The Musical Body, Guy Cools
with Jonathan Burrows
and Matteo Fargion
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 2008
The Musical Body
A talk led by Guy Cools with Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, Sadler's Wells Theatre, 15th December 2008
‘Rhythm can restore our sense of embodiment.’
Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, Vintagebooks, 2008, p. 382
Guy Cools: Thank you Emma and thank you Jonathan and Matteo for joining us and also in Jonathan’s case coming specially from Brussels, where he is now based.
It’s the last of four talks and I’m very pleased that it’s with both of you, because you were my introduction to British dance when I started as a very young presenter in the early 90s, and being very generous artists you also introduced me to Rosemary (Butcher)at one point, and also to Akram (Khan), so it feels like a nice full circle.
We’ve been discussing this just a moment ago - it was also something that came up in the previous talks - that in any other art form people tend to look at a body of work as a whole journey, whereas in the performing arts, because of the temporality of it, we always look at the last piece or just one piece and…people were appreciating in the previous talks that the conversation was not connected to one particular piece, but that we were going through the whole body of work. And personally I’ve been enjoying preparing for each talk, looking at all the old work and re-reading things that had been written about it, and that I had written about it myself.
The two of you have worked together for almost 20 years now, a relationship that has changed and become more and more intimate. You also recently revisited The Stop Quartet, which is like an iconic piece half way through that journey. You were mentioning earlier that it does feel, looking at some of your older work, that there are elements that are still very valuable for you, for yourselves and for your journey together.
Jonathan Burrows: The thing about the temporality of dance; of course it’s a fantastic quality and it’s very liberating because it means that to a large degree, as dance artists, we are not surrounded by the constant presence of the history of the art form. I mean there are many ways to record it, on film or video or computer, but they don’t really…they are a representation of the performance, they are not the performance itself. So it seems to me that this is something that has allowed dance to go on reinventing itself with each new generation, so that ideas recycle but by the time they have recycled they seem to have already shifted. I think that’s why dance remains one of the most experimental of art forms.
On the other hand I think every artist inevitably has a longing that at a certain point they might look and say, 'Well, I did that and that and that'. I have a terrible envy of poets for instance who, you know, could say, 'Well, here are four or five volumes of poetry which exist, as tangible objects'. But poets rewrite also. Wordsworth was notorious for constantly trying to revise his earlier work, so that with The Prelude, which is the poem about his childhood in the Lake District and his travels to France - when you buy a copy of the Penguin edition there are two parallel versions, because the final version was so different to the first version. And choreographers don’t have that problem, because we can revise our performance every night if we want to.
Matteo Fargion: People say it’s different every time anyway, even if we don’t change anything.
JB: Yes, there was a lady in - where were we? - in Berlin who…we performed Both Sitting Duet last Friday night in Berlin, and it was a lady who has written about Both Sitting Duet so she had really watched it a lot. 'Oh', she said, 'I have analysed this performance, and you didn’t do the same piece tonight.'
MF: She seemed quite cross!
JB: And actually we had done exactly the same piece.
GC: Somehow it’s related also to me bringing in Oliver Sachs. It seems to be this very strong thing about memory: our memory immediately changing reality. At university where I graduated, one of the brilliant teachers there wanted to research the memory of audiences after performances, so they set up an experiment where they made a show specifically for the test, and they were going to interview audiences. His original idea was 'I’ll interview them immediately afterwards and I’ll do it again six months later and then again a year later, then we will see how the memory gets less and less' or whatever. That was his hypothesis, a kind of scientific approach; but the first questions immediately after the performance showed that people already remembered things completely different than what they had just seen, and then when they were confronted with the video material of the actual performance they said the video had been manipulated, because they trusted their memory more.
And for me that’s what has been so fascinating about you, that there seem to be underlying themes that you have been researching very rigidly, over and over and over again in different forms. And the fascination from the very first moment – and I think also for audiences – is this kind of very deep researching.
JB: I was going to say about audience memory, that there’s a fantastic book called Rites of Spring which is a discussion of the ideas of Le Sacre Du Printemps and what the piece meant, but also what the very strong reactions to the piece were when it was first shown; what it meant in parallel with the awful violence of the 1st World War. I don’t remember the man who wrote it but he tracked down all the people who claimed to have been at the first performance, where there was this famous reaction from the audience, and he showed that it was actually impossible for a number of them to have been there. There was strong evidence that some of these people were actually somewhere else that night, and in that fact what they had seen was a later performance of Le Sacre Du Printemps, but they had genuinely come to believe that they'd been at the iconic performance. But yes, there is no doubt that the perception of an audience changes. It's a thing that is as much alive as the piece itself in performance.
GC: Do you have memory of the original desire to collaborate, the original kind of subjects that you wanted to explore together?
