New York

Meg Stuart

Judson Church

In her latest solo performance, choreographer Meg Stuart gives new meaning to the phrase “body language.” Not the leg-crossing, tie-straightening, behavioral kind that we might find in Pina Bausch’s dramatically staged battles of the sexes in the ’80s, nor even the speeded-up eloquence of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s brutally beautiful body phrasing of ’90s Gen Xers in Europe. Rather, Stuart’s Soft Wear [first draft], 2000, only fourteen minutes long, is body language for the Internet crowd, for those who prefer morphing to metaphor, multitasking to single-channel vision, and flickering pictures that never hold still to the slow pan of a steady camera.

In Soft Wear, Stuart stands in the beam of a bright spotlight. Her body is precisely articulated: Triceps run along the bias against well-constructed shoulders; tendons stand out like scaffolding from jaw to sternum. Barefoot, wearing dark boot-cut stretch pants and a pink cap-sleeve T-shirt, she seems to just stand there doing nothing. But she’s not: She is making movements so tiny that they are almost invisible. The viewer suddenly realizes that the twitch of a muscle in Stuart’s back is the beginning of a motion that ripples down her arm and extends to the fingers of one hand. What at first passes for a smile is really a specific gesture: a teeth-baring pulling back of lips that has nothing to do with emotion, serving only to shift the locus of the action.

Concentrating on these details has its rewards. Stuart’s body is a microchip of compressed gestures borrowed from other dancers, actors, even images: the lopsided head and wide eyes of an Egon Schiele portrait; the outstretched arms and curled fingers of a Mary Wigman performer; the crooked face and vertical hair of an Antonin Artaud drawing. Her poses decompose instantly. Each stance segues jerkily into the next, as in the photographic studies of Muybridge, the early master of movement mechanics who prefigured today’s technology. Her stunted, stop-go motion also resembles “animation,” the mainstay of breakdancing, in which actions are fragmented into tiny bits.

An American who has lived in Brussels since 1994, Stuart developed her body language from a combination of late-’80s “figure studies” and the European accents around her. These dialects themselves have undergone radical changes in the last few years: Choreographers in Europe are in a period of reexamination, taking apart and re-creating American experimental dance of the late ’60s, like Trisha Brown’s Accumulation and Yvonne Rainer’s The Mind Is a Muscle. As evidenced by the work of Stuart, Xavier Le Roy, and Jérôme Bel, the new view of the body that has emerged has as much to do with engineering, computer imaging, and biology—highlighting body parts, folding the skin, accentuating bone formations, reshaping a muscle—as it does with dance. Stuart is the first to present this new material in the US. Here’s hoping that others will soon follow.

RoseLee Goldberg