Interview: Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion Q&A

Friday 25 January 2008

Jonathan Burrows *Jonathan Burrows is currently appearing in a trilogy of works created and performed
other the last five years with composer Matteo Fargion. They’ve performed these miniature
gems in 37 countries and there are just two chances now to catch them all at the
Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells on 25 & 26 Jan 08*

*Jonathan talks about performing the Three Duets together, a new production at
the Royal National Theatre opening next month and returning to work in Brussels – his home from home – with interjections from Matteo…*

Both Sitting Duet, The Quiet Dance and *_Speaking Dance_ have all been performed individually over the last five years. Did you always
intend them to be seem as a trilogy?*

JB: When we started working on *Both Sitting Duet* we had no idea what we would do or where it might go. We didn’t plan a trilogy,
but after each piece we asked ourselves whether we should go on with the same
work or do something different. This is the same question we ask ourselves when
we get to the end of a section in the process of making a piece. We tried at
various times to start something new in another direction, but each time we felt
we hadn’t finished with what we were doing and so the project grew slowly into
a trilogy. The pieces are separate and we often perform them alone, but they
are related, and we discovered that audiences enjoy following the whole story
through from one piece to the next. Of course there is no actual narrative, but
something shifts forwards and it approximates to a journey you can follow. What
I like about having three performances is that while the separate pieces might
be described as miniatures, they have grown into a body of work bigger than the
individual parts.

*Is performing all three in one programme a marathon – or does it come reasonably
easily as you’ve performed them so often now?*

JB: We’ve done over 150 performances of the pieces in various combinations, including
many shows where we do two on one night, so adding the third doesn’t seem a big
step. The idea to do the three came from the former director of Kaaitheater in Brussels, who wanted us to do it as part of his final season. Once we’d accepted
the idea then it seemed obvious that this would be the solution for London, so
that people can revisit the whole thing without multiple trips across the city.
It’s something new, and we like to keep discovering.

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, 11-26 Jan.08, Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler's Wells *Matteo is a composer – who’s become a performer through working with you.. Can
you pinpoint what you have learned from working in performance with someone who
doesn’t have dance training?*

JB: I love to work with dancers who are trained, but in the past seven years I made
the decision to work collaboratively with artists from other disciplines. This
is partly because what they bring from their own world enriches my vision, and
partly because I had reached a point where I felt I’d exhausted my capacity for
investigating highly technical dance. Working with untrained people has reawakened
my love of movement; but I will work with trained dancers again, and in fact the
next thing I do, apart from touring with Matteo, will be to revive The Stop Quartet from 1996, which needs highly trained dancers.

Matteo, have these years of performing with Jonathan changed you as an artist?

MF: I’ve come to realise that I really enjoy performing. I used to play in bands
as a teenager and have been searching for ways to get back on stage since then!

Has it had repercussions for your work as a composer?

MF: I haven’t written a piece of concert music for ages now. Most of my work is
collaborative, either for theatre or dance. I have occasional identity crises
and pangs of guilt, but generally I am much happier now than when I was sitting
in my room for months writing chamber pieces which were performed only once, often
under-rehearsed, to a bored looking audience of 15. The dance world is much more
open and exciting at the moment than the new music scene, I think.

Do you think of yourself as a dancer now?

MF: We have a long standing joke about this: I have been performing these duets
endlessly for nearly 6 years now, under the close scrutiny of a very exacting
choreographer – that’s longer and more intensive than any dance training! But
seriously, I wouldn’t dream of calling myself a dancer. Performing artist?

Are you consciously developing your own personal dance language?

JB: Of course what I do looks a certain way because of who I am and the way I move
and think, but I’ve tried consciously not to be too involved with questions of
style as it can be limiting. I think every piece finds its own language and it’s
not always something that you can influence or control. It arises out of a combination
of things; concept, movement, rhythm, relation to the other performers and to
the audience, principles about performing. Ideally while making the piece and
performing it you want to have a sense of what you’re doing but at the same time
keep your hands empty, ready to respond to what happens; you don’t always know
what you’ve done until many months or even years afterwards, and then you might
have a moment of recognition.

What else are you working on?

JB: At the moment I’m working as Associate Director at The National Theatre on the play The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, which is a performance without words for 450 characters who cross a town square.
It’s a meditation on the way we observe other people in public, and how our imaginations
weave narrative fantasies out of what we see. It’s funny and thought provoking,
and if it works the audience should leave the theatre and walk out into London
with freshly opened eyes.