MF: My memory is that we met through a mutual friend, who was a composer. He took me along to see Hymns, and well, apart from finding it very funny I could see already an interest in structure, musical structure, which I liked. In fact I think I said to Jonathan straight away that I liked it because I found it very abstract, which I was surprised at, because it was very personal material in a way; but somehow the way it was presented seemed to be very abstract. So that was that and I remember then playing some music to Jonathan when he came for dinner, after having charmed him with food. It was a short piece that I’d written called Five Frugal Pieces, which was very kind of reduced and for me, quite similar to Hymns in the way that the structure and very personal material co-existed.
JB: Do you remember the piece?
MF: I remember that you really liked it and then commissioned me to write the first piece we did.
JB: What I know is that during the Mozart Bicentennial I came out of the closet and realised that I don’t like Mozart yet (and my fear is that when I'm 75 or 80 I’m suddenly going to get it and there’s not going to be enough time to listen to it all). But the person that I do love is Haydn, and in Matteo’s household I’ve never been allowed to listen to him. And then finally, because I bullied him into listening to Haydn's The Four Seasons, Matteo said, 'But you just like very flat music' - because I like Haydn, reggae music, English folk music, hymn tunes and so forth - but the awful truth is it’s partly what attracts me to the music that Matteo writes.
MF: No comment.
GC: You just re-lived The Stop Quartet, was this also an exercise of revising, like you mentioned that Wordsworth revised, or did you want to…?
JB: There were a few reasons why I wanted to re-do it. I had always thought that I should do it again while there was a chance that physically I could still manage it. And even then I wasn’t going to be in it, but Henry Montes bullied me into doing it because he said, 'I won’t do it unless you do it', and I said 'I’m too old and very stiff, and it will hurt'. But I trusted him and actually it didn’t hurt, and it was a fantastic piece of research for me to re-investigate a previously occupied body, as it were. But the reason I wanted to do it again was because from time to time there have been a number of people who have lamented the fact that with The Stop Quartet what people saw was this dance piece - and it is more of a dance piece than what Matteo and I do - they seemed to lament the fact that I had moved in a different direction towards this work with Matteo, and I wanted to show, to myself and to them, that actually The Stop Quartet is the same work.
And it was very interesting for me performing it, because when I walked on stage, and when I came off stage at the end, I felt exactly like Matteo and I had been performing any of the three duets that we’ve made. The inner life of it felt the same, the rhythmic relationship between performers felt the same and the play in it felt the same. But now having done it I’m in two minds whether I should have done it or not. I don’t know, I think sometimes you just have to trust your intuition and do things anyway, and find out whether it was a good thing or not afterwards.
I’m not sure that you can always control the trajectory of the work that you go forwards with. I found a fantastic quote by Francis Crick the other day, who along with James Watson discovered the double helix form of DNA, for which they won the Noble Prize for Medicine in 1962. Francis Crick said, 'It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold'. And I thought this is such a joyous description of the actual process of an artist working, because it’s very easy to reframe your work with greater clarity after the event. I’m an obsessive reader of interviews with artists and I always come away thinking, 'But they knew what they were doing, and I don’t know what I’m doing'. But I suspect that actually none of us knows what we’re doing and we do just blunder about, and the only thing is to have the image of the gold that you are looking for, somewhere out there.
GC: How was The Stop Quartet for you Matteo, because you worked with Kevin Volans to compose the music?
MF: How was it to re-see it? I recognised a lot of the material and that was quite interesting, I mean from the pieces we have made since, and I was…
JB: That sounds a bit embarrassing.
MF: And if not the material then the kind of tricks I guess; tricks of the trade. I was able to see the choreography in a very different way now. When I was watching it as a composer I had no idea how it was made and I couldn’t imagine the complexity of it. Now I just thought yeah, I know that, I know how to do all that, so that was interesting and it didn’t seem like a museum piece. But I agree with Jonathan that the relationship between it and say Both Sitting Duet is very close, or with The Quiet Dance.
JB: I’ve been trying to write a book for choreographers, because I realised that there isn’t a book which reflects the way people are working now, and the multiplicity of means which we're using. I had been leading a series of discussion workshops and I’d written down a huge amount of material from many, many different artists, which I could use as a resource to try and find a picture of how we are working now in dance. And I asked Matteo one day, 'Could you give a quote for the book?' And it was quite amazing, he didn’t hesitate, even to blink his eyes, and then he said, 'Stealing from yourself is good but stealing from others is even better'. But now he’s upset because I didn’t put it in the book - it was too good and I couldn’t find a way to make it link - but it was very clear when we saw and when I danced The Stop Quartet that the amount of stealing from ourselves was huge. There’s a movement which comes from Hymns, which I made in 1988, (shows the movement) and I’ve used it in every single piece I’ve ever made. Not in the kind of 'That’s my signature' way, it’s just out of pure laziness, because the movement does something that at a certain point I always want a movement to do, and then I think well what‘s the point of making a new one, I have that old one. And the truth is that not one single person has ever noticed that I do it in every piece.
