Jonathan Burrows' keynote address for the Conference on Dance in Higher Education, 'Resilience' Articulating Dance Knowledges in the 21st Century
De Montfort University, Leicester, April 8th 2015
Good morning and welcome.
I want to try and speak a little this morning
about the relationship between dance practice and the academic,
touching on some questions that I have
and my thoughts for the future.
I'll speak from my own experience, but I hope some of this will make sense to you,
and that what I say can contribute in some way towards what you'll be exploring here today.
Let me begin by saying that I wouldn't survive right now without the work that's happening in university dance departments.
I don't just mean financially,
I mean the way that dance research is feeding me,
keeping me interested in the wider field,
showing me other cultures of dance,
helping me discover forgotten histories,
challenging my assumptions and prejudices,
communicating across borders,
and helping shape new ideas about what choreography might be in the 21st century,
For me, being a visiting artist in a university is a privileged position and a strange one,
knowing why I'm here but not always understanding the rules of engagement,
and nobody else quite seems to know them either,
so we work it out as we go along
which is a bit like choreographing,
or watching a contemporary dance performance.
And the visiting artist brings freedom to make without judgement,
and the students rise to that and fly, and the artist sucks up new information from them.
And I guess the kind of student who might complain that they're not getting their money's worth
is too busy trying to keep their head above water,
in the midst of our wobbly practices and wandering uncertainties.
And we try to share the richness of being lost in process
while attempting not to confuse or undermine the rigour of academic practice,
which sometimes makes us feel caught between worlds,
playing the anarchist role,
and yet never quite sure if we're helping or not and nobody can ever quite say.
But it makes it all worthwhile when we feel a dialogue with the faculty who've invited us.
It all makes more sense when you come in to watch,
and join in the discussion
and help guide the experience
and share your knowledge with us.
So thank you for that, and for the work, and for your interest and passion, and for the money.
And sorry for those times when we waltz in and say what you've been saying for years,
and the students get excited just because it's us.
It must be really annoying,
especially when we look so satisfied with ourselves afterwards.
And I should confess that this was my second attempt to write this keynote speech,
because the first time I tried to express my experience of feeling lost in the institution
my wife said you can't say that, you sound way too sarcastic.
And then everyone I told that to laughed and said oh yes you should say it, and that made me laugh,
but it made me also realise that there was a bit of a prickly feeling out there
about what happens when dance artists enter the academy,
and a fair few who liked the idea to get a rise out of academia,
and who wanted to make sure their artistic horse was in front of your research cart,
which is an image from Deborah Hay,
who drew the horse and cart on a whiteboard in Frankfurt
and it stuck in my mind.
And I thought ok this is a bit of a thankless task
and I'm not sure I want to dig myself a keynote shaped grave,
but then again many of you are artists and have your own questions about academia,
and I spend more time on campus than in theatres,
so maybe we can begin by observing in which ways these two worlds are also perhaps the same world,
asking similar questions,
leaning on each other and with an open door between.
And it feels to me that a small revolution has taken place and something exciting is happening,
and although it happened years ago in other art forms it hadn't happened yet in mine and now it has,
and I'm so happy for real study and care about the art I inhabit and love and I celebrate that,
and I invite you to celebrate that and to pause for a moment and take stock.
But it's hard to take stock because the field is wide and the issues are complex,
so I'll try to stick to my own adventures as an alien entering this brave new world,
and hopefully my stories might resonate with yours,
and hopefully my wife will like it this time.
Some years ago I decided I would try and write a book,
and by chance I got invited at the same time to be a research fellow at Roehampton,
and Carol Brown kindly helped me put together an application for the AHRC
proposing that I'd use the the research to do the writing.
But the AHRC said they'd only fund me if I did practice based research
and I thought well I get this and the fight for practice based research has been an important one,
but I'm full to the brim with practice and I want to stop for a moment
and get this body on paper where it might do something else,
but it didn't wash and the whole thing fell apart and it threw a lot of issues into focus.
It threw into focus that practice based research is about fighting for people to recognise that bodies can also be intelligent,
but that sometimes I might want to stop being a body.
That sometimes I might need the space you give me to think.
And sometimes I want to fight for a body that doesn't have to be intelligent,
my stupid, messy body, whose performative power comes from resisting hierarchies of knowledge,
and I hope we can always make space for that too.
And that reminds me of Adrian Heathfield asking
'What are you going to do now you've let words into the room, because you can't just push them out again?',
which is a question for all of us in dance right now
and that connects somehow to the influence of theory,
and the way many love but many mistrust it,
and how theory enriches us but also becomes the new orthodoxy and how we must also resist that.
And how we must defend the intelligent absurdity of the dancing body
because most of us are here because once upon a time
we stood up in a room
and moved around in an approximately dance-like way
and felt something that resisted definition.
And felt something that perhaps we didn't want to be defined.
Because we are still products of the enlightenment,
and need space for our thinking bodies,
and for our stupid bodies
and for our thinking minds,
and for the mythical centre where they might perhaps meet,
I myself am old enough to come from a generation of ballet dancers who stopped formal education at 16 to focus on dance,
which is why I was excited that Libby Worth at Royal Holloway was so nice as to let me have an honorary doctorate.
And every time I call Lloyds Bank they say 'Good Morning Doctor Burrows' and I feel so good,
because I called myself that when I filled in the bank details,
thinking they'd be more likely to give me a loan.
