Interview with Natasha Hassiotis
Interview with Natasha Hassiotis for the Greek newspaper To Vima, 2008
Natasha Hassiotis: How has your style evolved over the years?
Jonathan Burrows: I studied for a while with the composer Kevin Volans. He was helping me with ways to think about composition, and we looked at both music and dance as sources for the study. One of the things he said to me, and that stuck in my mind, was that it was best, perhaps, not to think too much about style. This doesn't mean that there isn’t such a thing as style, but that style is what happens when you're not looking. Style is usually a happy accident of working, visible to other people - but if you go looking for it you usually get nothing.
NH: Why did you give up your position as a dancer at the Royal Ballet?
JB: Well, I'd been a dancer with the Royal Ballet for thirteen years, so I'd had a long experience of that kind of dance work. I wanted to do something different. I'd always had connections with contemporary dance, in fact I'd been performing for many years already with the experimental choreographer Rosemary Butcher. But also I'd made a piece called Stoics - it had been invited to be performed in a few places in Europe, and the Royal Ballet wouldn't give us leave to go - so it was either stay and give up this chance or leave and try to find a new pathway for myself.
NH: How would you characterize your overall style?
JB: Someone else would answer that question better than me. What I want to think happens may not be what somebody else sees.
NH: What are you researching in dance?
JB: Right now I've been interested in looking at how to combine my love of formal things with my interest in finding new approaches to performing, and to the relationship with the audience.
NH: How far can you stretch the term dance.
JB: I work with movement a lot of the time, and that feels like dancing. At the same time I agree with the choreographer Jerome Bel, who says that choreography is not necessarily the same thing as dancing. Choreography is about manipulating events in time and space. It's one of the greatest qualities of dance as an art form that it's so willing to explore what this might mean, both in terms of dancing, but also in a wider sense. It keeps the form very experimental in a marvellous way.
NH: What would you consider as your basic influences.
JB: There are so many, but I would single out the following things as being very important to me: the study I did with Kevin Volans; my work with the composer Matteo Fargion; the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage; the generation of the Judson Church pioneers who came to London in the late 70s; the whole conceptual movement in dance of recent years, and the way in which it has thrown out a challenge about how a dance might be read and how it could relate to its audience and the larger world; the dour, matter of fact, quality of performances by the Bampton Morris Men - a dance that takes place once a year on Whit Monday in a village near Oxford; my love of reggae and particularly the great UK dub dj and producer Jah Shaka; and poetry, which I read a lot of.
NH: How do you deal with meaning and abstraction when you choreograph.
JB: I understand why some dance gets called abstract, but I've never had such an issue about it really. I've cried in a Merce Cunningham performance. I make things that could be called abstract on one level, and at the same time I'm never abstract when I perform them. I think the presence of the performer is everything, and can establish a very human interaction with the audience in even the most formal of contexts.
NH: Where do you stand I relation to the tradition of contemporary dance in Britain.
JB: I grew up with the contemporary dance scene in Britain, and performed with Rosemary Butcher on and off from 1986 to 1999, so it is a part of me. At the same time I work elsewhere more often than I work in Britain, so I deal with a slightly different context for myself now than just that scene.
NH: What is the piece that you will present in Kalamata?
JB: Matteo Fargion and I will present Both Sitting Duet, the first part of a trilogy of duets we have made and perform together. Both Sitting Duet was made in 2002, and was followed in 2005 and 2006 by The Quiet Dance and Speaking Dance. We have given over 170 performances of these pieces now, in 23 countries. Both Sitting Duet is a 45 minute long silent piece in which we translate a piece of music by the American composer Morton Feldman from notes into gestures. People often say that they 'hear' music despite the silence, so by accident the performance deals somehow with a sensory confusion. It can also be funny in parts, but this depends on our mood and the mood of the audience. We have a few principles for performing which open up the formality. The first is 'How the audience is sitting is how we sit', which means that if you're relaxed we relax, and if you want to sit tight and concentrate then that's what we will do too. The other big principles are 'How we feel is how we behave', which means we laugh if it's funny and allow ourselves to be self-conscious if that's how we feel, and finally 'There are no mistakes'.
NH: Do you like to shock or surprise or provoke your audiences?
JB: No, I hate being in front of a performer who thinks I need to be shocked or provoked. I'd rather have a conversation.
NH: What is your starting point for a choreography?
JB: Matteo and I tend to start with what we call 'unfinished business'. This means the things we’ve always wanted to do that we think we shouldn't do, but which won't go away - eventually we give in and do them. We then try to find a principle to tell us how to begin. Our principle for Both Sitting Duet was 'Counterpoint assumes a love between the parts'. This principle led us to find ways to share time that allowed us to be completely in the moment, and at the same time give it all up to the other person. And in the end the duets are about the fact that Matteo and I have been friends for many years; this is the subject that comes up most obviously amidst all the counting and arm waving. And this subject was hidden there in the first principle - that this sharing of time is an act of love.
NH: How would you consider the ideal relationship between dance and financing?
JB: Matteo and I have struggled to fit into the political agendas that control arts funding in the UK. We travel a lot abroad to show our work, but we get no funding from the UK for infrastructure. We've solved this by having no office and administrating the touring ourselves, and rehearsing meanwhile in Matteo's kitchen. So I've stopped thinking about the ideal situation. I try to focus instead on ways to keep going anyway.
NH: Your plans for the future.
JB: I never know what I'm going to do next. Right now I haven't started work on anything new since the last duet with Matteo, but I will when the right time comes and I feel driven enough towards something.
© Jonathan Burrows and Natasha Hassiotis, 2008