Interview on The Quiet Dance with Daniela Perazzo Domm
The Sitting Duo Now Walks
The Piece That Lies Quietly Underneath

Daniela Perazzo Domm interviews Jonathan Burrows

Since the late 1980s, Jonathan Burrows has created dance that challenges conventional boundaries of genres and techniques, researching towards the reformulation of a movement vocabulary and the reconfiguration of the dancing body. Starting his career as a dancer with the Royal Ballet, he then developed his own work as an independent choreographer. Depicted by many critics as an idiosyncratic figure within British dance, Burrows is the author of pieces that have been seen as progressively moving towards a minimalist form of abstraction. Among their main features are the incorporation of pedestrian gestures alongside different styles and qualities of movement, the close attention to the structure of the dance and its relationship with the other elements of a performance, and a questioning attitude towards the place, boundaries and function of dance.

His recent piece, Both Sitting Duet (2002), devised and performed with Matteo Fargion, transformed Burrows’ long-standing collaboration with the Italian composer into an equal partnership, where both artists take to the stage and sit side by side to perform a movement composition based on a musical score. Three years later, the dancer and the musician are now presenting their latest work, a duet entitled The Quiet Dance. After its premiere in Munich this summer, the piece will be performed in London as part of Dance Umbrella 2005.

Daniela Perazzo: You have often said that your works are all different from each other – they are conceived in different ways, they explore different issues and concepts, they develop differently. What’s the starting point of The Quiet Dance and how have you been working on it?

Jonathan Burrows: The first thing about making a piece is that you need somewhere to begin. And if you are collaborating you need to find somewhere to begin that you and your collaborator agree upon, an itch that both feel a desperate need to scratch. In the case of this duet with Matteo Fargion, we had always had a longing to make a piece which used walking. This always seemed impossible to do because that piece belongs to minimalism. But this time we talked about it a lot, we agonised about it and we decided that it was time that we had to risk that. Partly because we wanted to make another performance together where we both moved, and walking is something that Matteo, as an untrained dancer, has; it’s his as much as it’s mine. Having said that, the odd thing is – we are now in the last two weeks of working on the performance and I got up very early this morning, I looked at the tape we have been recording in rehearsals and suddenly I was very struck by the fact that, in a way, it’s not that you see walking. It’s become something entirely of its own.
The general perception about people who make performances, or make any art, is often that we ‘choose’ an idea and then we ‘make’ that idea. But the reality is that, actually, you have very little choice, you are going to make the thing you are going to make. This was something that Rosemary Butcher taught me a long time ago. You may find one way or another to make it, but basically that’s the piece that you have in you and the job that you have is to uncover that, or discover it. And once you begin to uncover it or discover it, you have to follow what it wants. In some ways, I think of this performance now as being an attempt to make the piece that lies just underneath all the other pieces we have ever made. And that’s why we called it The Quiet Dance. But what also makes it slightly different from other pieces that I’ve tried to make is that normally I had the philosophy that the best way to make a dance is to accept that the movement that you make is in some way arbitrary, that anything is available to you, that everything is valid, and that it’s how you place it in relation to itself and in relation to what other people are doing at the same time, and how you place it in time and space that can completely shift its meaning and arrive at an unexpected and much bigger meaning than the original movement could possibly ever have suggested. But with this piece I decided, and I kind of persuaded Matteo, ‘That’s enough with the arbitrary. Let’s choose material that means something to us’.

DP: How did you get there? I understand that the creation of this piece has been a long process, which you and Matteo started whilst you were still engaged in the tour of Both Sitting Duet.

JB: Both Sitting Duet has been touring now for three years, which was completely unexpected – we had no idea when we made it that it would be invited so much around the world. But during the time that we have been touring it, Matteo and I also decided that we would go on researching towards making another piece together. We knew this was a risk because Both Sitting Duet was so successful, but at the same time we felt that we had begun to collaborate in a way which had a clarity and an energy that we should try and build on while it was still alive. In other words, if we stopped and didn’t work together for a year or two years and then came back together, the ease with which we were communicating on the things which really concerned us would be gone. So over the past two years or so we’ve researched in different directions to try and find some way of going forward.

