Time flies during American choreographer and dancer Meg Stuart’s masterfully crafted two-hour-long Built to Last. It’s a sophisticated piece crossing boundaries between theatre, dance and performance art. Travelling through time as movement aesthetics shift across eras, and swinging between everyday attitudes and extravagant fantasylands where abstract dance sections are executed with precision, but formality dissolves into moments of humour and vulnerability.
Fitting for a piece titled Built to Last, the sense of time, scale and space in the show is panoramic. A giant dinosaur assembly kit sculpture waits on one side of the stage, later to be taken apart and reconfigured into an abstract piece. A white room, looking like a museum display case, sits in the opposite corner and several large domes are suspended above the stage by a metal structure like a clunky antenna in a B movie from the 1950s. Before the performance has even begun, the title and impressive set by Doris Dziersk indicate a voyage across time and a viewpoint on how, with monuments, we mark significant artistic achievements and ideological waves in the western world.
Three women and two men (representing various body types) appear onstage at first dressed in everyday contemporary clothes with touches of neon, metallic and print. They stand upright, arms extended, their hands opening and closing like satellites flashing Morse code into the unknown. Accompanied by a soundscape of fluctuating frequencies, their bodies are placed in relationship to the vastness of time, with a hint of mime and camp formality. From the start these dexterous performers plunge head-on into the potential traps of classical presentation, inverting the melodrama on itself as they create, and simultaneously deconstruct, a series of ostentatious scenarios throughout the piece.
Working for the first time with existing classical music, Stuart pays homage to significant musical icons without becoming precious or pretentious, as she cleverly examines the significance of their monumental work. The piece evokes the spirit of modern and contemporary dance icons as well. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Yvonne Rainer are each referenced in this eclectic work.
Toward the beginning, a ritualistic sort of tableau vivant of three performers with obscurely sacred objects and costumes in the white room float across the space. The tableau vivant effect fails as they attempt to harmonize live with the pre-recorded choral music. The theatrical fourth wall is constructed before us in such a ridiculous way that it is brought to the point of absurdity, exposing the facade of monuments and reminding us that they are only placeholders for something else.
More camp ensues as the captivating Anja Müller mounts the floating white room and dons a huge monotone headpiece. Suspended globes unfold and begin to rotate, like a science-fair model of the solar system with a cubist sun, or a nursery mobile for giants. Müller becomes the image of the heroic dancer riding through the universe, casually ducking as oversized Christmas ornaments glide by her head.
Choreographic aspects of Maria F. Scaroni’s gorgeous solo in the second half of the piece are perhaps the most obvious reference to an iconic choreographer. Scaroni dances direct quotes of movement from Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A beautifully. The solo then turns quickly into a clumsy frolicking group section and once again sanctity becomes playful. Closer to the aesthetic of Isadora Duncan or Eric Hawkins, the graceful Dragana Bulut performs a “MAGIC” smoke dance. Performer Davis Freeman acts as a technician onstage as he pumps out gallons of thick fog for Bulut to surf with her arching arm gestures. It’s like watching a lost episode from the original Star Trek series, mesmerizing and somewhat hilarious in today’s context.
Works by master composers of the Romantic and modern period such as Beethoven, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Rachmaninoff and Dvorak accompany the performance. The baggage these pieces import is not only laid plain in this elaborate contemporary performance, it is embraced and nourishes the content of the show. Built to Last is successful on several levels and it’s a stimulating experience.
In one of his many charming, intelligent and funny monologues sprinkled throughout the show, delightful Belgian actor Kristof Van Boven proclaims, “music is a menace.” The audience is confronted by how the monumental cultural status bestowed upon significant works and even the artistic brilliance of the works can lead to issues of accessibility. Stuart questions how we relate to masterpieces across time and what makes a work of art “built to last.”
Affirming that her practice is in conversation with the history of modern and contemporary western dance, the piece finishes with a section of convulsive, much more identifiably Meg Stuart vocabulary. After a calm-releasing-based Trish Brown-like trio of “pure movement” and deposit of weight, a storm of classic Stuartesque twitching fills the stage, as if she is reclaiming the aesthetic she is known for — movements similar to bodies in the state of rejecting their own form. Perhaps Stuart is revealing the absurdity of her past investigations into the drama of dysfunction while also poking fun at her status as a monumental choreographer in contemporary dance? It’s ambiguous, and interesting to see her aesthetic through this lens. I appreciate the ironic potential of the ending, the clever use of camp in the overall piece and how Stuart continues to be a trailblazing artist worth watching.