Two People Wind Through a Desiccated Labyrinth of Love

What is this place? A dim wasteland in which two barely discernible figures slowly tangle and roll apart and tangle again in a contest between desire and despair. Things rumble and crackle in the darkness; sea birds cry. When Jan Maertens’s lighting finally brightens, we can see that a woman and a man—Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher—are stranded in a carpeted room that could be a movie theater or a funeral parlor, but is principally an arena where memories of love can be resurrected and, perhaps, laid to rest. A tombstone-like platform lies to one side. Designer Janina Audick has enclosed the space with a curving wall of blue-gray curtains, parted to frame a slide projection of dried leaves, an overhanging fern, and two dandelion puffballs waiting for the wind to finish them off.

Although Stuart was born in New Orleans and trained, performed, and began to choreograph in New York, she relocated to Brussels to found her company, Damaged Goods, in 1994. We haven’t seen enough of her work here. She was last at DTW in 2006 with Forgeries, Love, and Other Matters, a collaboration with composer Hahn Rowe and Montreal choreographer-dancer
Benot Lachambre. This wrenching 2007 work, Maybe Forever, is more shadowed, its characters more numbed by lost love that lingers, aching like a phantom limb.

Words they once spoke return to hang emptily in the air. Their bodies keep misremembering embraces. Near the beginning, Stuart jumps into Gehmacher’s arms as he kneels, rocking stiffly. He lets her fall, tumbles on top of her, and then tries to crawl away with her clinging to him. Their gestures are abortive, helpless. They reach upward, fingers working busily at some undecipherable task. They open their palms to receive . . . what? They clutch nothing, bodies twisting awkwardly. They fall, stagger, and knock into each other. When Stuart—initially wearing a skirt, a blouse, and white high-heeled shoes—lies across Gehmacher’s lap, her legs sprawl clumsily; she looks like a doll whose owner has dropped it and moved on. In addition to the occasional soar of violins in Vincent Malstaf’s sound score, songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, sitting onstage, plays ironically harmonious waltzes on his guitar and sings hopeful words.

Harmonious memories sometimes surface also: For a while, the two sit close together and watch the woodland scene as if it were a movie (the slide changes almost unnoticeably, becoming more or less colored). But the jagged rhythms jolt along over stillnesses and silences. In one of Stuart’s two monologues, she makes statements like “You know when I said I wished I were you?” Pause. “I take it back.” A fine, deeply honest actress, she builds these into a litany, modifying their intensity and interrupting thoughts with runaway gestures to shattering effect.

The contrast between the two performers is provocative. Stuart’s blend of bluntness, stoicism, and vulnerability has always shown through her training. But she retains the ability that the best dancers have; she doesn’t just transform herself, but lets you see how she transforms. Behind the woman’s needy awkwardness, you sense a potential for harmony and equilibrium that makes what she does all the more heartbreaking. Gehmacher, well known in Europe, was born in Austria and studied, performed, and began to choreograph in London. Watching him in Maybe Forever, you’d almost never know he’d had dance training. This man is defined by his tensions—locked into his body, barely able to extend his arms to their full length; everything is an effort. Yet it’s he who ends the piece with a halting speech that acknowledges the ongoing presence of love. As if to contest the unbearable heaviness of being, Stuart comes back onstage with Hafkenscheid. She’s wearing a peach-colored dress. Spangled.

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