'Auf Den Tisch!' ('At the Table!')
by Juliet Neidish
November 6, 2009 -- Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York
I looked forward to Meg Stuart’s new piece, “Auf Den Tisch!” (“At the Table!”), presented at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in partnership with Performa 09 (New York City, November 6- 7, 2009). Stuart, an American dancer and choreographer, has been living in Belgium since 1994, where she has created the body of her work. Press material called the work a “platform for action and reflection” and described it as a meeting of thinkers, musicians, actors and dancers at a table who “improvise, conferring about their pressing issues….” In Europe, a focus on theory and practice is currently affecting new choreography and performance. I was eager to see how Meg Stuart handled a piece about ideas.
The piece took place in a large conference room/studio in the beautifully designed Baryshnikov Arts Center. An enormous table filled most of the room. Chairs were placed around the table and also in a row or two away from the table. Audience was invited to sit where they pleased. The performers had free reign and took full advantage of it. A good deal of the performance took place on top of the table but throughout the piece the performers used all available space from chairs to windowsills. Twelve artists were credited in this improvisation project curated by Stuart. The performers came from varied backgrounds, the majority of whom are not from Stuart’s nuclear company called, Damaged Goods. Yvonne Meier, George Emilio Sanchez, David Thomson and Trajal Harrell work in NYC. Keith Hennessy has roots in San Francisco and also directs a circus company in France. Janez Jansa, a Slovenian, is internationally known. The night I was there (November 7), the piece went on for nearly 3 hours.
The format of “Auf Den Tisch!” allowed for its performers to drift between moving, talking, and moving while talking. Short descriptive poems were recited, intimate conversations were spoken into microphones, and pedestrian dialogues as well as impromptu banter, all had their moments. The movement tended toward extremely violent or quirky solos and contact improvisation between and amongst the dancers. On several occasions, an audience member sitting around the table was hit with a flying object or a flailing body. One of the dancers got knocked down so hard that she kept wiggling and checking on what appeared to be a wounded finger. I hope she is all right.
A half-hearted attempt was made from time to time to garner audience participation. Some ensued with little effect. In fact, the majority of the piece provided little lasting effect. There were only two or three moments of note during the lengthy evening -- the uniquely powerful movement style engaged to the max in Meier’s falling and getting up again solo, Hennessey doing contact improv in earnest with a raw chicken, and Jansa solemnly instructing a group of performers in an Eastern European version of contact improvisation which he referred to as “contract” improvisation.
I realized early on that no ideas were surfacing in this pretentious piece although the performers alluded constantly to the importance of their words. It was most tiring and juvenile when in a final effort to offer something thought-provoking and current, Harrell threw around the word “post-racial” and Hennessey got lost trying to explain Jung vs. Freud in the most superficial manner, with neither performer displaying an ability to convey a thing about their subject matter. Asking the audience to tear up dollar bills seemed neither funny nor particularly political. Over and over, the performers relied on the old and tired conceit of “shock” to grab the audience. An array of things like violent and physical risk, potty talk, sexual come-ons and eating food while dressed in underwear, just didn’t add up. The use of the raw chicken, effective-less when Stuart held it while dressed in a wedding gown, was at least effective when hooked onto the notion/idea of using it as an equal player in a contact improv.
Stuart pulled together a group of performers who shared self-confidence on stage and are probably seasoned in their own individual exploits. Yet without a unifying element such as text or structure to bind their diverse contributions, the performers were left to their own devices. Unfortunately, none were engaging enough in this genre to create a work of consequence.