Interview on voice, language and body, with Ixiar Rozas
On the interweaving of voice, language and body in dance
IR: Why did you decide to work with the voice from Both Sitting Duet on?
JB: For me there were a number of reasons to open the door to voice, and then language itself, in the performances that Matteo and I have made. The first is that anyway we had begun to vocalise already at the end of Both Sitting Duet. Like all of our decisions this was a pragmatic one to do with how we might keep the thing going - keep the audience interested - and we had run out of arm movements and gestures.
Another reason, perhaps, is that I had always thought when I worked with Jan Ritsema on Weak Dance Strong Questions (2001) that we would use the voice. He is a theatre director, and as a dancer I had always wanted this permission, but it never happened because we stumbled on something else: this act of silent 'being in a state of questioning', which refused actual speech (see attached article by Jan and I from Performance Research 2003). So wanting to speak was an unfinished business.
Finally I would say that the more Matteo and I worked the more we began to trust that the combination of our interest in formal means and approaches to performance that might erode that formality - that these approaches would accept anything so long as it was the right anything. So we started to also speak, sing and play musical instruments. We’d tried before but what helped this time was making a clear contract with the audience that we were two artists from different mediums, but sharing space and time equally. This means the audience would accept more readily that we might do something other than dance.
It's not that any of this is original, many people, of course, have been working in a multi-disciplinary way going back decades, it's just that it's never as easy as clashing things together, you do need to work towards a concept and a context that will accept this juxtaposition of sometimes contrary materials.
IR: I am interested in knowing your methodology and mechanism of creations, where does the work start?
JB: For Matteo and I the work always begins by us asking 'What is the unfinished business?' This means, what is the thing we've always wanted to do but feel we shouldn’t do - the thing that comes up again and again and won’t go away. We try to start there. We prefer to start somewhere already inhabited, rather than try to imagine an unimaginable 'new'.
IR: About the musicality of the body and the voice. How does the musicality affect to the movement?
JB: The thing that has most influenced me from Matteo is the slow understanding that the speed you go affects the movement you might make: the body shapes itself in a negotiation between the time available and the thing done. DJs understand this and alter a dance floor with fractional rises or drops of speed, but contemporary dance, in trying to assert it's own position as an art from separate from music, has tended to concentrate more on the body moving in relationship to gravity.
IR: Did the fact of using the voice change something in the process of creation?
JB: I think of the speaking in terms of an interest in what is written - whether that be on the body, or in the voice, or as sound - so it didn’t feel like a big change to introduce the voice.
IR: Did you find any kind of friction between the body (or movement) and the voice?
JB: Different materials demand different respect in your approach to them, but overall it's just a choice and once I'm working I don’t make a distinction between the work produced by different mediums.
The only thing I would say is that words have a very different affect on the expectation of an audience: they pull the imagination of the audience forwards in a way that holds attention more easily than movement, which has to use other strategies to keep you wanting to know what might happen next.
IR: How would you define the work with the voice within the trilogy?
JB: I probably wouldn't separate the work with the voice from any of the other aspects. I think it's this idea that it's all the same work that has underpinned and allowed Matteo and I to move towards other mediums.
IR: Can we say that the two pieces that complete the trilogy, The Quiet Dance and Speaking Dance, have been created from Both Sitting Duet on?
JB: Matteo and I start a piece at the beginning and work through until the end, in a linear way, so each piece in a sense continues where the last one left off.
IR: What is the relationship among body, voice and language in Speaking dance?
JB: My feeling in retrospect is that Speaking Dance is the music piece that Matteo and I always wanted to make, but didn’t know how to frame as theatre. We called it Speaking Dance because when I began writing the first ten minutes I thought it was about words, but now I see that the job of the words is to mediate between movement and music, and frame the music as more than just a concert. This is an illustration of the way in which what you think is the subject may only be a way to arrive at the subject. In fact it wasn't until the next piece we made, Cheap Lecture (2009), that the words finally took over.
When you work with more than one medium, the important thing is to gauge the relative weight of each element so that nothing drowns out anything else - this is a thought that came to Matteo and I from the composer Kevin Volans, with whom we both studied.
While leading a number of workshops on text with the writer Adrian Heathfield, we discovered that to balance two mediums - say music and movement - it can help to have a third element to mediate between the two. In the case of Speaking Dance this was the words, but in the piece I've just made with the dancer Chrysa Parkinson, Dogheart, it's a series of projected drawings.
