Meg Stuart is an American choreographer based in Brussels and Berlin, and since 1994 has been the director of the dance company Damaged Goods. Her work, she says, “revolves around the idea of an uncertain body, one that is vulnerable and self-reflexive”. Last week Stuart brought her 2015 piece Until Our Hearts Stop to London. It’s about intimacy, and our difficulties with it. What are the limits of human interaction. What are the protocols? How far can we go? The two-hour work, which unfolds to the accompaniment of a three-piece onstage jazz band, addresses these questions through a series of set pieces in which personal boundaries are repeatedly broached, and social conventions flouted. Some of these incursions are startling, some comic, some merely indulgent.
The six-strong cast create tableaux of mutual support – leaning, holding, interlocking – and these increase in complexity until they start to implode. The performers gasp, pant and get squashed. As if uncertain as to how they should relate to each other, they pull their clothes on and off. Half-naked, they form a shaky human centipede. The three men grapple, tear and gouge, and Maria F Scaroni and Claire Vivianne Sobottke strip naked and wrestle like schoolchildren.
As their duet evolves, Scaroni and Sobottke bare themselves unsparingly to us and to each other, nuzzling and tweaking nipples, spreading their crotches, and snuffling at each other’s genitals. But it’s all done with a bouncy good cheer and a demented silliness that subverts the situation’s erotic possibilities. The manic succession of intimacies – lick this, bite this, stroke that – mocks and upends the rigidly sequential choreography of porn. At one point both women, by now red-faced and sweaty, stand on their hands, split their legs, and simultaneously poke their big toes into each other’s vulvas. It looks like a form of competitive gymnastics, although not one currently being considered by the International Olympic Committee. Neil Callaghan and Jared Gradinger, meanwhile, are having a smacking contest. “Oh fuck,” groans Gradinger as Callaghan catches him a real stinger on the bare arse.
So far, so larky, but we’ve still got an hour to go, and with the audience participation sequence (these days a seemingly compulsory element of nouvelle vague performance) the atmosphere evaporates and the evening begins to feel like work. The performers descend from the stage, engage audience members in meaningless conversation, dispense drinks and food, and throw stuff around. It wasn’t amusing when Pina Bausch did all of this in Der Fensterputzer in 1997, and 20 years later it’s a total bore. The situation isn’t redeemed by the long and only intermittently amusing monologue by Kristof Van Boven that follows (“I surround myself with assholes to give the impression I’m not one”).
Thereafter, the piece struggles to reassert itself. A Bauschian sequence that sees the cast performing cod rituals in evening dress lacks focus, and when Sobottke lifts her dress, parts her legs and draws a ribbon from her vagina, it just looks gratuitous. If Stuart’s work is often derivative of Bausch – a fact she appears to acknowledge in a direct choreographic quote from Cafe Müller – it has a much more didactic tone. “There’s not enough willingness to be silly or creative,” she said in a recent interview. “We need constructed possibilities of play.” Bausch would never have said that, and the remark is illustrative of the paradox of so much conceptual dance: that for all its apparent unconstraint, it’s impelled by a kind of puritanism. Stuart is so earnest about the idea of fun that, in the end, it’s not much fun at all.