Jonathan Burrows and Adrian Heathfield in dialogue (2)
Performance Matters, June 2009 to October 2010

Adrian Heathfield: Freedom and Constraint, 17th November 2009

Dear Jonathan

Yes, let’s begin like this. Multiple sparks. It’s suddenly strange to be writing to you in this way, formalising our correspondence, when so much of our little history has been in conversation across the workshop floor, so it will be interesting to see what happens to the energies and dynamics of our relation as they get lettered and pass through the vessel of writing. Usually we are talking and we have something fairly concrete in front of us: something someone has done, a physical proposition made in a space, with affects we have witnessed together, however difficult they may be to name. Here we’ll just have to imagine all of that, or summon it back into view with the blunt tool of words.

I think of you (and of myself) as someone who is very committed to a certain kind of formality – attentive that is, to the crucial way in which an idea takes its shape, manifests itself in the world, and distinguishes itself from other things. Can one consider forms without first considering traditions? It is compelling for me that you invoke tradition as a space of freedom, because it is quite rare to hear an innovative artist express such a sentiment, accustomed as we are to the contemporary incantation of the radical, the unprecedented and the new. Donaghy’s use of traditional dance reminds me of a great short essay by T. S. Eliot on The Sense of Tradition, in which he says that there is always a kind of invisible congregation of dead artists, and a re-organisation of their relations, in a great artwork. I’m less interested in some idea of an historical lineage here (of dead artists) and more interested in the communal and trans-temporal dynamics of creation that he evokes. He says that a vital artistic sensibility is characterised by a perception of the presence of the past in the present, and that the traditional artist is one who is aware of precursors but is also thoroughly contemporary. You could say he is thinking of work that is at once timeless and timely.

Does this help with the unpicking of the old opposition between dance practice as a seemingly uncontained and prolific generator of “the immediate gesture” and language as a more restrained form, holding a sanctioned space of play? Let’s say that for me, this is partly about the time of expression and the conditions of presence or present-ness conveyed in each. There are many ways for the word to acquire a kind of ‘nowness’ (both on the page and in speech), to appear as spontaneously as movement. Just as one could say that it is impossible for a movement to appear in a space, without it being already old, already in correspondence with the gestures which have preceded it (both recently and historically). There is a lot more to be said about the temporality of writing and dance, speech and movement, but I am thinking that beyond these concerns, all of this is useful for systematically unthinking the kinds of opposition made by some between freedom and constraint in an aesthetic. So here we would be working with the understanding of the impossibility of the absence of constraint, and the ways in which constraint is absolutely necessary to the movement that resists and surpasses it.

When you look at poetry and dance as objects they might seem to be wholly different species, but I think the relation you’ve invoked between the two is really productive. Maybe the affinity rests in the burning that Donaghy speaks of. It’s interesting isn’t it, that when people talk of the powers of an artwork or an aesthetic they often talk about a kind of wounding, or a scarring, a lasting trace in their body, or a kind of indelible mark, something that will somehow never be erased. More often than not wounds are things that you keep but you are yet to understand - when one carries a wound it continues to sting, to remind, and therefore to offer you some questions. Something ‘exterior’ has forced its way inside, leaving an opening, and you experience yourself as a volume or a depth with an interior tear. I suppose what interests me most about the affinity between dance and poetry, is a particular kind of shared affect, something that is felt and remains in the body of the witness or reader. Both forms are vitally engaged with the movement between the concrete and the abstract, and they both value alterior sense, produced in the charged spaces of emotional and corporeal experience, in the interstices of language. For me both forms enable access to those important but rarefied conditions in which one is seeing or reading - let’s just say feeling - something absolutely singular; something at once obscure and somehow always known; an embodied or unconscious knowledge, an immanence of the senses, surprisingly crystallized. We tend to experience these things as indelible or eternal (in their persistence), but they are not timeless; because they burn so brightly, and exist at the edges of thought, language, intelligibility, they are prone to being forgotten. I am thinking of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, trying but failing to recover ‘the classics’, reviving only fragments of ‘great’ poems, to make another kind of poetry: “What was that unforgettable line?”

