Interview on A Choreographer's Handbook with Edith Boxberger, for Kampnagel, Hamburg, 2010.
(Questioning) what and how a dance might be.
Edith Boxberger: ‘A Choreographer’s Handbook’ was recently published. What were the reasons for you to write it?
Jonathan Burrows: It occurred to me that there wasn't a book which reflected the multiplicity of means we now use to choreograph and make performances. Also for many years I had been leading discussion workshops with choreographers and performers, and had written down a lot of thoughts from many different people, working in many different ways, and I wanted to share some of those ideas. They seemed to offer a way in which I might attempt to write something which stepped beyond my own ideas and prejudices.
Of course my own experiences are reflected in the book, but I wanted that there be other voices present also. It interested me to show the wider field, and to challenge the idea that we, as dancers, can't speak well about what we do. I had also noticed in the discussion workshops that people from opposing camps found a lot in common once they put aside surface aesthetics. I liked the moments in workshops when someone coming from theatre recognised the questions raised by someone coming from dance, and I wanted to celebrate that.
EB: What does the book mean for you? Is it also a reflection on your own practice?
JB: Writing this book gave me a reason to read through old notebooks, and that did become in some way a personal research. Having said that, the book is connected more to my teaching practice, and is therefore hopefully wider in scope than the possibilities of my own performance work. There's a bit in Cheap Lecture where we say, 'It's a preconception that an artist can make what they want, whereas an artist can only make what they are able to make'. My hope is that the book reflects also the things I can't make, but love nevertheless.
EB: You speak of the multiplicity of means and different working methods used today in dance.
JB: I guess there are a number of reasons why dance now uses a multiplicity of means. It's a generous art form in terms of sharing possibilities through teaching and workshops, so information spreads quickly. In addition to this there are more courses now which teach contemporary dance and performance skills. But in addition to these pedagogic influences there is also a natural curiosity amongst dance artists, and a desire to live up to the challenge thrown out by previous generations, particularly Judson Church, to question what and how a dance might be.
EB: The book contains about fifty keywords, all of them related more or less directly to the process of making choreography.
JB: I noticed that many books on choreographic practice are divided into sections, each of which deals with a different aspect of the process. My experience of choreography, however, is that I have to deal with different aspects of the process at the same time, overlapping with each other and often overwhelming me. So I came up with the idea of chapters containing different but related ideas, partly as a reflection of practice, and partly as a way to guide me through this puzzle of bits and pieces which jostle for attention - subject, material, form, performance, collaboration, dramaturgy, scenography and so forth.
EB: Referring to subjects that are discussed and practiced very much today-like research, scores or collaboration-it seems you try to avoid too many expectations, and reconsider them from the view of practice.
© Edith Boxberger, 2010
JB: Research, collaboration and scores are all concepts which are easily distorted by other agendas: for instance, theory or the political desires of funding bodies. I wanted to return them to the realm of practice, whilst remaining curious about the attention they receive from outside.
EB: Today collaboration is a widely used practice in dance, and there are many different forms of it.
JB: For the last ten years I have chosen to work only in equal collaboration with another artist, sharing the conception, making, rehearsing, performing and administrating of the pieces. At the same time there is currently a fascination with the idea of collaboration, which sometimes perhaps gets things a bit out of proportion. There's a notion that constant communication by definition increases the possibilities. This is a facet of our times, of the Post-Fordist world and the networking of the web. All of these things have become a part of our lives and we are busy negotiating with them, but hopefully we can keep them in balance with the possibility that sometimes the most productive thing you might do is to sit by yourself in a room and feel frustrated.
EB: You stress very much the decision an artist is making about the performers he or she is working with.
JB: For me, the presence and personality of the performers, particularly in a dance performance, carry a lot of the potential for meaning, communication, narrative and empathetic response to the piece.
EB: The reader will find quite a few pages on “Technique”. You are looking at it in various ways, often revealing an ambivalence inherent to it.
JB: The pages on technique reflect my interest in the continuing discourse in dance about the balance between the possibilities that technique can bring, and the ways in which dance training also imprints and patterns us in limiting ways.
EB: Some topics seem difficult to write about, for example ‘hierarchies’: who is contributing what and in which position?.
JB: I am very interested in challenging the habitual dualities that arise in dance, between different modes of practice: not idealistically, but as a way to open up choice, away from aesthetic certainties. It is these dualities which have been the most difficult thing to try and unravel.
EB: The book is very precise, at the same time it is very clear that there is not ‘one truth’, there are no recipes, but often paradoxes and uncertainties.
JB: I've spent a lot of time talking to choreographers and theatre makers, and I realised that the way something looks, feels or stimulates the audience, does not necessarily reflect the way in which it was made, and visa-versa. The paradoxes and uncertainties in the book are partly a reflection of that discovery.
EB: You try to unfold the complexity of the field, the ‘field of choices’ and at the same time reduce the pressure which might come out of it.
JB: The marketplace demands an intensity of focus on the new, which is exhaustive for the practitioner: so my use of ideas like 'accept what comes easily', is an attempt to counter these pressures, and allow people to find a daily practice which is sustainable beyond the trends and hierarchies of short-term opinion.