Stormy Budwig on Meg Stuart’s UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP
Meg Stuart’s Until Our Hearts Stop at NYU Skirball Center, May 4, 2018
Source and direction
There are a few minutes left in Until Our Hearts Stop when Leyla Postalcioglu, Neil Callaghan, and Jared Gradinger slowly somersault backwards in shiny metallic attire. Legs to the sky, the dancers appear suspended in a vacuum on the Skirball Theatre’s stage. In the hours and minutes before, the six dancers and three musicians perform a rigorous, non stop togetherness. They weather all varieties of storms and cause overlapping crescendos of chaos which dwindle into awkward moments, shared laughter, and stage transitions that are highly visible for us to witness. These moments of transparency and revealed infrastructure are strictly intended.
The performance is a cohabitation of environments, states, and struggles of all different stakes and scales. Often the performers yell at their audience, entreat us, offer us clay for touching and whiskey for drinking, and even take some of us out the fire exit to scream indiscriminately at the dark (or, consequently, at NYU students and faculty walking by on West 4th Street.)
Witnessing Until Our Hearts Stop, our perceptions jumble and our curiosities pique. In an explication of Stuart’s work Jeroen Fabius states that “the spectator will need to assess what to address importance to, and where to look to find triggers to understand the source and direction of the movements of the dancer” (1). Scouring for these “triggers” is one of the joys of being an audience member for many live performance works, and Stuart’s piece is full of “freaky insiders” (2) navigating their own set of rules is no exception.
Bodies, with great emphasis
At once blundering and virtuosic, the six dancers scramble up the sides and fronts of each other as if they are one another’s Everest. Once this high-energy spasm of contact improvisation settles, they crawl toward an empty couch on the side of the stage. As they struggle to fit themselves onto the couch comfortably, whatever that means, they are embarrassed at their nakedness (or maybe a little bit proud). They smell one another’s body odor out of insatiable curiosity. Smelling and sitting on top of each other soon devolves into an egalitarian turn-taking in smacking one other’s naked flesh until the skin is red, playfully finding new positions together, and soothing each other as the slaps become more and more painful. They make their audience work to assign meaning as they continue to redirect what we think we know as their slaps and devotional gestures begin to intermingle and coexist. I smell their scents, I feel the sting on their skin. They are bodies who Fabius describes as being “shown to the spectator with great emphasis,” their performance serving as “a challenge to the spectator’s attention and capacity to anticipate what will happen.” (3).
Soon this “challenge” becomes an impossibility: there is no hope for the spectator to try to anticipate what happens next. While the performance does indeed have a “rhythmic chain of events” which underpins its corporeal explorations, these events are in no way plausible or linear (4). This impossibility often comes in the shape of spectacular irreverence, as when Claire Vivianne Sobottke dons a full length evening gown made of hair and runs sporadically in vectors across the stage. At some point she takes a pause, and lets our attention drift away from her. Our attention lands on the rest of the dancers, spreading the palms of all their hands together pinky to thumb to make a geometric shape like a star. They take the star, moving slowly, cautiously, and place it (their flattened, joined hands) on the back wall underneath a spotlight. They appear reverent toward the shape, the methodical placement, the resultant stillness as they stare upwards at what they have done. Just then Sobottke is back, staggering in her heels and running across the stage out of hiding behind a large purple curtain. She thoroughly “ruins” the moment in her irreverence and steps closer toward the microphone, creating a new moment of her own. She speaks into the mic loudly and with haste: “There’s something I have to tell you, I’ve been wanting to tell you, I need you to know!” What she finally says to us is gibberish, a bunch of gargled syllables with no meaning at all. But although (or because) the faculties of reasoning and prediction have been arrested, of course we understand.
A long section of the piece occurs in almost silence, which gives us a refuge from what has been up to now a constant deluge of information, simultaneity, choices, action. In this scene Kristof Van Boven whispers solemnly to us as he improvises a litany, his ankles crossed as he leans against a grand piano, commenting on phenomena ranging from the damaged state of political systems everywhere, to the tragedy of recent (cultural) developments in America, to the privileged but also futile endeavor of attending New York University, where this performance was held, as a student of the arts. The sprawling content and Van Boven’s exposed-at-the-seams delivery exemplify Stuart’s belief that “you can show that things affect you” while in performance (5).
Van Boven performs this bit in cabaret-singer attire, as if seized by existential crisis just moments before breaking into song. Pianist Stefan Rusconi sits faithfully by, holding the space for Van Boven’s theatrical-while-intimate confession, nodding his head and listening without ever playing a note.
Eventually, Maria Scaroni enters wearing a long green evening gown with an eccentric piece of headwear that looks ominously like a gas mask. She sashays slowly toward us, then crouches and begins to rove around the space slowly and in circles. Here Van Boven interrupts his metacommentary on the nature of this performance (someone in the audience had been whistling at him, unprovoked, which informed a large part of the performer’s real-time dismay) to alert us: “Up to now, everything I have told you is true. This is the first time I will tell you a lie. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you Svetlana. This is Svetlana performing her sad duck walk… which she performed earlier this week… outside of her bank in Belarus… as a twenty-four hour protest.” Scaroni continues the dying duck as the musicians begin to amplify their sound, dramatizing her presence in the center of the stage. I see what Stuart identifies as “the internal friction and rubbing [which] creates unexpected relations and by-products” in this rocky progression from whispered metacommentary to farcical performance protest (6). The performers are “bodies host[ing], somewhat uncomfortably, different characters, bodies and attitudes” as they force themselves to carry on. Until?
2. Program notes for Until Our Hearts Stop, May 4, 2018, NYU Skirball.
5. “Dancing States” by Meg Stuart, 2010. (In DANCE, ed. Andre Lepecki.)