Your invocation of the imperative to improvise in certain traditions, being always paired with the imperative of sustaining shared communication with the audience, reminded me of one of Boris Charmatz’s performances made in 2003 at the Whitecube Gallery in Hoxton.

I remember seeing Boris in a talk with Steve Paxton in New York at the Baryshnikov centre. Paxton was merrily recounting Charmatz’s participation in some kind of international improvisation workshop session, where amidst a sea of dancing bodies moving with consummate sensitivity, openness and responsiveness to the movements of others, Charmatz had put his hoody up and had crashed his way through the proceedings. Paxton did a great physical impersonation of Charmatz at the gathering, moving half-blind in isolation, with an interior agitation and reckless regard for others. Clearly he had bucked the orthodoxy in that space (its ‘freedom’ had become an intolerable constraint) and in doing this he had established the rich possibilities of a correspondence that moves through withdrawal, refusal and negation.

In the work at the Whitecube, which is largely improvised, you can see how this sensibility is activated within something that is nonetheless highly responsive (and responsible). It’s also pretty evident here, that improvisation is not purely present invention, but something that is always drawing on a repertoire of sorts, a vocabulary of choreographic possibilities. In this sense improvisation is always a kind of radical adaptation of (and to) pre-existing materials. But what interests me most about this work is the way it enacts a dynamic reversal: the (child) performer at the centre of the piece is a member of the audience. So the audience is both outside the piece and inside it. The audience is a co-creator of the work and is integral to its meaning, they are not simply spectating ‘upon’ it. The micro-movements of the kid’s body, his facial expressions, shifts of mood and attention become part of the choreography: an uneven duet. There’s a restriction at the heart of this piece’s generative capacities: it is dedicated to an audience member who will not see it. A blind spot is placed at the centre of the work, reminding us of the unseen, of the limits of our vision and thereby re-disposing our senses. I am constantly aware when I watch this piece of the kid’s unknown imaginings, aware too that the dance I see is not given to be seen by me, but to be felt and heard by another. What I like about this approach is that it challenges the supposed ease of communication and of sharing in participatory artworks. What is not shared also communicates. This work carefully reminds us of differences and gulfs in relation, here specifically between the adult and the child, alongside the invisible but connective forces of performance.

All this to say that Charmatz is doing well what I think is most powerful about your work and that of other contemporary choreographers and performance makers: establishing altered conventions of performance and relation, in order to test out and negotiate their validity as propositions in a social space.

Talking of burning things in deeper than prose, I was reading Paul Celan the other night, particularly the later poems, where there seems to be such intensity or force in the phenomena evoked that one can barely breathe whilst reading. I was struck by something his translator said regarding these later works; a frank admission that he had only translated a fraction of the possible poems, because a large number were in his opinion “rendered totally untranslatable by polysemy.” Part of this untranslatable quality seems to rest in his poetry’s closeness “to the unutterable because it has passed through it and come out on the other side.” Here is one that really stopped me in my tracks, I had to keep re-reading 5,6,7 times because each time it cracked something different open in me:

I fool about with my night,
we capture
that tore loose here,

your darkness too
load on to
my halved, voyaging

it too is to hear it
from every direction,
the incontrovertible echo
of every eclipse.

I am still not sure what draws me to this poem. Formally, it is probably the repetitions of the enigmatic “it” and the supplemental “too,” the elusive elemental figures of I, We and You. It seems that the poem’s sense will remain both implicit and inchoate. Perhaps it is something to do with the relations evoked between freedom and constraint: play and death, light and darkness, travel and fixity. Or perhaps it’s the drawing together of something held and something flown, encountered in some transaction between hearing and sight.

Not sure where all of this takes us Jonathan. Perhaps for the moment it is good to just move through discourse, texts and ideas. I have the feeling that once we get into an actual space and see what can be made of these exchanges, in any form, that something wholly different will emerge …


© Jonathan Burrows and Adrian Heathfield 2010

This article is also posted on the Performance Matters website:

An edited version was published in Etcetera Magazine, Belgium, issue 123, January 28th 2011