Development starts from within. Kanayo Nwanze

Language is Key in Dancing

Susanne Lettner interviewed one of the most famous British choreographers: Jonathan Burrows.

Jonathan Burrows was born in England, he was a Solist with The Royal Ballet (1979-1992) and performed with the Rosemary Butcher Company (1986-1999). Burrows is currently engaged with an ongoing body of duets made with composer Matteo Fargion, which began in 2002 with Both Sitting Duet, followed by The Quiet Dance (2005), Speaking Dance (2006), Cheap Lecture (2009), The Cow Piece (2009), Counting To One Hundred (2011) and One Flute Note (2012). The two men have given over 200 performances across 28 countries. Both Sitting Duet won a 2004 New York Dance and Performance ‚Bessie‘ Award, and Cheap Lecture was chosen for the 2009 Het Theaterfestival in Belgium. He holds an Honorary Doctorate from Royal Holloway University of London. He is a visiting member of faculty at P.A.R.T.S., the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in Brussels, and has also been a Visiting Professor e.g. for the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London, the Institute for Theatre Studies at the Free University Berlin, the Koninklijke Academie van Schone Kunsten Gent or the Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University London.

Susanne Lettner: How did your idea rise up to combine dance with language?
Jonathan Burrows: Dance has been concerning itself with language for many years now, at least since the 1960s, and never more than in this present period under the dual influence of dance theatre and more conceptual work, both of which draw upon language in specific ways. For me therefore there was always the possibility and challenge to move into this area. Also the way Matteo and I work from a position of relative empty handedness, no big ideas, plans, stories or concepts etc., only the skills we bring and the interest we have in a kind of openness to audience clashed against aspects of more formal musical composition, so we are forced to draw upon everything to keep things going, including spoken language. But like every element, language is something we try to keep in balance with the other approaches, music, movement, image and so forth, so that no single medium is allowed to dominate.

Susanne Lettner: What is the lecture for an element in your work?
Jonathan Burrows: Matteo and I have recently made three performances which are lectures – Cheap Lecture, Show And Tell and Rebelling Against Limit – and these three definitely had at the outset the intention to follow that more didactic form. Other than that I would say that hopefully what intellectual aspects there are in other pieces are borrowed from music itself, and the ability music has of playing puzzles upon the brain, of expectation and recognition.

Susanne Lettner: What do you think about improvisation?
Jonathan Burrows: My observation has been that different people need different ways to approach making and performing, depending upon how their neurons fire, what personality they have and the various experiences that have formed their approach, meaning how we work is not always something we can choose, but rather something we discover by trial and error. There’s a tendency sometimes for improvisation to be perceived as more intuitive than other approaches, and you get an evangelical stage from practitioners as though they’ve discovered the holy grail. It may be the holy grail for them but I prefer a world where all ways are respected, accessible and equal and everyone is encouraged to work according to their needs and circumstances. There is too much evidence out there that good work comes from all quarters, regardless of methodology. There is some direct improvisation in the work Matteo and I make, and if you extend that to include how we interact in performance then there’s a massive amount of freedom to choose, break, blow up and abandon the rules, but we do it from a position of resistance or friction with a set of principles or structure, that we can drop at any moment but which guide, hold and amplify what might happen.

Susanne Lettner: What helps you, when you are trying a new work? Do you have a certain working process?
Jonathan Burrows: I suppose in the first place you want to work on something, and then you’re looking for what is interesting you right now but also what is happening around you from other artists and what you feel you have done and haven’t been thinking of but feel you should be. Out of this mass of conflicting and contradictory impulse you find somewhere to begin and it’s usually a much simpler starting point than you wanted but it’s all you have, and the you just keep working and if something becomes recognizable in respect of any of the impulses you had then you keep
going, and if not you throw it away and start again. And everything you throw resurfaces eventually and finds its place, so there’s little wastage in the end. Matteo and I only discuss things sporadically and then often work away separately and send stuff through once it’s much further down the road. The we clash this stuff together and proceed from where that takes us. In this way we avoid censoring each other too soon, and allow each to follow their heart on things at least until the feel of something has come to light and we can know better what we’re dealing with. And of course the doubts never go away, mustn’t go away, through thick and thin.


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