MF: Except me.
GC: I’d like to play a trick on you. Do you remember when we had this public talk in 2000 at The Royal Opera House, which was part of the Catalytic Conversions seminar with Antony Gormley?
GC: And you came to that talk with a very long list of questions, which were all very pertinent, and I feel like you’ve answered a lot of them, but still you are asking the same questions. So I'd like to put the whole list up on the screen.
JB: Can I just say something about that quote from Oliver Sachs which began the talk? - 'Rhythm can restore our sense of embodiment.' I have to say that I’m not sure, I’m not sure I agree with that. I’m not sure I know what embodiment is in that context.
GC: We could, we could talk about it. That’s one of the questions that you asked yourself eight years ago.
JB: Yes, and I did look at these questions again recently, when I was researching for the book.
(Projection of some of the questions Jonathan Burrows asked himself during the Catalytic Conversions Seminar, Royal Opera House, 2000):
- What age am I when I perform? Can I dance the age that I am?
- Where does the image of my dancing-self come from? What part is mine and what part is still trying to please the people who taught me?
- Is it sometimes humiliating to dance?
- Can I use the useful information my body has absorbed and separate myself from what is no longer appropriate?
- Can I use the language of ballet and separate ignore that it represents also the body as a site for the representation of wealth and privilege, of the colonial? What other bodies posses me from the past?
- Since the search for perfection has been so much a part of my training can I ever let it go?
- How do I translate the physicality of another person onto and into my own body? How and when might I repossess my own body, my own dance?
- How would I move if I dared?
- How do I move when I don't question how I'm moving?
- Do I have to be a virtuoso? Do I want to be a virtuoso?
- Why do I want to perform?
- How is performance different from life? How is it similar?
- What is extremity in performance?
- How is technology changing my relationship to my body?
- Is this a personal journey?
- If this is shared then what am I inviting people to share?
- What can the audience take from or give to a performance?
- What is the performing space?
- How do I bring the performing space into focus?
- Is it more eloquent not to speak?
- What does 'too meaningful' mean?
- What is repetition?
- How shall I keep notes?
- Am I asking questions that have already been asked?
- Can I accept the contradictions?
- How can I simplify all of this?
GC: I just edited a couple of things out, to be able to fit it onto one screen like that. For me it was amazing - I mean reading this again last week - for me it was amazing that you articulated all that in such a particular way in 2000, because it seems to me that it was a kind of programme for the duets that the two of you have made together, no?
JB: Yes. I found in a notebook from about that same period that I’d done this exercise and the exercise was called, ‘Ask yourself 10 questions a day for 10 days and don’t answer them’. So I thought I would try it again.
GC: And you’ve probably come up with the same questions?
JB: Well, it was a mixture: some questions circled back and some questions appeared, by asking another question, to have moved on. But there certainly is a carrying forward of thoughts, although for that talk in 2000 I was trying to do something slightly less personal, that I thought might be more universal.
MF: How do you mean, Weak Dance?
JB: Weak Dance Strong Questions was a piece that I made with the theatre director Jan Ritsema, where we moved for 50 minutes in silence: two bald, middle-aged men moving as though we would ask a question. And we thought that we’d do it just a few times for our colleagues and then it kind of became a success and we performed it a lot, and eventually I stopped it because I felt that I would go mad if I asked any more questions, and that I wanted to go back to making the kind of work which makes statements, which is what Both Sitting Duet became.
But I think also that this list of questions reflected something across the field of dance, which is about the crises as to whether movement can be something valid as a subject matter in itself, and as a reason in itself, and I think there’s a lot of searching going on for many of us in that way. I’m still very curious where that will lead us. And yet the irony is that Merce Cunningham is still making work and it’s some of the greatest work that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and he has no doubt that movement is a subject enough in itself. But he’s from a different generation and he was reacting against a different set of principles and questions.
GC: Matteo, let’s step into the performance aspect of it, I mean you have always been performing as a musician? How was that step into the movement part of it? How did that came about?
MF: It came about by seeing Weak Dance Strong Questions and thinking that I was missing being on stage and performing. It’s as simple as that I think. When we talked again after I saw that piece, about how we could work together, I suggested that maybe I could be on stage again. I mean, I’m a musician but I’ve never really had an instrument that I could perform with. From being a teenager I’d played the bass guitar, but nothing that would give me the satisfaction that I get from these pieces, so it was a purely selfish request to start with. And then there was the desire to find a way that we would be more equal if you like, that was what Jonathan had decided anyway: 'Let's do a piece in which you don’t just write music and I move'. So that was a leveller anyway – 'Let’s both make this piece, let’s both perform.'
At first the only way I could think of it was treating it like music, tricking myself into thinking I was playing a percussion piece, which is a trick I sometimes still use. Depending on the performance the accuracy of the movements comes very much from the musicality: the score is written musically and I’m just performing that. The fact that it’s bigger movement and doesn’t actually produce sound is immaterial.