DP: What would you say the crucial moments of this process have been?

JB: It’s taken time and some wrong turnings to discover a way that felt right, until, in the end, we asked ourselves, ‘What is the piece that we really always wanted to make and never dared to make?’. And this piece, as I said, is the piece where we only walk. The way that we’ve approached this is to concentrate on images. In other words, not on pattern, rhythm and structure, but on very strong images, which is something I never do. I mean, there is pattern, structure and rhythm in the work, but there’s also an emphasis on the images that you see and on their impact.

DP: What do you mean by ‘concentrating on images’?

JB: I’m not entirely sure and I probably won’t know what that means until we perform it. But what I do know is that in my recent works – Weak Dance Strong Questions (2001) with theatre director Jan Ritsema and Both Sitting Duet with Matteo – the movement was arrived at from quite ‘mental’ processes. In both cases there’s another layer to the work, which comes from ideas about performance and about the relationship between the people on stage and with the audience. And this other layer, in a way, becomes the subject of the piece. Whereas with what we are doing now, I think in some sense we are daring to allow an emotional process to take place, equal to the mental process. So that’s quite ‘old-fashioned’, but that’s why it interests me.

DP: What are the images you use related to?

JB: I think the best way to put it is that for us, in some way, they are ‘elegiac’. Now, for anyone that comes to see the performance, I don’t think it looks like an elegy. It looks like what it is and it has some quite specific and odd quality, which I hope can speak to other people too. But the heart of that for us was trying to find these images that had something elegiac about them.

DP: Are they all very personal images?

JB: No, not really, because I think we have been trying – although the piece has a certain intimacy, as all the pieces that I make have – that it shouldn’t exclude other people. So something that’s too personal doesn’t open a door for an audience to come in. I suppose I would say that we were trying to look at something personal enough that it would still have a door open for somebody else watching from the outside.
I feel in a terrible disadvantage doing this interview right now because in these last two weeks of finishing the performance – and in this very moment we are trying to find the ending – almost every day I’m looking at it I see it completely differently. Some days I think I’ve caught a glimpse of what the audience would see and other days I think again I’ve caught a glimpse, but it’s completely different. And some days, of course, I worry that the audience won’t see anything at all. I feel I’m somewhere between uncertainty and certainty and I have to bide my time. And it takes infinite patience to endure the last moments of arriving at a finished performance.

DP: How did you work on the choreography? You have described the construction of the movement sequences of Both Sitting Duet as guided by very clear ‘instructions’. For The Quiet Dance the starting point was the action of walking. How did you proceed from there?

JB: It was more than that. It started from a very specific image, and it’s the first image you see. I won’t describe it because I think it should be fresh as the person comes into the theatre. But we started from one image and then we went on and made the next image that related to that one, and then the next and then the next. And then, at a certain point, when we had enough of something to get a glimpse of what we were dealing with, we began to find the ‘music’ of it. At a very practical level, the big difference between this piece and other pieces that I’ve made and that Matteo and I have made is that we have always been very preoccupied with counterpoint, meaning the relationship between one thing happening and another thing happening at the same time. But with this work we decided that we would do something slightly different. There is some direct and obvious counterpoint in it, but mainly, rather than being ‘horizontal’ counterpoint between two things happening simultaneously, there’s a kind of ‘vertical’ counterpoint throughout the piece. This seems to be about how one thing relates to the thing that came before it and to the thing that comes after it, and then when it comes back later and how that relates to what surrounds it there as well. And that’s been really fascinating for me, I have never worked that way before. Every step you take affects everything in the entire piece.
DP: Does it mean you can see some sort of linear development? Your previous works appear to be based on principles that deny linearity.

