Tickets were torn and coats checked. One dancer hid in the bushes of Jozef Wouters’ organic scenography. Spectators climbed the two-tier erector set for a birds-eye view of the stage. Foam cushions were stacked to sit on, legs dangled over the edge, elbows rested on guardrails. On stage four dancers stood in place, torsos oscillating, eyes scanning the space. Dressed in black, choreographer Meg Stuart was mixed in with the audience. Across from a drum kit, musician Brendan Dougherty orchestrated ambient music from a MacBookPro. The stage was set for Stuart’s Atelier, an evening of improvised theatrical contemporary dance at KaaiStudios.
Meg Stuart (b.1965, US) is a graduate of New York University and a former member of the Randy Warshaw Dance Company. She made her choreographic debut with Disfigure Study (1991, Leuven, BE) and three years later started the Brussels-based dance company Damaged Goods. Stuart’s work reflects the intermingling of dance, theater, design, and film. Dance being the springboard of her artistic voice makes the work both emotional and visceral. This is something you need to sit down to see. After 20 years of well-received and supported work, Stuart continues to go to the limit, beyond what’s comfortable, unafraid to present the public with developed and undeveloped work. Stuart writes: “We don’t know who we are (or what we will find) but you are welcome to have a look in the Atelier”. The brilliance of an artist cannot be gauged in the methodical means to which they continue to reinvent themselves but in how the coincidences of their experiments pioneers a new path. The workshopping of ideas that is implicit in Atelier shows how Stuart has tapped into that artistic brilliance.
“Atelier” comes from late 17th century Old French astelle meaning ‘splinter of wood”. Meg Stuart’s Atelier was just that, a collection of fragmented “could-be’s” of dance and dramaturgy. It seemed evident that this was her intention; not to present a polished thread of information, but the beginnings of many. In the program Stuart described the evening as “a sweat lodge with no immediate results.” Movement in Atelier originated internally, a result of an imaginative emotional experience the performers were having. In one section, four dancers were screaming but made no sound. As the scene developed they broke out, became audible, filled a tie-dyed printed balloon with helium and when the balloon popped their torture subsided. This vignette is an example of how little value can be seen in the tasks, the exercises, the choreography, and how much in the talent brought by its performers―or in some, the lack there of. Theatrical timing, a sincere movement quality and most paramount, use of the visual field are what make something out of nothing.
The concept that Stuart could plait the splintered ideas seen in Atelier into a mainstage production is a sawmill at work. If these same exercises are a method she uses to build a coherent, story-telling theatrical dance the next steps of the process must be complex. Stuart described Atelier as a “sweatlodge” giving the impression that the evening was an isolated event, a series of ceremonies. The structural improvisation seen in Atelier is nothing new to dance and physical theater; a wrestling duet, full nudity, bad poetry and a drum solo. Arguably, all the elements needed for a cliché evening of contemporary dance. Yet, like a fungus, the allure of the material grew and Stuart’s adept choice in artists, not the inventions themselves, were the lasting impressions of the performance. Regardless of whether this is the stew of ideas that leads Stuart to her bigger works, or an unrelated artistic plunge, it was an entertaining evening of dance.
After the performance audience members either lined up promptly or straggled in late to retrieve their coats. Some reached into their pockets walking home, some at the bar with friends for a post-performance cocktail, and there are still others who have yet to find the small white sealed envelope, the party favor of poetry that hides in their coat pocket. The spirit of the note was not in the spelling or the content, it was in the work it took deliver, the excitement of opening, holding and reading the message. Atelier audiences were drawn in by the common unknowing of improvised dance and did not leave reborn or unsatisfied. At the show’s end, the combined delivery, discovery, sentiment of the dance and the stage design is what can be chronicled as another successful night as an audience in the hands of Meg Stuart.