JB: But there’s also been in the last - I don’t know, eight years or so - I think there’s been a much greater acceptance and interest in untrained people dancing and performing. And I think the permission that I felt to work with Jan Ritsema and then with Matteo came out of a wider field of work. And for me it was partly to do with this question about movement. For myself I had reached a point where I felt that I'd become so obsessed by virtuosity in the body - and I’m not even particularly virtuosic which made it worse - and I felt like I was researching to find more and more complex detail in the body and yet I could never make it as articulate as William Forsythe, basically. And I felt like I’d reached a dead end, both personally in my own body but also working with dancers. So by working with people who were not trained dancers, I suddenly saw movement again freshly. It’s to do with the efficiency of the body, the way the body makes a movement more and more smooth, which starts at a certain point to render it invisible. The analogy I always give if I’m talking to people in workshops is that if you’re cleaning your teeth with your right hand you are hardly aware of what you're doing - I mean if you are right-handed - but if you clean your teeth with your left hand it’s suddenly an absolutely evident activity. And when Matteo first started performing movement that’s what I felt. It was like a re-training in movement for me, but not from the direction of technique. Matteo’s body was spontaneously negotiating patterns which were actually very difficult for him, and by me watching him negotiate those patterns my own body was reminding itself of its own negotiation at a certain point, and therefore being refreshed. Having said that Matteo has been on the road now for six years, and he’s done 170 performances, so he can’t really be called an untrained dancer anymore.
GC: How much of it was consciously inspired by Hands, because there is a huge resemblance?
JB: You mean with Both Sitting Duet? Yes, we always wanted to do something with Hands and we tried to make a video installation with multiple screens. The original film of Hands was very short, it had to be, to fit the format of the Dance for Camera series for which it was made. It was 4 minutes 37 seconds or something like that. So we tried to make this video installation, and we didn’t really know about the medium of installation and so it was quite poor, but the idea remained somehow unfinished business. We have tried to liberate ourselves from the thought that we always have to make something new, because I'm not really a very imaginative or creative person, I just like working: I have my moments, but it’s not like I live in a wonderful dream of ideas, I have hardly any ideas. We like the thought that we don’t have to re-invent ourselves, but rather to re-invest, so to us it’s about, ’What did we not do that we wanted to do, and why didn’t we do it?’ And usually it’s because we think somebody else has done the idea, but if it keeps coming back, like with the walking in The Quiet Dance, we just say, ’Well let’s do it anyway’. So Hands was a part of a pattern of re-investigating things that we had tried and abandoned. And we abandon a lot, we throw away a lot. We have thrown away whole pieces. We even at one point threw away three whole pieces in a row, which is partly why we live in a strange kind of funding void, because we are unable to frame what we do in a way that makes sense in a funding context. We never know what we are doing. We don’t start something new until we finish the thing before, and even then we can’t do that straight away because we are still processing what we have just done. So in terms of funding that gets difficult, and we mainly have to make a living out of performing and support the work that way. But it does have this side effect that we have the freedom to chuck things away, which is the freedom that a painter has, who can lean canvases against the wall and then come back to them in six months time. We can do that because we haven’t made any promises.
GC: I can acknowledge that because I have a strong memory of a dinner at your apartment and Matteo was there as well - I think it was the period that you were starting to think about or trying out ideas for Both Sitting Duet - and I came over and Matteo said, 'We’ve made a piece but we decided to throw it away and start something new tomorrow'.
Shall we have a look at Hands, because probably a lot of people might have seen Both Sitting Duet, but haven’t seen Hands because this was from 1995.
(Shows DVD of Hands)
JB: It has to be said the first minute and a half was actually choreographed by Matteo, not by me, because I had given him six gestures and asked him, 'Can you write these as music, so that a musician could sight-read it as gestures'. I thought that they would be very rapid, like a piece of Bach keyboard music, but he turned up a week later and then did this kind of incredibly plodding, slow...
MF: Flat music!
JB: Flat music, yes, and it never changed. I still have the original score of Hands that Matteo wrote. In a way that process of translating, of squeezing movement into musical structures, was already there then and - you really lose a lot but there’s also something about it that creates a very nice field for play.
GC: I have another memory of it - because Hands was made for film and then it took a lot of years before you decided to also do a live performance of it…
MF: I forgot about that.
GC: …and my memory - because it was in Ghent and I mean the music had changed because you did a piano version of it - but I remember when we were preparing for it that somehow it didn’t work as you wanted it to, as a live version, until you came up with a solution, which was to amplify very, very gently the hand movements.
MF: Did we do that?
JB: Yes, I remember.
GC: And I also have memories of discussions about how the visual and the auditory function together in that way, and it seems to me that a lot of your work has been an exploration of this. And there’s a sentence that you told me about years ago which was the perfect description of it, but I can't remember it, so I hope it’s in the book you've written.