JB: To me, when I watch what we are making, it’s a piece that is moving forward all the time and remaining where it is. If you like, that’s a kind of viewpoint of life – endless change that arrives back at where it began. There’s very little movement material in the work. I’ve never been involved in a performance with so little material. And yet actually it seems to me quite rich – which is interesting.
The funny thing is that every time I set out to make a new piece, I try to find a completely different starting point. That’s not really a kind of artistic or aesthetic choice. It’s just that I’ve learnt that if I try and do the same thing again, I just do it less well and I get rather inattentive and bored. And so, in order to keep on working, I’ve found this way of trying always to refresh my view of what I’m doing. Having said that, on another level, when I look at it – we recently made a DVD of ten years of films of the work made by filmmaker Adam Roberts – at some level it’s clear that I’m just always making the same piece. But it’s the same piece seen from a different angle. And I like that.

DP: Have you had any surprises, any unexpected outcomes during the process of creation of the piece so far?

JB: The surprise about this piece for me has been how working with this kind of linear counterpoint is so different from anything that I have experienced before and so tricky, and so frustrating at times, and so satisfying also, as you gradually shift things and see the work unfold and arrive at itself.

DP: What has Matteo’s role been in the creative process, especially in relation to the notion of counterpoint and to the construction of the movement sequences?

JB: With this piece, our respective roles as collaborators have been quite different from Both Sitting Duet, and Matteo for periods of time – I think he wouldn’t mind me saying this – has struggled to find what his role is, because, when it came to the movement for the piece, it’s tended to be me who’s been driving that. But there’ve been two moments in the making of the piece when suddenly the reins have been handed over completely to Matteo. And then, within the period of a week, in both instances he’s suddenly stripped things away, shaped them, extended and contracted them, the way a photographer focuses a camera. And that work he does much better than me.

DP: Has this to do with the rhythm of the piece?

JB: In some sense it’s to do with the rhythm, but it’s also to do with the fact that Matteo has more of a head for the heights of taking your time, breathing a bit slower, giving the material space and cutting holes in it. I get rather a kind of vertigo of terror that the piece would fall apart if we were to stop for a moment. And in a way that’s why the partnership works, because I’m driving and pushing and he’s calming, shaping and counselling against too much haste. And, somewhere between the two, we arrive at what we wanted, which was to use walking, to do very little and it mustn’t ever be boring.

DP: This makes me think of those sequences in Both Sitting Duet where in the time it has taken Matteo to calmly execute one movement, you have frantically repeated the same pattern many more times!

JB: Yes, because under the skin I’m still a ballet man! That’s where I came from. And I have within me still that kind of visceral experience of performing all those ballets which are about giving, giving, giving to the audience in a marvellous way. And of course I also react against that, not least because I did it for thirteen years, so I earned the right to find other ways. I like the tension created between Matteo pulling and me pushing. It stops the collaboration being too nice, and when collaborations are too nice nothing happens. That doesn’t mean to say that we are horrible to each other, but we each fight hard for the direction that we see emerging.

DP: What other elements are involved in the work? You have talked about the images you started from, the idea of walking, time and space. What about the soundscape? Is there any music?

JB: Music has come in and out of the piece as we have gone along – sometimes it’s felt like it was the right thing and other times not. But we make sound and use our voices throughout the performance, so it’s not silent by any means, even though it’s called The Quiet Dance. In a way for me this title reflects something else, which is rather a celebration of that thing which unfolds more slowly and in its own terms, which is a kind of work that I have always, deep in my heart, been most drawn to. So Samuel Beckett, Tadeusz Kantor, the early Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Lucinda Childs, Rosemary Butcher, Nijinska’s Les Noces, the dignity and oddity of the few handful of surviving English ritual folk dances, particularly the Whit Monday dancing at Bampton in Oxfordshire – these are the reference points for me. They are examples of a kind of work that invites you to come in and look carefully and quietly at small differences, rather than the kind of work that comes out from the stage and pushes you back into your seat. I’m not against that kind of work for a minute; as a student I was obsessed by A Chorus Line and went to see it seven times. But what has always excited me the most is that experience of being in a theatre and feeling at one with a very special moment of communication that draws me right out of my seat and down to something that’s a pin-prick.