And like many dancers I'm a bit in awe of the academic world,
which has given us for the first time a sense of being more than beautiful bodies
and I'm grateful for that.
And although I still couldn't get a loan I did get cheaper car insurance,
because I don't know if you were ever foolish enough to disclose that you were a dancer on an insurance form,
but alarm bells start ringing in the office and your premium shoots through the roof,
since somebody in a meeting somewhere once decided
that our motor skills are compromised by creative madness,
and late night drinking and general debauchery,
which is only true some of the time.
And meanwhile I wanted to bring some creative madness into this talk today,
so I had the idea to blow on a mouth organ every now and again,
to add a bit of performance.
But life is short and self-consciousness is long and I thought that maybe you could try to imagine it instead.
That maybe you could try to imagine a sound like a small pause for thought
or a gap where a question hovers,
and we could just let it evaporate into the air and disappear,
with the image of dancers driving through the night,
gripping the steering wheel,
trying to stop themselves dancing.
Let's be honest,
this is the art form that disappears,
and university research has recognised that beautifully,
and helped us hold on to things long enough to learn from them,
and found again what was almost lost,
and worked with us to archive what we love,
and helped make made Youtube our first library
(an image from Jerome Bel),
so that tomorrow's choreographers can work with history as a friend, not a hidden ghost.
I'd like to share this wealth of history without weighing people down.
I'd like to encourage students to be interested in everything and at the same time stand up for what is only theirs
and should never be owned by us and our historically specific bodies.
And let's open new perspectives through disciplined research,
but never forgetting that kind of research which requires us to follow our noses without justification
up seeming dead ends.
Let's allow ourselves to do and read and watch things we have no idea why,
following vague hunches that feel like self indulgence
until suddenly, years later, something makes sense to us, too late for a written proposal.
And then we want to shout out loud and point and make everyone see how excited we are
for this small justification of lost process and practice and in reality nobody notices,
and that's how it should be.
So we calm down and get on with grazing more grass across a huge field
until we find something else, by accident, to wonder about.
Let's recognise this alternative picture of research, which is the reality for many of us,
where intuition is the heart of creative practice and and requires us to set off without a map
into an unknown territory, intelligently, with eyes open, scouring the horizon for clues,
and not a written proposal in sight and no assessment procedure possible.
Because the influence of the academy is strong and the scientific model is doing odd things to my artist friends.
Because it's easy for artists to fool themselves into thinking they know what they're doing,
and we all know how to talk the talk in interviews
and it all gets diligently written down and believed,
but the real joy is in the lostness
which is an act of resistance, and a gift to the world.
And your task is so delicate,
to present to the academy this muddy field without a map, which can withstand the scientific
but must also stand up for its own logic,
grounded in a practice which can never prove itself, whatever promises we might make.
Which brings us to the moment when I thought to introduce my second performative moment,
and get out a long red ribbon on a stick
and whip it to and fro like a Chinese acrobat,
and the thought wouldn't go away, and I asked my friend Sue MacLaine if she could lend me hers and she said yes
but there was scepticism in her voice so I bowed to it,
even though it would be so great right now, just flipping and flapping pointlessly and you'd never forget it somehow.
And I'd keep flipping and flapping while I talked
about how we must teach our students dance skills as though they're life skills,
so all those who won't get a job in dance might get a job somewhere,
using all the stuff dance does well:
like collaborating with each other to make something more than the sum of its parts,
or motivating people,
or managing conflicts,
or finding the political in the body;
or organising time and space in a pragmatically luminous way,
or being individual enough to to be individual
and at the same time being able to join in selflessly when necessary;
or like knowing when to follow the rules and when to abandon the rules,
and when to follow our intuition
and when to know that intuition is just another construct we might ignore
or bypass, or subvert, or dance joyously over;
or above all our skill at being generous,
because we're raised in an art form whose value is not financial
and that gives us a unique perspective on the world and we should celebrate that,
which is also an act of resistance and never more than now,
in our financially obsessed and quantified world.
Let us be proud that we deal in a currency of togetherness,
which is never reductive
and rarely cut throat.
And I preach these kindnesses
despite the fact that I must plead with you now,
that you protect us please from the friendly fire of your finance department,
who are experts at issuing the maximum PAYE notifications
over a period of not less than two years
on the basis of a one off lecture fee of £100,
so that we quiver at the sight of your logo on an envelope.
And I must also beg your forgiveness for the trick we have
of marking all students the same
and then claiming artistic licence,
and leaving you to sort out the mess.
And I ask you to help us to help you to go on doing this work,
and to go on taking an interest in each others work
and watching each others pieces
and recommending them to your friends,
and encouraging our students to understand
that being interested in other people's work is the best way to get a job,
because everyone likes the kind of person who knows what's going on
and is part of something, whatever that something might be.
And from all the choreographers out there:
please go on taking an interest in the ways we try to write about our own practice,
and in turn go on writing yourselves about our work in ways which illuminates it even for us,
because in the absence of any sensible critical voice in the mainstream media
you become a part of our eyes and ears
and we value the thought and care you put into reflecting upon what we do.
this car crash of a keynote stutters inconclusively and joyously to its end,
at which moment with tears of joy in our eyes,
I will blow once again upon that imaginary mouth organ,
and wave my red ribbon to and fro,
and invite you to pause
and join with me in holding hands across the old fence until it falls.
© Jonathan Burrows 2015