JB: The thing that we’ve become very aware of is that visual rhythm is much weaker than auditory rhythm. That’s why physical performance can either be really held up and shifted by sound or it can be crushed by sound. So, for instance, if we amplify the sound of the hands, it’s just so that you notice the rhythm of them, because otherwise even if what Matteo was doing was very delicate on the piano, the rhythm of the movement would easily become something muddy. And so a little bit of amplification really helps to equal the weight of the two parts.
MF: It’s interesting this choice of music for the film– I mean seeing it again like this because I remember writing three pieces of music, and this was very much choice ‘C’, and I presented it to Jonathan and Adam the filmmaker as a kind of, 'Well I also have this'. And part of me still thinks it’s far too overpowering for the movement and it’s not even the right tempo and stuff, but it did add something that the more gentle music didn’t have. So when we did it live we did in fact return to the more gentle sound. The gentle music was more the obvious thing, it did what the movement does, whereas the film music in a way completely shifts the movement and puts it in a very different place.
JB: Well, I like this music because that’s what film music does when it works best: it completely re-frames an atmosphere, partly by underpinning but also partly by contradicting the action.
GC: There are so many coincidences. It’s like last week Rosemary Butcher brought it up because there has been this South-East dance compilation of dance films that people have been asked to introduce, and she was asked to give her favourite dance film and she chose Douglas Gordon’s installation Feature Film, with the conductor doing the Hitchcock Vertigo score, where you only see his hands.
JB: Oh yes, yes, that’s a fantastic piece.
GC: Yes, you brought me there.
JB: Oh, did I?
GC: When I visited London.
JB: In Brick Lane?
GC: You brought me there, and then I was reading last week a book about Yvonne Rainer and her first dance film was called One Hand Movie, and it’s very different but it’s like one hand and just the fingers.
JB: I’ve never seen it but it’s in the New York public library and I saw it in the catalogue, yes.
GC: The other thing that you just mentioned was this idea of researching scores, and that’s really what you‘ve been doing a lot with the three recent works. Can you comment a little bit on this?
MF: The thing about researching is that…
GC: Or play with it or…
MF: Well, Both Sitting Duet was made as a translation of a score, which for me seemed to follow on exactly from Hands which is also written from a score. Except Both Sitting Duet was somebody else’s much more elaborate score, with Morton Feldman in that case, as opposed to my plodding flat music.
JB: You’re never going to let up on that are you?
JB: Well I’m going to play Haydn all the time.
MF: But the other two duets weren’t researching scores; they weren’t made with the same idea of translating a score.
JB: There was a certain point that I did make a deliberate choice, that I thought that a lot of the dance that I was seeing and experiencing, apart from ballet, had let go of pulse. I understood this was perhaps to do with dance needing to assert itself as an art form in its own right, because for many years it was seen as a sister art form to music. And what I also saw was that there was a particular time of dance pieces which had become very familiar to me, and it’s to do with weight-based contemporary dance, whether that be Limon technique or even contact improvisation, where the time of the body that you’re dealing with is the time of the body falling so there’s quite a similar time across different pieces. And the only person that I saw that was doing something different from that was Anne-Teresa De Keersmaeker.
When I was younger I was in a band, and I played the drums. Not that I was a very good drummer - though actually I do play drums on the soundtrack of Speaking Duet in fact, so I finally got there somehow…
MF: And our forgotten masterpiece Session Number One, don’t forget, that was a…
JB: Matteo and I formed a rock band for one day.
MF: It’s a very good recording.
JB: Well no, we were very drunk one night and then we said let’s start a rock band, and I turned up the next morning with a drum set in the back of a mini, and Matteo was very hung over and he’d forgotten that we had formed a rock band. But we did actually record something that we called Session Number One, which we still make people listen to.
MF: It’s very good!
JB: It was early drum and bass.
MF: An embodiment of rhythm I think.
Projected on the screen: 'Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds of all who participate.'
Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia, Vintagebooks, 2008, p. 266
JB: But anyway, the thing about trying to work with rhythm was that I just found it very complicated to…if I was working, like with the hymn tunes, there was a sentimentality around them and an irony that I could pull out of it, but there was also something about the full squareness of it that I could push against rhythmically in dance. But when I took away that kind of music and tried to work in silence I found it very difficult to find my way through the rhythm: I had no scaffolding. So the scores thing started with Matteo suggesting a way to notate rhythm on graph paper, and the only other person that I knew who did that was Shobana Jeyasingh. I’d seen one of her scores which Kevin Volans had shown me, which was for a piece he’d written the music for, and he was so astonished because before he had written a note Shobana had sent him the score of the dance, and I think the fact that she was doing that rather intrigued me. Actually funnily enough Hands had a slight connection to Shobana because we did share an office at The Place Theatre at that time, and of course in Bharatanatyam the hands and the use of gesture is very complex, virtuosic and articulate. I remember going to Shobana and saying, 'I want to make this film called Hands, can you help me?' And then she looked at my knuckly fingers and she kind of went, 'Right, I don’t really know what to suggest'. So we ended up with these more prosaic movements. But there is one gesture which you see in Hands that was influenced by Shobana, and somehow when it gets faster you see an echo of that desire to be as articulate.
