In 2004, Meg Stuart and Benoît Lachambre went to work in a studio in Zurich, Switzerland. For several weeks, they sparred, gulped water from plastic jugs, nestled together, evolved into animals, despaired, and then rallied.
"We start out weeping in lawn chairs; by the end we are actually wearing the landscape, joyfully at one with it," says Stuart on the phone from Berlin. And oh, yeah--they were dancing on a mountain of fake fur, too.
The finished piece Forgeries, Love and Other Matters is an intense 90-minute duet that suggests an extended episode of the reality show Survivor scripted by Samuel Beckett. (Actually, does anyone know for certain that Beckett didn't script Survivor?)
The work's U.S. premiere at Walker Art Center this week brings Stuart, an American expatriate who has become one of the most influential choreographers of her generation in Europe, back home for brief stops in Minneapolis and New York.
During the rehearsal process, Stuart, now based in Belgium, and Lachambre, who is from Montreal, improvised intensely for two or three hours a day. Friends and colleagues who have collaborated periodically since the 1980s, the two wanted to explore their relationship to one another, and to the world of contemporary anomie they inhabit. "We created intense situations daily of two people in a landscape--on holiday, on Mars, on a dying planet," says Stuart. "Sometimes we would be an elderly couple, sometimes kids at a picnic."
As they worked, dramaturge Myriam Van Imschoot took notes, documenting what they had done and suggesting new directions. And scenographer Doris Dziersk designed what could be called Mount Wookie--a slippery slope where the various scenarios unfold. A videotape of brief excerpts reveals what Walker performing arts curator Philip Bither refers to as "extreme characters linked at the hip."
At 41 years old, New Orleans native Stuart gets the kind of respect and support that most American choreographers only dream of--including access to a battalion of talented collaborators. With these artists, she has crossbred dance with architecture, theater, and the visual arts. She now directs a company called Damaged Goods based in Brussels, Belgium, and works throughout Europe.
Her Cinderella story began in the early 1990s when she was dancing with Randy Warshaw's company in New York, and beginning to create her own choreography. Someone saw her rehearsing a work-in-progress and gave Stuart's name to a Belgian producer, who invited her to perform in a festival there.
"I was discovered out of nowhere--I hadn't even produced a concert," says Stuart. In New York, talented choreographers are often given a whirlwind celebrity, then consigned to oblivion when they are no longer the flavor of the month. "I was helped from the very beginning of my career in Europe at a much deeper level," says Stuart, who is currently in residence with her company at the Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemborg-Platz in Berlin.
Currently, Stuart receives significant financial support from organizations such as the Flemish Minister for Culture, Youth, Sport and Brussels Affairs--an organization that has no American equivalent, to say the least. "There are trained audiences here that respect dance as a form," says Stuart. "Europe invests in its artists over the long haul."