Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods

November 30, 2009

Auf den Tisch!

Meg Stuart/Damaged Goods

Baryshnikov Arts Center
(co-presented with PERFORMA09)

November 6–7, 2009
By Erika Eichelberger

David Thomson and Meg Stuart. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy PERFORMA.

Auf den Tisch!
(At the Table!) is a conference-performance about improvisation curated by Meg Stuart and co-created with fellow artists Trajal Harrell, Keith Hennessy, Janez Jansa, Jean-Paul Lespagnard, Jan Maertens, Yvonne Meier, Anja Müller, Vania Rovisco, Hahn Rowe, George Emilio Sanchez, and David Thomson. On and around an oversize conference table ringed by the audience, performers shift between conversation, dance, lecture, drag, games, and songs. The result is more project than performance.

As the conference opens, performers at microphones, interspersed between audience members, create a soundscape of overlapping seductive phrases. Meier jumps up on the table and convulses. Müller softly tells an audience member she wants to meet at a café and talk. Hennessey and Thomson dance to the sound of a baby babbling. Sanchez dances with duct tape, which rips out a lock of his hair, which he then bestows upon Meier.

The performers segue easily between action and self-reflection. They sporadically ask each other which improvisational “codes” they’re following: American or European? Stuart asks Meier how she knows a score is a score. Jansa lectures on various types of contact improv, complete with a demonstration in which Hennessy, in a spandex tiger costume, improvises with a raw chicken. In communist contact you hold each other’s waists, hide your heads, and march in sync. In neo-liberal contact, there’s no improv, just dinner, a movie, then sex.

There are moments that defy the lec-dem: Thomson’s soft, curving lines; Rovisco’s jolting butoh solo; Harrell in a blue dress dancing to African beats. On the whole, though, the performance falls flat, not only because of the didactic feel, but because the performers seem to act rather than be hurt, earnest, or confused. This disconnect, along with the slapstick, run-on-sentence feel of the evening, prevented any real emotional investment on the part of the audience.

The most exhilarating moment was actually the only non-improvised one, when Sanchez amped us up to shred dollar bills as he said they had the night before. It was a completely pedagogic and gimmicky non sequitur, but it was thrilling!

Of course, in improv, sometimes it comes together and sometimes it doesn’t. As a project, Auf den Tisch! succeeded in that it explored what it intended. But it was a performance too, and that brings the responsibility of keeping your audience captive—or at least not pushing them away.