So after making Hands I started using visualisations of time on paper as a way to negotiate a relationship in rhythm and time between two different people, and I have gone on doing that.
And the other thing that comes out of it has been made clear to me this year. I taught a workshop in Berlin and we were in a room in the former Berlin Bus Depot, which was in the process of closing. They had given this studio to the dance course but the swing band of the Berlin bus drivers still met there to rehearse, playing Bert Kaempfert medleys, which I like, and they were in the next room with only a thin partition between and it was impossible to hold a choreographic workshop because I just wanted to sing along. So I had to take the students into a kitchen, a dilapidated kitchen, and we had a whole day ahead of us in there and I didn’t know what to do, so I got them to write scores for pieces that they couldn’t practice because we didn't have room. I’m used to kitchens though, because Matteo and I have often worked in his kitchen. But anyway the students wrote something like five scores, and I think they hated me by the end of the day, they must have thought the exercise was so academic and arbitrary. And yet even I was astonished when they worked out and performed the scores the next day, because the level of choreographic thinking was extraordinary. I was surprised because in some way I had always associated choreographic thinking with a certain sensory experience within the body, but it was very interesting to see that, of course, there is a sensory world that you work with physically, but there’s also this other thing which is more abstract.
JB: To do with patterns, but what these students did seemed more than pattern: seemed a kind of abstraction that could also appear deeply personal. So there’s something about that which reminded me why I like working with scores, and it’s to do with quieting the sensory experience of the body, which can often draw you back into a place that’s familiar - body patterning itself is so powerful that it will draw you back to something familiar - to just for one moment divorce yourself from that. It’s not just about pattern. It's about a graphic experience: something to do with the act of writing or drawing, which seems to release an imagination different to the imagination released by moving or researching movement.
MF: The composer Morton Feldman often talked about notating music in order to slow him down, because of course you go to a piano and your fingers will play the chord you are familiar with playing, and it’s very hard to break those patterns. I’ve even tried things like playing the piano backwards. Feldman worked very much at the piano, but notating as he went along in order to avoid those habits. So even for musicians I think the act of notating, and how to notate something clearly, also gives you ideas of how to go on. And yes, you are right, not just patterning, but that physical act of doing it.
GC: In my own case when I'm writing I also need the physicality of it, and it’s when the hands start to hesitate that my brain senses there’s still some word missing, or I have to reformulate something. And so I often like to copy and re-copy my text, and computers can act as a useful tool for the editing process afterwards, but the actual writing of ideas for me has to come out of the physicality of the hand.
JB: I think in dance we tend to think a lot about going into a room and researching movement, and Matteo taught me to risk that you don’t go in and research, you just go in and make something – and then leave.
MF: As soon as possible!
JB: I have slowly built up a trust in the fact that you can make a good decision quickly, and the thing that takes you hours and hours to find is not necessarily richer. I was reading Allen Ginsburg's essays recently and he talks about ‘First thought, best thought’, which came from his Buddhist training, and I kind of recognise that.
When we work we are quite old fashioned in that we start at the beginning and go forwards, and we make one thing a day, and a 'thing' is whatever we want a 'thing' to be. And then we try to have the discipline to stop. Sometimes we have stopped after one hour. Deep down we want to go on because we think we ought to, but when we have the discipline to go home, we actually continue working unconsciously in a much better way, and we can’t wait to get back together again to continue the next morning. It stops being an exhaustive process.
I find when I’m making a piece there’s a number of levels of working. One is that there’s the smell or atmosphere of the thing, and you don’t know what it is but you sense it. Then there’s some kind of a visual image, which you shouldn’t trust but neverthless you store away someplace. And finally there’s all sorts of activities which you don’t know whether they're useful or not, but you do them anyway. So before we’d made Speaking Dance I spent three months reading only contemporary playwrights, and it wasn’t like I knew why I was doing it. That’s why funding applications don’t work, because I couldn’t have made a funding application to explain why I wanted to do that research, because had I known why I was doing it, it wouldn’t have had any power.
And at the moment I’m trying to write - out of the experience of the Berlin Bus Depot - I’m trying to write a score a day for something that I have no idea what it is, and I don’t know whether it's the start of something or not.
GC: Shall we have a look at another fragment, just to give ourselves a break and also some stimuli?
Shall we look at a part of The Stop Quartet?
JB: Is this the quartet bit?
GC: Yes, it’s the last part of the piece.
