“Is there anyone in the audience who can cast a spell to make us stop feeling?”
Bodies that can’t stop feeling. Bodies that get up to change where and how they lie on the stage. Bodies that hold one another, that climb and clamber over one another, driven by the abstract drive towards up. Bodies that take their clothes off and put them on again. Bodies that reach out to smell and taste other bodies, that cannot stop wrestling and kissing, and must be dragged apart. Bodies that replace them: that look like two naked rockers, who run around and fight and stick out their tongues and experiment with how they can insert themselves into each other. Bodies that experiment with breathing together; that grow sweaty and exhausted together; that swing each other in circles until they fall down, but continue to drag one another around. Bodies that buckle and twist when slapped, but turn around to ask for more. Bodies that separate themselves from the group, to turn themselves into a monster; and the bodies that patiently assist, cajoling them forward in their shyness, and turn on them in simulated acts of violence. Bodies that collectively move around the space as they deliver a set of signal-like gestures; and the bodies that sit in the auditorium to watch them, basking in the exquisite pleasures of pattern and variation and strangeness.
Meg Stuart and her collaborators plunge into their drives and desires. UNTIL OUR HEARTS STOP pushes on, like someone or something that can’t stop finding itself grabbing and clutching and wanting and pulling and holding and biting. These grasping, sweaty choreographies of impulse are masterfully shaped and structured; the work’s growing duration lies not in any self-indulgence, but in the surfeit of ways in which this cast of six dancers and three musicians (the distinctions between these roles are pleasurably unstable) can demand from one another. My watching become repeatedly saturated and revitalized; I wonder whether Stuart wants us to grow dizzy, sickly stuffed, exhausted.
The performers rush out into the auditorium to offer us water and food and sweets and booze and emergency blankets; offering their attention, the invitation to stand to receive the room’s applause. One of them stands at the edge of the stage, hurling out handfuls of wet clay – I impulsively raise my arm – I want the clay, I want the thrill of danger, I want to test my skills, I want his attention. These radical-seeming gestures seem to have a disruptive force with some of the audience, but go beyond a naïve aim of shock; while the tone and logics of the work feels congruent with an established sensibility of performance-making, I find myself watching with appreciation and delight.
In the second half, the clay guy re-enters the stage as an entertainer, or a magician – black-tie and slicked-back hair – and warns us that he’s about to tell a lie. We see a blindfolded woman, iridescent costumes, and a dress made of hair. A disappearing act, and a bearded guy in a robe do something vaguely ritualistic with incense. While we might seem to be leaving behind the earlier performance-art-y gestures of ‘reality’ (bodies exposed through endurance, violence, nudity) as we turn toward image and the spectacular, what continues to be pursued here is the presence of a body that imagines and fabricates, and is itself the product of imagination and impulse. Not just sensitive to bodies of weight, muscle and bone, Stuart choreographs with unstable bodies that fantasise. Her deft framing allows these performers to access and plumb affective depths with speed; and in doing so, permits us a generous kind of distance. Free of any demand to empathise with or share in their sensitivity, we are presented not with any particular desire or meaning, but rather the image, presence and choreographic possibility of a desiring body.
And what does this do? Stuart has a long record of pursuing these questions – and the work feels like it knows exactly how and when its intensities will shock a Sadler’s Wells main stage audience. I had a great time – transfixed and grateful and gasping and falling a little bit in love. But amidst this excessive wildness, produced and carried by bodies typical of the European dance circuit – 30-something, beautiful, talented, white, good-natured, endlessly partying, endlessly ready and willing – I yearned for bodies that refuse, that might cause problems (I appreciated Kristof Van Boven’s exquisite misanthropy: “With all this yoga and meditation we’ve been doing, I’ve been listening really deeply to my body. It says, “Fuck you!”).
The liberatory gestures of the work are undertaken with a very tangible glee, but it’s hard to watch without being reminded of the conversations taking place around the working conditions of (female) artists and performers. I have no reason or wish to suggest there’s anything exploitative about Stuart’s practice; I’m concerned instead with how it reflects a wider institutional context: a European contemporary dance market with an appetite for young, naked, sexualised bodies. In a strange reversal, I’m left wondering about pressures that might accumulate for performers and artists to work with these (once-taboo?) images of sexuality, desire and excess; and what doors remain open for those who choose to refuse these gestures of liberation.
Until Our Hearts Stop was performed at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.