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Choreographer Meg Stuart, flux and the unknown

The expat loves to see how far she can stretch the confines of dance. She and Austrian collaborator Philipp Gehmacher tackle failed love in 'Maybe Forever.'

September 23, 2009|Susan Josephs

To better understand Meg Stuart the artist, here's a clue: By the time she was an 18-year-old dance major at New York University, she had thoroughly crisscrossed the country, living in at least 27 homes. "Moving around a lot, I learned to feel comfortable in the in-between spaces," she says.

Stuart wound up forging an internationally successful career based on reveling in flux and the unknown. Since founding her Brussels-based company Damaged Goods in 1994, the now-44-year-old American expat choreographer has consistently eschewed comfort and familiarity in favor of attempting to artistically challenge herself with every new project she embarks upon. Over the years, she has created more than 20 works, both for her company and on commission, that have experimented boldly with narrative, theatricality, extreme psychological states and the vagaries of human relationships. Deeply influenced by painting and sculpture, she has collaborated with visual artists and, more recently, with other choreographers who challenge her "into new processes and ways of working."

"I have always been interested in seeing how far I can stretch the confines of this form we call dance," she says. "What can I say about dance that hasn't been said before?"

In the case of "Maybe Forever," which will receive its Los Angeles premiere at REDCAT tonight, Stuart teamed with Austrian choreographer Philipp Gehmacher, 34, to create a nearly 90-minute kinetic ode to failed love. With live music by the Belgian singer-songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, Stuart and Gehmacher speak, gesture, collapse, emote, evoke cheesy pop cultural cliches about love and sometimes conventionally dance their way through a romantic, minefield-strewn history. It's a slow-moving, melancholic work that has received both lavish praise for its deep excavations into heartbreak and pointed criticism for its length and pacing since its 2007 world premiere in Brussels.

"It's a reflection on love, loss and intimacy, and it's the kind of work that you have to enter and take time with. But a lot of my work is like that," says Stuart, speaking from her hotel room in Portland, Ore., where she recently performed at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's annual Time-Based Art Festival.

Mark Murphy, REDCAT's executive director, has followed Stuart's work for the last 15 years and admires "Maybe Forever" for "dealing with complex emotional subject matter without being overtly sentimental. I don't want to sound like a schoolmarm, but I have to say that Meg Stuart is required reading for anyone who wants to be part of the larger global discussion on the evolution of art forms," he says. "As the lines between dance and theater become more blurred and as more choreographers recognize the importance of narrative, she remains at the forefront of their field."

Stuart speaks both fluidly yet haltingly about her work and admits a tendency to "talk in circles." Friendly yet enigmatic, she's also skilled at summing up her history of artistic concerns. "In the beginning, I was finding out how to express my inner turmoil in an external space. I didn't want to work with phrases but with states. I was always interested in the space between dance and theater and dance and visual art. I've always tried to shift my processes, I've often worked with possession and trance, and in the last few years, I've been interested in the choreography of social relationships."

Having met Stuart in a workshop she conducted when he was 21, Gehmacher recalls his first impression of his future collaborator as "a revelation."

"Here was this woman who used her body to explore what's underneath the skin," he says. "She was less about dancing and steps and much more about physical states being meaningful in and of themselves. I was a fan from the beginning."

Born in New Orleans, Stuart spent much of her childhood as an urban nomad and lived for a number of years in California. Her parents worked as theater directors and teachers, and some of her early memories include participating in summer productions and "running through the hallways of CalArts in the 1970s." At 14, she moved to Boston with her mother and took up track and field, but later, during high school, she enrolled in a creative choreography class.

"I started making dances before I knew how to dance," she recalls. "And I remember feeling, 'Wow, I have to study, I have to learn how to stand on one leg.' "

As a college student in New York, Stuart delved into contemporary dance forms such as contact improvisation and release technique, spent time in museums and waitressed in a jazz club, where she became fascinated by the improvisational techniques of musicians. She began her career dancing for choreographer Randy Warshaw, and it was after a performance with his dance company in New York that an admiring Belgian arts presenter invited her to perform her own work overseas.

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