Projected afterwards on the screen: 'The dance is synchronous, not literally with regard to the movements, but in the way in which the dancers divide time, run through it and let it converge in stops. Even if real contact is rare, the dancers are intimate partners in rhythm.'
Myriam Van Imschoot on The Stop Quartet, 1996
GC: I have this memory of you telling me, years after it was created, and since then I’ve distrusted my memory because I was also so shocked about it - I’m asking you whether it is true, or maybe I completely misunderstood you? - but the memory I had is that you told me that you only kind of set the footwork, and that the rest of the body movements were kept very free.
JB: Yes, the upper body movements were often - William Forsythe has a nice name for it: 'residual movement'. For instance, the work that he’s done with his improvisation technologies, like placing the dancers within the 27 points of the Laban cube and then asking them to extend one or more points of their bodies to the points of the cube - and what he’s interested in is not the shape that they make, but the accidental movement that happens by going from one place to the next place.
It wasn’t that we were looking for that in The Stop Quartet, it was an coincidence of working. The footsteps came from a technique like ballroom dancing manuals, where you have boxes with numbers in and you put your foot here on number 1, and then here on number 2 and so forth. Every section of the piece has a different pulse and even a tiny change of pulse completely alters the body. Well DJs understand that because they know the beats per minute that a track is going, and that a track in a particular genre should go, and how you drop that beat fractionally at a certain point to make the dance floor lift. With The Stop Quartet it started out with Henry doing something very slow, and it was very awkward, but then I asked him to do it 4 times faster and he couldn’t help but make that flow of residual movement. I mean he’s a New Yorker of Columbian extraction, so there's a certain dancing body present there already that somehow perhaps resurfaced, but as soon as I’d seen what he was doing then I copied it.
It’s an example of something that I think Matteo and I have worked with a lot which is to set up a very formal structure against which you push. And from this then many very informal possibilities and freedoms arise, sometimes to an extreme degree, but often unspoken. And so we found recently in performances of Speaking Dance, the last piece that we made in 2006, that there’s very fast alternation between us and we can actually change the speed of it, for instance radically slow it down and then speed it up again within seconds, without prior negotiation. But it’s just practice.
I love that. I love that freedom. You know, choreography as a scaffold which looks after some of the ‘holding the building up’, so that you can be free to be intuitive.
GC: To go into the language thing with Speaking Dance, I mean it seems to me that it has been a long journey, a long desire, with you reading linguistics, poetry, theatre and so forth?
MF: Well Jonathan wrote the words first, but musically I’ve always enjoyed setting text and been very frustrated with finding the right text. When I was much younger I became disillusioned with the fact that poetry is too heavy, it has too much there. But at the same time that Jonathan was secretly writing what turned out to be the first text for Speaking Dance, I was writing something for Siobhan Davies where I was also using language in a not too dissimilar way. I was looking for language that was in a way very plain and didn’t have too much meaning in it, so I took Italian folk songs and translated them very badly into English, and somehow that gave me permission to do what I wanted to with it. And it was after I played them to Jonathan that his writing came out and we kind of - I don’t know – was that at the end of your writing? I can’t remember.
JB: Yes, after he played me the music I said, 'Why don't you come round to my flat tomorrow and I’ll show you what I’ve been doing, because it’s the same.'
MF: It was the same, but we honestly hadn’t discussed it at all, it just seemed the right time to introduce language in a different way into the work.
JB: We have a little technique that we borrowed from Jan Ritsema, the theatre Director with whom I made Weak Dance Strong Questions, and it’s this: when you’re trying to figure out how you might work or what it is that you’re working on, you interview each other. Jan always said it should be as though you are the kind of journalist that is an artist’s nightmare, that starts with the question, 'So what is your piece about?' And you have to answer them as though you know what you‘re doing. Anyway, Matteo and I were in Lisbon for three days or something and he was talking again about trying to find a libretto to write an opera, and we agreed that I would interview him periodically over the period, and write down everything that he said. And at the end of the three days we did arrive suddenly at the understanding that Matteo had been working with language for a long time, but that he only ever used single words. Somehow he hadn’t thought of this as being a libretto. We looked through everything that I'd written and it was like, 'Bingo'. It suddenly became clear. 'You don't need a libretto, you need to go on working with single words, the way you always have, that’s what makes the most sense. And in some ways the idea to make Speaking Dance came partly out of that interview. Again a process of blundering about trying to find gold, not really knowing what we were doing or why.
But it is frustrating to work with movement or music when actually language is our primary source of communication. I mean if there’s a fire I’m going to shout, 'Fire', as it were, rather than wave my arms or ring a bell. I mean I could do that but it’s inevitable that at a certain point you’ll want to say, 'Well I can speak, and you know, why shouldn’t I?'
When we made Speaking Dance we thought we were making a piece about language, but we realised afterwards that we were trying to move towards making a music piece, which was what we wanted to make after we had made two movement pieces. And somehow the language is not the primary thing in Speaking Dance, but rather the thing that mediates between the movement and the music, with rhythm and counterpoint remaining the common denominator.
GC: I mentioned to Matteo earlier that they are currently doing a lot of scientific research about the similarities and differences in rhythmic patterns, in music and language, and there seems to be a kind of a connection between certain languages and certain types of music. So they are trying to understand what this might mean in order to use it in a therapeutic way, for instance using music to help people recover language.
MF: Thinking about what you were saying earlier, I haven’t read Oliver Sachs' book, but it always seems to me that rhythm of speech produces rather boring music, whereas the musicality or the tone of speech might be more the clue. Like Debussy for instance, in the opera Pelleas and Melisande, actually it’s the tone of the French language, the melody of it, that seems to be much more apparent. So I’m not sure, I haven’t read that research properly, but I don’t quite get it how there could be such a strong connection between the rhythm of music and the rhythm of speech.
JB: But I’m pretty convinced, because I grew up in Newcastle in England and I had a very strong Geordie accent, which is a very specific accent and quite a hard one to do. Having said that, because the guy who does the voiceover on Big Brother is a Geordie more people can imitate it now, but it used to be something that tripped people up. Somewhere in my head though I still have a completely intact Geordie accent.
MF: But that’s not rhythm though.
JB: No, but it is something to do with dynamic within rhythm, and I ‘m pretty sure that when I perform on stage, or if I dance, the way I play with dynamic has more to do with the lost accent, my childhood accent, than the way that I speak now. It might be me being sentimental, but I do feel it somehow.
GC: If you go through the three duets and use similar research principles or the knowledge that you have about structure, do you find that the last one Speaking Dance was different from the other ones, and if so in what ways? In the musicality of it? Or the composition?
JB: In one sense yes, because it’s a much more episodic piece; much more sectional in that way. It's not so different in how we made it though, it still has a lot of quite simple counterpoint, very fast alternation and things like that, and it's rhythmically not dissimilar to the other pieces. But the big leap I think was how the piece went from A to B, which was a more unexpected journey than with the first two duets.
GC: Can you expand a little bit on that?
MF: We ran out of words and I panicked, I felt we should throw away the piece. But Jonathan persuaded me that we could actually do something else with it. He suggested that we could drop the fast patterning of words and sing instead, for instance, or get up from the chair and wave our arms about.
JB: I said, 'What are we good at?' Which is not very much, but we scraped together some things that we knew we could do. That was our principle for how to continue: 'If we run out of words keep going by whatever means necessary'.
MF: Yes, so having got over that first obstacle of ‘You’ve broken the surface of this piece’ - it took me a long time to accept that - but once that was absorbed then it seemed like anything was possible. A lot of it was actually found material that we already had, which we reworked or kind of slotted into place quite quickly you see - unlike The Quiet Dance, which was agonising, very slow, detailed work from beginning to end.
JB: But there was a performance of Both Sitting Duet in Leuven where somebody who had seen it before came backstage afterwards and said, 'There’s something wrong, the first time I saw it I felt that each part seemed to freshen itself and draw my attention back in, and now it all seems to pass in a blur'. And we realised that we weren't fulfilling an idea that we had had about performing it, which was that every part must have its own energy and start fresh as though it was the beginning. And we weren’t doing that because it had gone well in performance so we’d been seduced by the rhythm of the whole piece.
But after that, with Speaking Dance, Jerome Bel came to see it and he said, 'There’s something wrong, it’s not connecting for me, this sectional thing, I can’t make sense of it'. And he was right, and it was exactly the same as Both Sitting Duet but in reverse, in that we realised that as we’d become more confident with performing Speaking Dance we were taking longer and longer pauses between sections. We felt that it was nice and relaxed, but in fact when we’d first performed it we had had a really sharp timing in the gaps, so that the sections ran invisibly one into the next.
MF: We were struggling with the continuity of it.
JB: Yes, so then we went back to that sharper timing in the gaps, and the sense of the piece reappeared. But it was interesting to discover that what worked for a through-written piece, which was to be absolutely sectional, didn’t work for a piece that was already in sections. With a piece that was already in sections you had to run one thing into the next in a very smooth and rhythmic way, otherwise you lost the continuity and the audience couldn't make sense of it; they couldn't connect the separate parts.
GC: Shall we have a look at Speaking Dance?
JB: This is a very rough video taken live in Poland.
MF: It’s so fast, I’d forgotten. When we do it now it doesn’t seem so fast anymore.
GC: I think that’s a nice way to round it up here. I think we’ve covered a lot and it’s been a really nice journey – I mean 15 years in this hour and a half. So I would like to thank Jonathan and Matteo for rounding off this series of talks in a very beautiful way.
You’ve been a great audience. I think you’ve enjoyed it as much as I did tonight. Thank you.
JB and MF: Thank you.
© Jonathan Burrows, Guy Cools and Matteo Fargion, 2008