

MS: I can't say I don't use phrases, I mean I think it's a bit inevitable. I mean, why do dancers love to dance in unison? Why do dancers love to have a phrase? But I am more interested in a physical state, emotional state a task, so I try to find other ways to structure a piece.

JB: When you're working with improvisation, do you use ideas to break people out of their habitual physical pathways, learnt pathways, acquired pathways?

MS: How do I break them out of their patterns? I think first I have to recognise their patterns! I had an interesting experience making a solo for Baryshnikov for the White Oak Project. I was interested in what kind of dance he has on his body. He is someone who is such a great mimic and interpreter, and he has danced hundreds of pieces, but what is his own language? what is his own handwriting? how does he dance for himself? So I spent a lot of time with his eyes closed, just to see, 'How does he move if there's no one saying how to move?' And I think with that process he was vulnerable, some barriers broke down, and maybe some patterns.

JB: What's the focus onstage for a performer in one of your pieces?

MS: For the dancers?

JB: Yes, what keeps them going, what's engaging them?

MS: A lot of the process is about working with partners that aren't there, or developing duets and then removing the partner, or working with memories or states that the dancers might have experienced before. Sometimes it's my hand that's touching me, and sometimes it's someone else's hand. Sometimes it's my legs that are moving and I have control of them, and then I don't have control of them and they're not my legs. And soon…there's always a confrontation between the image or fantasy that one has about the movement, and the action itself. Like in the last piece, we were working with projecting movements into the space, and allowing these movements to resonate and come back to affect the dancers. I think this is about an invisible partner as well.

JB: So in that instance the invisible partner would be the space?

MS: Right. It's…I just think dance is really relevant. You're able to work with a complexity that you could never do if you were working with images or texts alone. I mean you can work with sensation and you can work with abstraction, entering many physical worlds, or even the way we perceive how we are human, how we're alive or how…Is this my body? Why am I moving? Who is moving whom? There's a complexity that's hard to articulate in words. It's something you can't really work on in other forms, and somehow I think it's critical to what's happening now in dance.

JB: When you say complexity do you mean also subtlety? - subtle differences of physical sensation and body awareness?

MS: It's true…I think in that sense I'll do a gesture with my arm, the next gesture will be remembering a smell. And also I'll tell you what's interesting for me are these non-gestures: I mean the things that are in-betweens, the out-takes, like all the things that happen when people think they're not working. And there's also this thing of why each dancer moves the way they do. Why this vocabulary? Why do I hold my body in a certain way? You know - the body as a container, full of traces and memories and experiences - and kind of mining these experiences and letting them out. There's a moment when you can tell where the energy in the space, in the studio, in the theatre… it turns. They are not just doing movements, they are… it's a dance at this moment, it's like something just clicks and you realise you stepped this border and a dance is making itself. And you can't describe it but you feel like you're in a bit dangerous territory, you feel like, 'Do you go there?' You think, 'This is the greatest idea, this is no idea.' It's like there's a lot of doubt at that moment also. And you feel like you're in a bit of a dangerous space and a delicate space, and then it's at that moment you know, I want to go there and dig! (laughs).

JB: Do you take a lot of ideas into the studio…I mean written down?

MS: I wouldn't say (laughs) that I take a lot of ideas into the studio. I take a lot of questions!

© Jonathan Burrows and Meg Stuart, 2008