Interview on Hymns
with Daniela Perazzo Domm
Daniela Perazzo Domm: What I am especially interested in about Hymns is the relationship between the musical score and the choreography. It appears that you made a selection of hymn tunes, choosing particular stanzas, repeating them and combining them with others.
Jonathan Burrows: Well, I don’t really remember… But the thing that you need to know is – and, in a way, this is going back a bit, this is more like the history of why I started choreographing, which is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, about five years ago. What I realised was that there was a certain moment, when I was a student at the Royal Ballet School, when they started to lose interest in me slightly as a potential ballet dancer. I’ve realised since that the Royal Ballet School had a habit that, when they started to be unsure about how somebody was going to turn out as a ballet dancer, they would try and launch them towards other things. So they kind of made it out as though they were very interested in little things that I had choreographed when I was a student. I mean, in some way, I think there were some people who were genuinely interested; but, on the other hand, I think it was also a way to deal with me, because they didn’t quite know what to do with me, and this was when I had been training there for six years or so. But anyway, I kind of bought the line that they spun me and I did start to become genuinely interested. And I was very lucky that at that time at the Royal Ballet they were afraid that the two choreographers who had been working with them for many years – Frederick Ashton and then, of a slightly younger generation, Kenneth MacMillan – had been there many years (and Ashton, certainly, was an old man by then), and they hadn’t taken much care in encouraging other generations of choreographers; they had, if you like, relied on these two huge figures. But around the time when Norman Morrice became the director of the Royal Ballet, the organisation made some more serious efforts to encourage young choreographers. Norman Morrice had been in many ways a very important figure in the development of dance in England, because he had been the director and choreographer for Ballet Rambert, and he had changed Rambert from a ballet company to a modern dance company. He, as far as I understand it, was the person who really introduced the idea of modern dance to the UK. It was a long time after that that he became the director of the Royal Ballet, but he was somebody who thought differently about choreography from many of the people around the Royal Ballet. So one of the things that they did was that they started a Saturday morning choreographic course at the Upper School of the Royal Ballet School, where you went between 16 and 18. One of the people that they invited to come and work with the students was Kate Flatt. (She now does rather wonderful movement direction work in theatre.) Interestingly enough, she herself had studied at the Royal Ballet School on a teacher’s training course, but at that time she had also gone on from there to be a research assistant with Léonide Massine, who had been one of the choreographers of the Diaghilev period, while Massine was trying to conceive his masterwork of an analysis of choreography – which is a huge thick book, which is almost completely ignored and has disappeared, but it was a kind of bizarre and fantastic attempt by Massine to articulate things about choreography.
DPD: Ballet choreography?
JB: No, in a way he went much beyond ballet; he really was trying to get at something much more fundamental about movement and the composition of movement. And Kate Flatt ended up as a research assistant with him. And she was also part of the group of people who had founded the X6 Dance Space, down at Butler’s Wharf – she was certainly a part of the things that happened around there. In a way, they were the first people who embraced the kind of newer thinking about performance and dance which had grown out of John Cage’s work and then the Judson Church choreographers, and it was a very interesting group of
people. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Kate Flatt was invited to come and work with us on Saturday mornings and she was a really vital link to completely different ways of thinking from the ones I knew, coming as I did from
ballet. So it was through her, really, that I, and many other people, ended up going to see other performances, going down to Riverside Studios, hanging out of Riverside Studios, seeing all sorts of other things. She also worked with some of these ideas from Massine; they were very difficult physical concepts to grasp, the ones that Massine was trying to work with, but they were very interesting. And the thing that was most interesting about them was that they were about a much quieter and more detailed sensibility about how the body moved and how the body fought its way through movement. And Kate Flatt, when she was working with us on these studies of Massine, encouraged us to work without music. This was a revelation, because ballet saw choreography as based on the idea that you took a piece of music and you choreographed something to it. Whereas on those Saturday mornings there was this kind of discovery that there could be this whole world of a music in movement which was separate from music itself.
And then what happened to me was that, when Norman Morrice became the director of the Royal Ballet, he invited me to become an apprentice choreographer with the Royal Ballet. I’ve still got my original contract and that’s what it says: I was an apprentice choreographer. And, in a way, it was a brilliant thing, but I actually remember sitting in the office with Norman Morrice saying, ‘But I don’t really want to join the Royal Ballet'. And what would I do as an apprentice choreographer?’ But somehow he persuaded me that he would help and that we would find what my role could be. When I say I kind of discussed it with him, it sounds like I was being quite smart, but I wasn’t; I was very naïve, really. But in the end I turned up with the Royal Ballet, but it was just too difficult for any of the other members of staff to grasp remotely what my role was supposed to be. They had no clue: ‘Apprentice choreographer: what are we supposed to do with him? He can’t dance, he can’t do ballet.’ I mean, I was a terrible ballet dancer. So if my then wife hadn’t got pregnant with Bridget, my daughter, I probably would have left after a year. But then I couldn’t, because at that time it was too uncertain for an independent dancer, financially – I mean, the world and mechanisms of funding which are in place now, or just about in place still, didn’t exist in the same way.
So I stayed. I spent quite a number of years standing around carrying spears and then I was lucky that Kenneth MacMillan, who was then the choreographer in residence, liked me, so he started feeding me bits and pieces and gradually I ended up being a character dancer of some kind. And I did quite a lot of nice roles in the end. But I did still have hanging over me this thing that I had been supposed to be an apprentice choreographer. So when I first arrived there, they gave me twice a commission to choreograph something for the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (which then became the Birmingham Royal Ballet).(1)
And both were really really difficult experiences for me. I made ballets which were not right for me and were a real struggle. And then I just gave up, I didn’t choreograph anything for two years. So by then I was about 23 or 24 and the first thing I did when I started again was Hymns.
Extract from Perazzo Domm, Daniela. Dancing Poetry: Jonathan Burrows' reconfiguration of choreography. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Surrey, 2007.
The full text of this thesis can be downloaded in PDF format from ethos.bl.uk. Free registration and download.
© Daniela Perazzo Domm 2007Notes
1) Catch, 1980, and The Winter Play, 1983.