Interview on Speaking Dance
with Daniela Perazzo Domm
Jonathan Burrows: For sure a starting point was the idea that, if when people watch Both Sitting Duet they often comment that they could hear music even though there was no music, then the question was, ‘Is there music where you see dance even though there’s no dance?’ And that was okay as a starting point, but in a way it was too prescriptive, it was too much of a dead end. And once we started to work, it seemed absolutely necessary to let the piece go where it wanted to go and not try and hold it down to some kind of agenda like that. Because, after all, Both Sitting Duet didn’t have an agenda like that; those ideas about hearing music came from the audience, not from us; it’s not that we tried to make a piece like that because it would never have worked. But I did have a thought, which I said in the talk on the night of the premiere at The Place: some time in the last week of making the piece, when we had really found the last few materials, I got a sense of the piece which was clearer to me than it had been before. It was something like this: if it’s about presence and absence, for me it’s not about the presence and absence of music or the presence and absence of dance, but, in some way, it’s about the presence or absence of meaning. Performing the piece now feels like we are chasing meaning but then constantly undermining it from another direction, or from another form; so if we are making music, then it’s undermined by the dance, or the dance is undermined by the words. As we chase meaning, the piece becomes breathless, and the breathlessness arrives at a kind of ecstatic state. That’s what it feels like to do it.
Daniela Perazzo Domm: But then there’s another meaning that comes out of this act of undermining the meaning that you are chasing. And it seems that the audience felt it in a strong way, otherwise they wouldn’t have responded the way they did.
JB: The interesting thing is that the first ten minutes, which is when we begin speaking, and before the piece explodes, are what we worked on the longest. It started with me sitting down in the mornings, without Matteo and without having discussed it with Matteo, and thinking, 'If there was a language that we could use (and I was thinking that Matteo might set it to music, it might be a lyric in a way) what might that language sound like?’ So I gave myself very open parameters and as much a possibility as I could to fail, so that I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I thought that I would just try this thing; and I kept going for maybe a month. It was at that time that Matteo played me the music that he was writing for a piece by Siobhan Davies [In Plain Clothes, 2006], where he had made this kind of rather bad translations into English of Italian folk songs, and was speaking them in places. It was immediately clear that he was in effect doing the same thing: his relationship to the language that he was finding was very similar to what I was doing. So I was convinced that it was something that we had to do, because we hadn’t discussed it at all and it was coming out in what he was doing. The next day I showed him what I was doing – this kind of initial attempt at what then became the beginning of the piece – and he more or less encouraged me to keep going. Later I received some research and development money from the Arts Council, which enabled me to do that. I worked on that for really quite a long time, until I got to a point where I couldn’t get any further. So I handed it over to Matteo and I said to him, ‘Do with this what you would do if this was raw material for you as a composer.’ What he did was that he toughened it, he gave it a little bit of distance and a more genuine relationship in time and between the two of us, between the two voices. After that, in a way, we ground to a halt, because it became necessary that we took a decision about whether we should go forward with this and the whole thing would be like that…
DPD: Yes, that’s another element that plays with expectations, because after Both Sitting Duet and The Quiet Dance the audience expected the piece to go on in the same way until the end. Maybe the first time that people saw Both Sitting Duet they felt the opposite, that is, they expected it to change at some point; but now that they have seen how you built those first two works of the trilogy, it’s the other way around: they expected it to stay the same!
JB: That’s right! What we felt was that if it had been going forward easily we would have done so, but it didn’t seem to be; we seemed to have exhausted that initial impulse. And, after all, words are not our field, and we felt that this was really a risky thing that we were doing. So at that point we had a kind of existential crisis, which coincided with us not getting the Arts Council funding, and I said to Matteo, ‘I think we should just pull it, I think we shouldn’t do it, because I don’t think we know enough what we are doing and we haven’t got any money, and the Dance Umbrella brochure goes to print next week and we can stop it, we can regroup and try again next year.’ But then Nigel Hinds, our manager, said, ‘The first thing that you have to do is to separate the feeling of depression about the fact that you didn’t get the money from the creative crisis.’ So then – I’m not sure what order it was, but we also then did a read through of what we had been working on for Nigel. Now, interestingly enough, the one feature of it which we thought was terribly important was that we stood very far apart; we thought this would be theatrically very interesting, but idiotically we never actually tried it. So when we did it, the first thing that Nigel said was, ‘It’s not actually theatrically interesting at all that you stand far apart, it just makes you invisible and it makes me feel that I could be hearing this on the radio.’ But he also said, ‘I had a feeling this was what you were going to do, I recognise it in some way, but it’s not quite there’, and there were bits of it at that point which really went off at such a tangent that he felt confused. But this gave us enough confidence to go on.
But then Matteo and I agreed that we really didn’t have the stamina or the patience to make a third piece which held to one thing, as Both Sitting Duet and The Quiet Dance do, and also it didn’t seem very healthy: it had to be something that when we got up in the morning we felt, ‘Great! I can’t wait to see what we’ll do today.’ It needed some quality like that. So I said to Matteo, ‘We always work with the idea of “unfinished business”’, which means: what’s the idea that keeps coming back and then we doubt it and we think that we can’t do that, so we put it aside, but then it comes back again? Which, of course, the idea of speaking had been. But, I said, ‘There must be more.’ So then we thought, ‘What if we allowed ourselves much more freedom to have ideas and work on them, and make a lot of material, in music, in dance, in words and all the combinations, and just work fast and not question too much what we are doing and accumulate a lot of material?’ Matteo was very doubting because this is not how he works; he wanted a raison d’être to begin with, he wanted a principle; but I said, ‘I don’t think we have a choice. We have to let ourselves work and, at this point, we have to trust ourselves to some extent.’ So we started to work that way and we did begin to find material; one of the qualities of the material was that there were a lot of things that resurfaced which we had thrown out in previous pieces, even as far back as the early ones. They were often ideas which couldn’t sustain being carried on with for long, so then we didn’t know what to do with them and we threw them out. But it is really interesting how those things come back and, of course, once we gave ourselves the principle that we didn’t have to have a reason to do something and it didn’t have to keep going – that is, when we had done what we could with it, we could stop – then all these things started to come.
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 2007