postcards from berlin #23 [the rules of engagement]
UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP (r. stuart) @ HAU2 (damaged goods / münchener kammerspiele)
it’s hard to describe meg stuart’s work to someone who hasn’t seen it. “post-“ comes to mind, but post-what? post dramatic post-structural post-post-modern…actually maybe post-rock comes the closest to my feeling of what i saw.
i had no real background for the show—bought the ticket based on meg stuart’s name alone. walking out of the theatre after i tried to at least articulate what i thought was the question of the piece, armed with only my experience in the theatre and a title. i think i settled on “how can we be close?” i just checked the piece’s website and that’s sorta kinda what the dramaturg and publicity person wanted me to understand is what the piece is asking. ish.
actually there’s a pretty good documentary about the creation process that i just fell into a hole with (linked below). they talk about the piece being about building new frameworks engaging with the world and teach other through different rules. i liked that.
other than mostly loving it (in the way that one loves meg stuart, kind of not sure if she’s just fucking with you and if you should maybe hate her a bit), i spent a lot of time trying to decipher the rules of engagement. what’s the task? how does composition work in this woman’s universe? how much unison is enough but not too much? who are the dancers and who are the musicians? what are the rules of nudity? how much of this is set vs improvised?
it’s frustrating sometimes that the work that i’m most drawn to is the most baffling for me, in terms of understanding how to build a creative process for it. frustrating but maybe also kind of self-evident, because it likely impresses me because it comes from such a very different form and process than the way i am used to creating.
what’s so brilliant about this piece is its composition—in both space and time. and also maybe in temperature-texture-flavour. it’s super rigorous in rhythm, movement, and the drift between simultaneous heterogenous scenes that comes together and fracture again. stuart’s structuring masterfully moves the eye and heart through the piece.
i guess i go to post-rock because it’s crafted with a genuine sense of intimacy and humanity in spite of some mechanical drone-y vibes on the invisible skeleton of a really carefully-wrought structure. if it reminded me of anything it was like the best of godspeed you! black emperor’s best albums. lift your skinny fists like antennas to heaven in particular. what’s so amazing about the way she’s crafted this piece is i knew and trusted that there was a structural logic at work, but i couldn’t figure it out for the life of me, and never got ahead of the show as a result.
it was up there with olympus and bacchae in terms of moving and powerful imagery, but i think the critical difference in this work was that it was consciously pedestrian in many of the same ways that the two greeky pieces where quite consciously ritualistic. and it’s that intimate casualness that makes this piece so arresting. like a poem written in the second person. (not a shitty one).
it’s tricky though, because it’s not quite so simple as that. these are qualities that i also can really hate in some of the post-performance i see, stuff that refuses theatre and theatricality in colour-block hipster sweatshirts and this aloof demeanour i find completely off-putting. the sort of stuff that makes me want to shout “why make theatre if you don’t want it to be theatrical?”
so what makes meg stuart's work actually work in that way, in a performance mode i’m super skeptical of?
1) i think it’s what’s at stake. i think there’s a lot to be both gained and lost in all the attempts to create intimate spaces here, even (especially) the one she approaches with a sense of humour.
2) i think she trusts the magic of the theatrical space and event to create intimacy through artifice. you get the sense that she doesn’t hate theatre, that she’s willing to make herself vulnerable in the piece, to really risk something, even when she’s creating choreography where two women tickle each other’s vaginas with their big toes, or a dancing is hurling chunks of clay into the audience while we pass a bottle of whisky around.
(i guess it’s a bit odd to say that meg stuart is making herself vulnerable in a piece that she doesn’t appear in but i think she somehow is present in the event, and is really risking her intimacy so that we’ll have to rise and meet it.)
3) finally, i think the key to this piece is that it demands something of you, it even asks you to participate—at the very least by catching the hunks of clay that are hurtling toward you, but one guy got pulled out of the audience and disappeared for a while in a magic cabinet. there’s a kind of complicity that the piece creates with us, but it treads this great line of feeling just safe enough and still dangerous, so it that for all its intimacy it still feels volatile and potent.
for more on the piece click here.
also, here's a really interesting doc on the creation process: