Interview with Jonathan Burrows

Jonathan Burrows is a choreographer whose main focus is an ongoing body of pieces with the composer Matteo Fargion, with whom he continues to perform around the world. He is the author of A Choreographer’s Handbook (Routledge 2010) and Writing Dance (Varamo 2022) and is currently an Associate Professor at the Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University.

In August, Burrows is coming to lead the workshop “Choreography workshop: Writing Dance” in the educational dance event “Summer Dance Intensive Villnius”, organized by the Lithuanian Dance Information Centre.

Jonathan Burrows. Pic by Hugo Glendinning

Do you consider yourself as a dance-thinker?

I’ve always identified myself as a choreographer, and choreography is a kind of thinking or questioning. I do a lot of writing also now for publications and talks, and as part of my work at the Centre for Dance Research Coventry University, and in many ways the writing has become another extension of this choreographic thinking and questioning. It’s a quality about contemporary dance that I love.

Remembering your own shows, I am curious, how well do you know maths, psychology, and clowning?

I would love to be good at mathematics, but as I’ve become older I’ve developed a kind of number dyslexia where I randomly swop numbers and find it difficult to calculate money in a shop. It seems clear then that the way Matteo Fargion and I use rhythm isn’t mathematical. We do count things, but the counting is connected to a felt sense of the rhythm and the proportions of what we’re doing, which is how most dance and music works.

In terms of psychology I guess your question is related to the ways in which Matteo and I work with memory and anticipation, but I would describe these things as more to do with cognition than psychology, and I am very interested in  it. For me the act of watching a dance performance encourages an experience of embodied thinking, which animates and makes present the ways in which we read the world through movement. This is connected to what the philosopher Alva Noë calls the ‘enactive’ approach, which understands perception as being premised upon sequenced movement through the world.

As for clowning, I probably have a vestige of bad clowning left over from my  years as a ballet dancer in comedic roles, but I’ve never had an interest in studying it and I think it’s quite different from the humour in Matteo and I’s performances. I suppose the nearest connection to clowning might be in our habit of not signalling the humour, which in the case of someone like Buster Keaton would be called ‘deadpan’. I consciously try not to do it, but I see why  somebody might think it.

Do you think a humour is something an artist can learn? Or is it a matter of  a personal character?

The problem with humour in the art world is that it’s often seen as less important or even less artistic than work that declares its seriousness. I completely understand that, but my perspective has always been that when people speak together there’s a constant exchange of smiles and laughter even in the most serious of circumstances, which is born out of a combination of self- consciousness and the innate necessity of showing each other that no violence is  intended. For me, therefore, it’s very strange if my communication with an audience is marked by the refusal to smile. I don’t like the hierarchy of that situation.

People often laugh during the performances that I make with Matteo, but it’s clear we’re not doing comedy. The laughter is a response to empathetic memory and anticipation built by the rhythm of what we’re doing, and the fact  that we make it clear it’s ok to relax and smile. Having said that, the main principle for our performances is ‘How the audience sits is how we should sit’, which means that as in any conversation, the decision to smile or laugh is triggered mutually and can’t be forced by one person or the other.

A lot of your and Matteo‘s works are minimal. This leads me to a thought that behind your choreography there is a huge knowledge which would be distracted by using too much (well known) techniques or tricks. However, it means that an audience must work to get to the point. As far as you‘ve experienced, how deep does the audience usually get into your pieces? Do they often perceive them just as a pleasure (nothing negative here)?

The work that Matteo and I make sometimes gets called minimal, maybe because we don’t do visual theatre and because we use repetition to create rhythm. For me though, I’ve never really thought of it as minimal, but more like  a music performance that focusses on time and presence rather than visual spectacle. The pieces are highly complex with many materials and usually performed at great speed, so they feel very rich from the inside.

I think the other aspect of what we do that marks it as slightly different from many dance performances, is that we don’t show an expressive body as a focus of meaning and emotion. I love dance which does that, but we’ve always enjoyed a slightly different approach. For us perhaps the ideal would be that the accumulation of rhythm and presence and memory and anticipation in our work,  triggers physical and imaginative responses from the spectator which are in conversation with our own responses. This approach is not an aesthetic choice, it’s just an accident of the fact that I come from the codified form of ballet and Matteo is a musician, so our way of working developed out of the meeting of those skills.

The only way to get a sense whether our pieces communicate to audience members or not is by reactions from different audiences and individuals as we travel around performing. If something doesn’t get a response, then we keep working at it or in some cases just stop doing it. There’s no guarantee of communication, but when it does happen then in that moment it seems worth continuing.

The most interesting feedback we get from audiences is that over the years we’ve developed a habit of signalling to people at the end that they can come onstage and look at the scores, and nowadays this seems to happen whether we invite people or not. It’s become the most important part of the performances really, where people feel comfortable enough to come down and look and talk together, in a way that allows the performance to resonate.

The names of your shows have always been brilliant. In your opinion, how  important is it to name a piece correctly (i.e. attractive)?

Finding a title is an important step towards understanding the dramaturgy of a piece. It has to be absolutely obvious, but at the same time open enough to allow an imaginative response. We learned a lesson about obviousness when we  made The Cow Piece in 2009, which initially had a strange complicated title that I can’t even remember, and then everyone just called it The Cow Piece so we had to change it, and when we changed it, the piece started to work.

One of the most exciting moments I’ve experienced in a theatre was when Trisha Brown performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre many years ago, and the stage manager walked on at the beginning and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Trisha Brown has asked me to notify you that she has changed the title of the first piece this evening, which will now be called ‘For MG: The Movie’.” There was a sense of being witness to the rebirth of something and it created a tremendous energy. I’ve no idea who ‘MG’ is, but I’ve never forgotten the title or the piece.

Could you contemplate a bit on the ideas, how to resist the rules of market and still become well recognized?

The main thing that informs Matteo and I’s response to the marketplace is that I find it very hard to make a piece when I’ve already described it in a funding application or made promises to a promoter, so we’ve developed a way  to try and avoid doing that. It means we’ve had to severely limit what we do in terms of scale, because our infrastructure is non-existent, but on the other hand it’s helped us to keep going by giving us more freedom. For the past 20 years we’ve have no office or studio and we share everything including conception, creation, rehearsal and administration of the work. We’ve never had regular funding, but we do occasionally ask for small amounts of money towards research, so we can buy equipment or hire a studio. It’s not the only way to work  and it has its problems, but things are getting tough and there’s something to be said for that kind of self-containment.

The other thing that’s shaped our approach to work is that we’ve both at times been primary carers for our children, so rehearsals at home made more sense and we’ve tended to avoid artistic residencies. I find also that when you’re trying    to create something it helps to be surrounded by your own life. There’s nothing bleaker than trying to be imaginative in an empty hotel room.

What does it mean to break the rules as a choreographer today?

For many years now the predominant rule within contemporary dance has been that each new generation and each new artist must propose an image of breaking the rules, but in reality of course this becomes impossible because in a field of rule breaking there are no rules to break.

This hierarchy of innovation has ended up excluding many forms and people, because it fosters misunderstandings about what the nature of innovation might be. Contemporary dance has tended, for instance, to prioritise the idea of spontaneous movement as being the most authentic in the way it might challenge physical habits and oppressive regimes of training and so forth, but that approach ignores forms that are built upon the slow transmission and accumulation of specific styles and methodologies of movement that are held in common: for instance hip hop, flamenco, Indian classical dance, many forms of dance from different African countries and so forth. Contemporaneity has been denied to these forms because of a limited view of what it might mean to innovate.

The compulsion to break what came before could be critiqued as a reflection of the capitalist drive to endlessly develop. It’s not a very ecological standpoint. I’m much more interested now in how dancers might better honour the knowledge that has accumulated within their bodies, and not always be asked to  reject it in favour of this fantasy of the new. Hip hop dance sets a precedent here, in the extraordinary way it constantly innovates, but at the same time respects, acknowledges and represents the lineage of the form.

So let’s finish with a question: how to prepare a professional choreographer? What basic skills does a person need to become able gathering a lot of elements and creating an art piece?

I’m really not sure what basic skills somebody would need in order to identify themself as a choreographer. All human beings have extraordinary ability to coordinate and remember complex movement, and all human beings have pleasure in mapping and ordering and disordering themselves in relation to  the world they’re moving through. It’s usually an accident of getting interested in dancing that someone eventually starts to discover the satisfaction of choreographing, and then it goes from there. My experience is that it’s not like it    gets better or more fun or easier to do as you keep going, it’s just a matter of deciding if it’s what you want to be doing, and if it is then you try and make sense of it practically and artistically. The important thing is that all the skills you learn by dancing and choreographing are useful in all aspects of your life, and I wish dance schools would talk more about that, rather than being preoccupied with success.

I think the biggest difficulty now is not how to make a piece, but more like how  to make your work visible. There are so many dancers and choreographers creating so much work and I love that and am constantly surprised and delighted by what I see, but we’re all struggling to catch each other’s attention. In the past a performance might linger in the memory, but now it’s up there online for a moment and then gets washed away within hours or days by a torrent of other stuff.

There seems to be a slow shift at the moment, however, into a different mode of  survival within contemporary dance, which understands with more confidence that the heart of what we do is about all the ways in which we practice our doing and talking and thinking together. Performances are still important, but they’re perhaps less of a goal. This became more evident during the pandemic, when the culture machine stopped and for many of us there was a sense of absolute relief and a chance to reflect on what matters. It felt like the art form passed back into the hands of practitioners for a moment and we started to appreciate things about it that perhaps get overlooked or devalued by the market.

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