DP: In some of your earlier works, around the mid-1990s, you showed a particular interest in how dance and music can interact with light. Does this element play a role in this new piece?

JB: That was when I was working with the marvellous lighting designer Michael Hulls and we began to find a way to work which really satisfied me, where Michael’s intervention didn’t have a cause-and-effect relationship with what was happening on stage. It wasn’t about ‘this person goes there and then that light comes on’, it wasn’t illustrating anything. He was working with time, space and rhythm in the same way that I was, and that Matteo Fargion and Kevin Volans were with music. And that’s something that somehow I’ve let slip out of my hands at the moment. That’s partly for practical reasons, because to deal with that kind of technology costs a bit more money – we had to take a technician with us, we often toured our own dance floor because we needed a very clean one, so we had to take a van, and then the whole thing becomes more expensive. In the last five years, I have been surviving quite a difficult economic climate by performing ‘out of a suitcase’, and it’s been a very conscious decision. That means, don’t travel with a technician and all the technical information has to be very simple and very clear. On an aesthetic level, it was also about needing a different way forward in terms of the feel of a performance. I was influenced by the extraordinary generation of French choreographers, and especially by Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roy, and by the way that they changed everything suddenly in dance by making performances where everything was consequent and nothing could be justified by calling it poetry, which can often end up in dance as a kind of ‘empty poetics’. They are doing this by working with an incredible rigour and clarity of thinking about the thing that’s happening on stage, and this really challenged me at a certain point. So that has led me in the last few performances that I’ve made to want to really have a clear sense of what’s the relationship of a light to what’s happening in the dance. In other words, beside the practical considerations about not to be working with light, I think the other reason why I shifted away from that collaboration with a lighting designer is that I had just turned a corner and I was looking for something different, a different kind of idea of what a dance performance could be. But I really like that you asked the question because it does feel like unfinished business and something which I would be very interested to look at again in relation to what I’ve discovered now. But in this piece, the light, although it has some shape and time to it, is fairly simple, because it’s another ‘out-of-a-suitcase’ piece – perhaps the last one, after which there will be something new.

DP: What are your plans for The Quiet Dance after it opens in Munich in August?

JB: The way that I like to work, which I’ve learnt through years of trial and error, trying to figure out how best to work the market, is that now I don’t plan a tour. Rather we are starting out with a small number of performances, in Munich, in Brussels and then in London. Usually what happens then is that a number of other promoters will come to those performances; if they are interested in the piece they’ll book it, if they are not they won’t. And you never know. If they book it, then that might mean another small handful of performances, and then some more promoters will come to see it, so it’s kind of growing ripples of interest in the work. The advantage of that for me is that it’s a quite different and richer experience to go to a venue where somebody has really desired that piece and has really made a sort of personal investment in it – and knows why it’s there, knows how to speak to the people that work in the theatre, knows how to communicate to the audience, knows the right context to put it into – than when you plan a tour of something that nobody has really ever seen, except you’ve written a lot of overconfident stuff about it, and you can often end up in quite inappropriate contexts, with an audience that doesn’t have the right situation or information as to how to sit with the performance that they’re seeing. It’s always a much more organic process for me. And if it doesn’t work, then you start again!

Daniela Perazzo wrote her PhD in Dance Studies at the University of Surrey. Her research looked at semantic strategies and the reconfiguration of the dancing body in the work of Jonathan Burrows. She is a freelance writer and editor on dance and performing arts.

© Daniella Perazzo Domm, 2005