The show Sketches/Notebook (2013), which has its Dutch premiere at the Holland Festival on 6 June, is virtuosic, radical and extremely gentle. Choreographer Meg Stuart loves small scale, even when she occupies the biggest stages with partners like the Volksbühne (Berlin), Théâtre de la Ville (Paris) or the Münchner Kammerspiele. Details win out over big lines and often play a leading role in pieces that scrutinise human behaviour incredulously.
Sketches/Notebook stands out in her oeuvre because of its loose, almost friendly approach. Music and light, dance, set, costumes and all other aspects of this performance dance around each other, are constantly moving, taking over each other's roles or taking each other's place, just as the many players do with each other, as in a pristine children's game, which could go on forever.
The interaction with the audience also stands out. Meg Stuart literally deploys social games and simple gestures, like those you exchange with each other at the bus stop or in the playground. Sketches/Notebook is unadulterated utopian and optimistic: what if we could reassemble the world, sketching, trying it out together, and if everyone was allowed to participate?
Was Sketches/Notebook created in a special way?
'I was provided with a small theatre by HAU (Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin). I invited Brendan Dougherty, Claudia Hill, Vladimir Miller and Mikko Hynninen to work in a kind of studio setup for a month in advance, before we went into the theatre. Without a dramaturge present. No one asking for cohesion or explanations. Without the pressure too to make a play. Working in parallel. Everyone created his or her own space. You show things to each other. Ideas don't have to be worked out. There is no already established theme. It's like sketching, or taking notes - and then at some point doing it all together.'
What is so important about that?
'You can leave things unfinished, they are allowed to be provisional. The material is allowed to speak for itself. Things arise in a loose atmosphere, you don't have to justify everything. More of a fine art approach: Claudia was working with shiny materials, I had this huge crystal with me from Brazil, the idea of a cave arose ... there was no 'aboutness‘.’
No idea of method either?
‘Well, sketching together is now obviously an approach. Thinking as a collective of artists. For example, Claudia and I had Blanket Lady conceived for a exhibition at ZKM in Karlsruhe, which featured women artists from the 70s - Rainer, Forti, Abramovic. We only had three days and asked ourselves the question: how do you make something feminist today? And then the material of that thick blanket ... We made Blanket Lady taken to Sketches/Notebook. It's wonderful how things, just when you don't mean them a certain way, turn out to be right at some point.‘
Isn't this a way of doing things that you have used many times before?
'Mmm, I worked a lot with open improvisation, people meeting for a very short period of time, a week at most. And of course I have used improvisation to create pieces, but then I was still working on a composition, with a dramatic development and a climax. This is different: structurally working on something new every day, doing an idea and then dropping it, the next day a new idea, etc. and for a month. You can also see it in the piece, how we put it together: it functions through a series of 'cuts'. Sketches/Notebook is a collection of ideas and proposals, which is very different from working on stage - in the moment - with improvisation. We know what we are going to do in this performance, even though it is still rough and spontaneous to work together like this. And of course I could take parts out of it now and replace them with others, or invite other artists, or turn it into a 'real' piece, but so far I've been so freaked out by how it works that I don't really want to touch it.'
Sketches/Notebook is a very accessible performance compared to a lot of other work. I would easily take my mother as well as my daughter to see it. It somehow combines the tone of a family show with hard core art. Do you have an explanation for that?
'The piece is indeed open, playful - the way it engages people, how the creative is celebrated. Some even see spiritual or cosmic elements in it. On the other hand, it is also rough and chaotic in its collaboration, the coming together of all these different energies, all these people, all these practices. In a way, that also makes it overwhelming. Anyway, we had a great need to meet, to really engage people. You don't want to force the audience to participate, but really invite them. And yes, then the piece carries a vision of how the world could work and then the question is: wow, what do we do with that? Often art is about dark things, about things we would rather not face. Whereas this performance has something festive, celebrating and allowing the common to flourish, as if a small community is emerging, even if only temporarily, to which we invite the audience.'
Sketches/Notebook is not only open and social, but also light-hearted in a virtuoso way. Where did this lightness come from?
'That has to do with the approach. That it was allowed to emerge from a mountain of material. That we ignore certain expectations there are about theatre, that we don't have to tell a story, that there's no dra-ma-tur-gie, that it doesn't necessarily have to be about anything. There is this atmosphere of people hanging out a bit, looking for things. That's very intimate in a way, and also innocent, because what is it about? Claudia is working on her fashion show, Mikko is looking at what can be done with light. You see a process, rehearsed, but still about exploring. We are clearly working on the question: what happens when you treat bodies like other materials? But also: how we can develop other forms of commonality, of meeting and sharing. We don't provoke the audience, I mean we don't play with rubbish or anything.'
The show never moralises - which is a huge relief in this age of political messages through art. But Sketches/Notebook does raise, in an extremely subtle, poetic way, all kinds of ethical questions about very essential things on stage, such as what actually determines the credibility of gestures and constructions, whether there are rules in art and whether they are different from those in life, about the games we play, how groups look at each other, how a normal is constructed, how people escape the dance, and the role imagination plays in this - too much to mention really.
In a strange way, Stuart has managed to create a perfectly running performance of blanks, wild dreams and child's play. The simplicity of sliding down a slope or playing with marbles, is coupled with the ability often attributed to children, to experience something intensely and then drop it again, hoppily.
'I'm quite private, and I think this group invited me to really throw it open. It's also a performance to do with life in Berlin, everyone lives a connection to that city, the going out, the clubs, how people interact, how they engage. It reminds me of Warhol's The Factory, 'art-actions'.'
Do you rehearse this?
'Yes indeed. There is an idea of an ideal version. There is always room for improvement. I really need the critical. I love making very tight compositions, but this is something else. Here, on the contrary, it's important that they are proposals, and then on a oversized or XXL scale, with lots of people and things. I think it works because of the contrast, between, say, the fullness of the many movements at the beginning and looking at one common movement afterwards - that all of a sudden we are all looking at that mountain of bodies in the middle of the stage. The 'blanket-lady' is finished, of course, but other things have not yet found, or will never find, their form. The sacred theatre is gone, but the expectations remain. The values of theatre are renegotiated. [There are a lot of people on stage and there is not so much audience, for example].
I've spent my life in theatre, I love the device, that you can make it really dark, sound, all those manipulations. Theatre enables that condensed energy, which you don't have that way on the street or in a gallery. It's about intensity and focus, the magic. The tradition of theatre is really something to work with, the values stored there, you can work with that. And of course we could make a darker version of this piece, someday.'
Do you think theatre will survive the current era? It is a costly business and the distribution is small, compared to TV or the internet. Moreover, in the Netherlands, it is not obvious for a whole generation of artists to have access to the stage at all and gain experience there.
'I would love it if the theatre was open to social action, open evenings, a speakers' corner - that different groups would use it and have a dialogue with that tradition. It could really be much wilder. That different groups would make things. That the theatre is not just there for professionals. That it matters as a place, as a beacon in the city, as a cultural meeting place. On the other hand, festivals could distinguish themselves much more, specialise in something like minimalism or theory or whatever. Now they all look alike because of the general approach, something for everyone. There is rarely a distinct artistic commitment. So yes, more openness and social engagement as well as more depth, they are almost opposite movements perhaps, but that would be good in theatre.'
Extra:Inside the Magic Cave, a video by Damaged Goods on Sketches/Notebook