The joy of this project for me has been to watch actors work, how imaginative
they can be with the smallest of instructions and the way emotional landscapes
anchor the timing and detail of what they do. I’ve sat and watched this group
of people improvising crossing the space, only walking, and every crossing is
a miniature world of detailed storytelling, simply done and with beautiful clarity.

I’m working alongside the Director James Macdonald and it’s extremely useful and interesting for me to see how he approaches what
he does. I’ve enjoyed very much his process of researching the work, not only
the play itself but other writings by Peter Handke, looking for clues which weave
a clearer sense of what is intended and how to manifest it. I’ve also enjoyed
observing what is said and what is left unsaid to the actors as they work their
ways into the characters they’re playing. It’s a very different process to that
of dance making, the priorities and learning process are grounded in meaning more
than sensory experience.

*These are the last British performances of these three works. Does this feel
like the end of an era?*

JB: We go on touring the trilogy internationally throughout this year and into 2009,
so performances of this work will overlap with the beginnings of other things.
It’s all just work, and when one piece comes to its natural close there is always
unfinished business to carry you forwards into something new.

MF: Personally I haven’t tired of them, and am still discovering new things. But
I guess we’ll eventually need to put them to bed in order to have the time and
space to work on something new.

*You’re off to work in Brussels again – do you feel that your work is more widely
appreciated in Europe?*

JB: Sometimes it seems we still have an image here in England as being people who
make difficult work, and this is puzzling because it’s not how we’re seen anywhere
else. Having said that, in the past five years we’ve performed over 150 times
across 37 countries, and it’s clear the way the work is perceived and appreciated
changes from place to place. The great thing is that we’ve been able to test
what we do against many different audiences.

I have strong connections with a number of other places in Europe including Belgium,
but also Vienna where we always peform and who invited me to be mentor for the
Danceweb programme during Impulstanz 2007, and Italy where Matteo and I have strong links with a network of theatres and
artists across the north who have supported us very strongly.

My connection with Belgium has been important to me for many years. I was Artist
in Residence in Gent for ten years, have been a visiting member of faculty at
PARTS the school of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker since 1999, and am a regular at Kaaitheater in Brussels. It’s home from home really and I feel very much a part of the
dance scene there. I lived in Brussels for three years from 2000 to 2003 and
am going back for a number of reasons; I will have a two year residency at Kaaitheater
which will give me time off from touring so I can research new work; being surrounded
there by a vibrant culture of dance and performance from around Europe keeps me
on my toes; and I can more easily use trains to travel around Europe which is
more ecological.

*Your performances at the Lilian Baylis Theatre Sadlers Wells are on Fridays only
through January – will you be using the other nights in the week to see any other
dance performances?*
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JB: While we’re at the Wells we also tour the trilogy to Zurich and perform Speaking Dance at Royal Holloway College, so there’s not much time to see other things. I’m looking forwards though
to the Jerome Bel season which follows us into the Lillian Baylis Theatre and then the main house. All the pieces are extraordinary, but if you haven’t
seen The Show Must Go On I can’t recommend it highly enough, not least because it has influenced so much
work across Europe and the world. I will go also to see Pina Bausch perform her masterpiece Café Müller, which is one of the greatest of dance pieces.

MF: If we aren’t performing elsewhere, the other nights for me will be spent on
the sofa recovering from such a marathon! But I’m very much looking forward to
the Jerome Bel season at Sadler’s Wells next month.

Will you be working together in the future?

JB: Of course!

MF: I hope so! We are always talking about making the leap into larger scale work,
(whatever that means) and sometimes feel that there is a lot of pressure on us
to do so. Personally, I enjoy working in the way that we have been: chiselling
away slowly, without pressure, at something small, personal and intricate.

More…

The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other is at the National Theatre (Lyttleton) from 6 Feb – 5 March More details/online booking

*Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, Three Duets, Fridays 18 & 25 Jan,
Lilian Baylis Theatre Sadler’s Wells* More details/online booking

Jerome Bel The Show Must Go On, 9 Feb, Sadler’s Wells, More details/online booking

Pina Bausch *Tanztheater Wuppertal, 13 – 22 Feb, Sadler’s Wells More details/online booking

Read our 2004 interview with Jonathan Burrows here

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