Review of A Choreographer’s Handbook
Jeroen Peeters, corpus, 4th November, 2010
Resistance, ignorance, curiosity, stupidity

“We don't know what we're doing and we’re doing it.” This line from Cheap Lecture (2009) by choreographer Jonathan Burrows and composer Matteo Fargion may be a wink at John Cage, it could also be seen as a motto for the choreographer’s (collaborative) oeuvre. For the mature artists, allowing ignorance is a perpetually renewed quest for curiosity and modesty. In their work this translates itself in a mixture of waywardness, precision and humour, at once clear in form and recalcitrant towards a production of meaning revolving around knowledge and language. This resistance and ambiguous relationship with language are almost inevitably at stake in two publications on Jonathan Burrows’ work.

On the occasion of Cheap Lecture’s opening in December 2008, CC Maasmechelen published a booklet with an interview and two essays: The Ingenious Unpredictability of Jonathan Burrows. Challenged by the peculiarness of Burrows’ work, in a long, meandering text Pieter T’Jonck attempts to approach it from all sides, seeks refuge in a disguised interview, and eventually remains without answer. Rudi Laermans makes a clear analysis of gesture (including facial expression, attitude and voice) in Burrows and thereby manages to situate the resistance in a choreographic motif that paradoxically pairs the promise of language and its suspension: “Gestures are usually signs of the intention to speak that have become stuck in the body and have not succeeded in penetrating to the sphere of intangible meanings, or to the symbolic or linguistic order.” After reading the book it is clear that the resistance of Burrows’ work persists, but obliquely leads to the production of meaning in unexpected places – in trivial details and turns, at the body’s surface, in the responsibility taken up by the spectator, or not. On the last page sits a score of Hands (1994), on which Matteo Fargion drew a series of hands, from a plain hand to something that reminds one of a lifted middle finger.

Middle finger
It is the first hand of the series that leads us to the cover of A Choreographer’s Handbook, written by Jonathan Burrows on the basis of many workshop notes. Rather than his body of work, the book addresses Burrows’ method, via keywords, principles, exercises, tips, anecdotes, quotes, excerpts from Cheap Lecture, and furthermore questions, questions and even more questions. Or: it actually concerns method as such, it is a workshop in the form of a book, which aims to help choreographers and dancers in articulating and fine-tuning their own ways of working. In that sense it wants to be a generic handbook by always proposing several possibilities, a strategy that nevertheless shuns the non-committal and puts the reader or dance maker time and again in a position of responsibility. “The only question is this: whichever way you’re working, is this the way you want to work?” And recurring regularly: “How do you want to work?”

The fact that Jonathan Burrows wrote a book about dance already makes clear that mystification is not quite his interest. Secularisation might be a better term, something Burrows achieves, among other things, through his laconic, aphoristic language. It focuses on practical issues and keeps away from sweeping philosophical reflections. Addressed are themes such as improvisation, working with scores, the contract with the spectator, collaboration, possible definitions of choreography, as well as a series of paradoxes, including this one: “Most electric guitarists hear rock music first and then buy a guitar. Most dancers go to a class first and then see a dance performance. Many of our problems stem from this paradox. It’s a glorious paradox.”
Burrows’ is a philosophy of form and composition, of the how, not the why – a word that almost doesn’t appear in the book! Making choices is a matter of “getting things right” and the how is the key to that. Burrows extensively discusses composition and the importance of attention, rhythm, repetition, (un)predictability, surprise, counterpoint, etc. “The philosophy of what you make, embodied in how you make it, will communicate itself physically. It doesn’t matter whether you want a philosophy or not.”

In the kitchen
Arriving at a precise, articulate form requires an accurate method – working towards that aim is at the core of A Choreographer’s Handbook. Both the inspiration of the romantic genius and a narrow institutional definition of art overlook that artworks emanate from sustained practice. “Watching other people’s work can be misleading because we see only the moment when the communication fell into place, and not the slow accumulation and adjustment of meaning.” To choreograph means to work, as Burrows has it, and if it is hard to get started, one should think: “It’s only a stupid dance.” It is an ironic remark, yet in the stupidity resonates again the allowance of ignorance: “We usually don’t know what we’re doing.” And thus also openness: “How do we come back also sometimes to a position of passionate ignorance, enough to choose something, instead of knowing everything?” And therein lingers the urgency: “What are you reading, thinking, watching, doing, that you don’t know why you’re doing it? It’s all right not to know why you’re doing something.” At the same time, method and practice provide one with something to hold on to, they relieve a relentless urge for exploration and risk: “I wish I didn’t have to risk everything every time.” Once more: “It’s only a stupid dance.”

To work means to work on the scale of one’s own practice and aspirations: “Sometimes one hour a day might be enough, three hours is certainly plenty – some people love to work all day.” And: “The people that manage your work or the space you work in may expect you to work for long hours. Perhaps you could explain carefully to them the way that you need to work?” Sometimes a studio is not necessary at all: “I work in the kitchen.” Stipulating one’s own productional conditions is an important component of reflecting upon alternative creation processes and the development of one’s own method. For instance, for a decade Burrows himself has made only pieces that fit in one suitcase, a scale that guarantees him a certain independence from the market and the current economic climate.

To find out how Burrows himself actually works, one has to read between the lines of A Choreographer’s Handbook. He uses material that comes easily, prefers to develop composition in a linear way, borrows many principles from composers of contemporary music but also likes dub reggae. And whoever is wondering where the dry humour comes from should take a look at The Great Flydini by Steve Martin. Yet the importance of A Choreographer’s Handbook resides elsewhere: that a renowned contemporary choreographer like Jonathan Burrows cares about transmission, wants to share his views on practice and develops discourse from an internal perspective to that end, is of invaluable importance. Dance may very well be a decidedly experimental art form and steadily reinvent itself since it easily forgets its own history and canon, as Burrows observes; this “stupidity” still requires a bedding to become meaningful.

Daniela Perazzo, Rudi Laermans, Pieter T’Jonck, The Ingenious Unpredictability of Jonathan Burrows. Maasmechelen: CC Maasmechelen 2008 (108 pp., 6€; order via

Jonathan Burrows, A Choreographer’s Handbook. London/New York: Routledge 2010.

©Jeroen Peeters, 2010