IR: Are the words in Speaking Dance trying to express something? Maybe to communicate?
JB: My experience is that if you want too much to express something then the audience may end up only seeing your desire to express. This seems especially true in mediums that tend towards abstraction, like dance or music. When Matteo and I are working on a piece we prefer rather to wait; to set up some parameters for working and then to see what potential communication may emerge or not.
Once we are performing then a whole other set of possibilities and constraints arise in relation to the presence of an audience - and the thing grows from there. To grasp expression too quickly may limit what you can finally express.
IR: Humour is an important element of your performances and I really love it. You achieve it a very “serious” way, while you are performing seriously and in a very precise way. Would you tell me something about the humour in your work?
JB: The tragic in art always holds prime position in people's sense of what is important, and this is understandable. Sometimes I wish I could find that element in what I do, but the truth is I have a fairly optimistic outlook, and that comes across in the work and it opens the door for a lightness that arrives sometimes at humour. Matteo and I rarely try to be funny, but our most common response to anything we like is laughter, and this is reflected in what we make and how we perform. It's a difficult balance not to go over the top and become slapstick. It happens sometimes and then we have to recalculate and find another way into the performance, something that sustains a greater sense of its underlying seriousness.
We see our performances as conversations with the audience, because the audience tell us how far in any given direction we can go, they give us permission through how they sit with us, and through their response. Ordinary conversations are premised upon a constant exchange of reassuring physical, facial and vocal gesture, so leaving these out of a performance kills the conversation.
IR: What is the relationship you aim to create with the public in your performances?
JB: I think perhaps this question is more or less answered above. I might only add that we have learned that one can never be certain of the response a piece will get, but that this uncertainty is what sustains the performances.
IR: Dance has exhausted its relation with movement. In your work I find a kind of double mechanism of “deconstruction”. On the one hand, you break with the formality of movement in “classical” dance. From the other hand, you undone the voice. What do you think about this?
JB: I think it's perhaps too soon to say whether choreography has finished with movement as its primary material. It's hard to work out exactly what has happened, but it may be something to do with the proliferation of physical techniques and approaches overwhelming everyone, taking away the sense of something still to be discovered. Also the continued domination of post-modern thinking, because it values reference and dance is on the whole only good at referring to itself, and so is limited in this respect.
IR: Does this undoing deconstruction, this undoing, create another quality in your performances?
JB: It's hard for me to separate my own personal journey, in which I had to deconstruct strict ballet training in order to move forwards, from the kind of thinking about deconstruction that has surrounded me in the wider culture. The way I've orientated myself within this has been rather to see everything as construction - the taking apart of something being just another way to arrive at something else.
IR: Do you think this way of working with the voice provokes more volume in the body and in the words?
JB: I think allowing words in has taken away the imperative to try and move in an original way, and so paradoxically opened up new possibilities.
IR: Do you think there is a kind of separation of the self through this use of the voice? A kind of undoing the self?
JB: I like that different text materials seem to provoke and require different voices, but this is something that I have experienced also in movement. I deeply question the pursuit of the authentic which plagues dance, and by which I am myself plagued, but I see also that sometimes to be most yourself onstage you must distract yourself, and that this demand the material makes towards its own voice can help in this respect.
IR: Can we talk about a tactile quality in your performances?
JB: We've worked a lot with our hands and this inevitably induces a kind of tactile response in an audience.
I never know how to work with actual physical contact, but when I work with the kind of deep and rapid counterpoint that Matteo and I enjoy, then I do experience sometimes a different level of intimate communication.
IR: About Cheap Lecture, your recent performance. Unfortunately, I have not seen it. Is it a continuation of the trilogy? If not, what does it change?
JB: Cheap Lecture is in some ways a reflection on the preceding pieces, but it also shares in common all the elements which underpin the other work, including translation (this time of John Cage's Lecture On Nothing), relation, rhythm, structure and performance principles. The difference in Cheap Lecture is that by accident we found what we had been waiting and looking for, which is a different relationship between each other than this transparent, friendly relationship of the trilogy. In Cheap Lecture it's mainly Matteo who speaks, and my relationship to him is more or less entirely through the 139 slide projections which I have to coordinate precisely to his words. I like this passing of communication through another medium before it arrives at the other person; it's liberating after the 'on your skin' ethos of the previous pieces, and it lets the audience in in a different way.
© Jonathan Burrows and Ixiar Rozas, 2010