Interview with Gia Kourlas for The Village Voice, New York, 2011
GK: How did you and Matteo meet and begin this artistic relationship?
JB: I met Matteo in 1988 through a mutual friend with whom he shared an evening of music. I liked what he played and asked him to write something for me.
GK: Could you talk about the history of this collaboration? (Beginning with Both Sitting Duet, right?) Why has it been so fruitful? What are the parameters, the rules for the way you and Matteo work? Are there any?
JB: Matteo wrote music for my choreography until 2002, when I suggested to him that maybe we should work more equally, to conceive, make, rehearse, perform and administrate everything together. Before we started we drew up an agreement which we both signed. We never looked at the paper again but we knew we hadn’t taken collaboration for granted and that trust underpins everything we do. For the rest the process of work tends to go to and fro between us, and often we work alone on something without even telling the other we’re busy, until there’s something worth seeing or hearing.
GK: Obviously I know Both Sitting Duet, but how did that lead to the others? Could you discuss the motivation behind The Quiet Dance, Speaking Dance, Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece?
JB: We’re interested in formal musical counterpoint which we disrupt and distort through the act of performing. Our thought is that we’re not trying to express ourselves but rather to lose our selves in a field of expression. In a theoretical world that might sound idealistic, but its interesting politically and we recognise that that loss of self into the whole underpins a lot of shared dance and music practice. Paradoxically of course the result is that you become more present and visible, because you’ve escaped your expectations of what you thought you should be doing.
GK: Did you intend to dive deeper and deeper? Or did the work dictate that response?
JB: I wouldn’t necessarily think about going deeper but more like how do we keep going? It’s in the keeping going that something else happens, where you arrive somewhere familiar in a new way.
GK: Do you have plans for more duets?
JB: If we still feel interested and other people respond to that then yes. Matteo and I don’t have regular funding so making duets is a practical way to earn a living, and we like working together.
GK: What is it about this form that has been so meaningful?
JB: I like that what I’m doing is not just me, that I don’t carry the whole burden of making it make sense because there’s always the other person to support you or intervene.
GK: Do you regard these works as explorations into the relationship between music and dance?
JB: Matteo and I are more interested in acts of translation - what happens if this shape which was sound, now becomes movement or words, and so forth.
GK: What have you uncovered about that?
JB: When you translate across mediums you lose a lot but the effort focuses something else, hopefully towards what becomes indispensable.
GK: Is there anything about this project or work that no one ever talks about?
JB: The collective, self-sustaining way we work is part of a philosophy towards questioning power-structures. It’s not something we talk about a lot but we hope it’s evident within the open spirit of the shows, and the ways in which they invite the audience and recognise their intelligence.
GK: Has performing these duets in such a concentrated way affected the way you regard them as a whole? What do they tell you?
JB: When we perform the duets all together there is a sense of an unfolding narrative, even though each piece starts from a new and separate question.
GK: Does it take a special endurance to perform them at once?
JB: The performances are often fast and detailed and require a particular concentration which is tiring, but amongst our principles is the thought that there are no mistakes, which helps us get through and hopefully stops them becoming heavy.
GK: Have others dancers expressed interest in performing these duets? Could they? Would they translate or are they personal to the two of you?
JB: My feeling has always been that anyone with a strong relationship and who was interested could make and perform these duets.
GK: How do you and Matteo begin a work? Has that changed over time?
JB: We often begin with unfinished business meaning what didn’t we do that we want to do, and if it won’t go away despite our reservations then eventually we make the piece. As we go along we try to find principles for making and performing which we can return to remind us what we’re doing when we get too seduced by what’s happening.
GK: What are you working on now?
JB: We just made a series of low-key premieres of a new duet called Counting To One Hundred. We kept it low-key so we could learn to listen to each other despite the initial fear, before we exposed the piece to a more pressurised market place and all the expectation that that brings.
GK: Why did you write A Choreographer’s Handbook?
JB: A Choreographer’s Handbook came out of five years of workshops where I invited participants to only talk, and try to articulate what it is they thought they were doing. I drew from this and my own experiences to try and frame some picture of the multiplicity of ways in which we now work. The ideal reader was me as a ballet student aged seventeen, but at the same time I thought it had to make sense to my peers and elders, even if they might sometimes disagree with what was said. It was to raise a discussion.
© Jonathan Burrows and Gia Kourlas, 2011