Interview: Jonathan Burrows Q & A

Friday 7 April 2006

Jonathan Burrows [left] and Matteo Fargion in 'Both Sitting Duet', photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion’s Both Sitting Duet was the winner of a Bessie (the New York Dance and Performance Awards) earlier this year. The two long time collaborators are seated for almost all of the 45 minute performance, handwritten musical scores in front of them which they transform into dance. After touring to 17 countries they bring Both Sitting Duet to the Royal Opera House for a short season in The Clore Studio Upstairs.

Jonathan Burrows talks about – amongst other things – making and touring the work, Loftus Sword Dancers in Northumberland and what makes him cry…

You’ve been in Brussels for the past three years, what have you been doing there?
I went originally because I had three projects there in a short space of time and I was tired of constant travelling, but I ended up staying three years. I guess the thing is I had my daughter when I was nineteen and so I was anchored to one place for a long time, and when she went to university I thought this was my chance to live somewhere else. I see now it’s very important to have this opportunity to look at your own culture from a different perspective, and Brussels at the moment is a very vibrant place in dance and performance. While I was there I made two pieces, Weak Dance Strong Questions with the Dutch theatre director Jan Ritsema, and Both Sitting Duet with the composer Matteo Fargion. Both these performances toured a lot, 14 countries with Weak Dance.. and 17 countries with Both Sitting.., so that kept me pretty busy.

How did Both Sitting Duet come about?
I’d worked with Fargion for many years but mainly with me as the director commissioning him to write music, so I wanted to make something with him where we were both the directors, both absolutely equal. We decided we’d find something to work from that was neither too much me nor too much him, and that this thing would act as a mediator between us in our working process. So the day we started work he brought in the score of a piece of music by the American composer Morton Feldman which we’d both been obsessed by for years, and we decided to do the dumbest thing and make a direct translation of the score into a gestural dance, note for note and bar for bar. We never listened to the actual music while we were working on it, just followed the dots on the page.

You’ve toured to seventeen countries to date with Both Sitting Duet. How did different audiences react in different countries?
We find that in most places people laugh quite a lot, and sit fairly attentive in the other bits. A lot of people came up and said they found themselves singing music to themselves all the way through, even though it’s silent for the most part. The Italians clearly read the whole gestural thing like a language. Only the Portugese didn’t seem to get it, I don’t know why.

Were there any particularly memorable performances or events on the tour?
When we performed the first time in Italy we were in the foyer of this grand modern art gallery in Milan built by Mussolini. Our chairs were stood on a mosaic of white mothers and daughters riding white horses trampling over black men. Before the performance even got started a nightclub began in the garden outside and the building was shaking with music, and we perform in silence so this was a disaster. Then Matteo’s grandmother arrived and fell down the stairs. At times like that you really wonder what you’re doing with your life. But five minutes before curtain up it started to rain and the nightclub had to close, and it went ok and they seemed to like it, so it all ended fine.

You trained and danced with The Royal Ballet, are you looking forward to returning to the Opera House for the performances?
Of course it’s terrifying for me walking back into the Royal Opera House because I was an institutionalised boy, and there’s a part of me that becomes the small trembling cog in the big machine again. But at the same time it was my home for years and there are good memories too, not least getting to wear outrageous outfits and parade around.

In 2002 you received a $20,000 award from the Foundation For Contemporary Performance Arts in New York for ‘ongoing contributions to contemporary dance’. What difference did that make to your working life?
I have a philosophy to keep my infrastructure small at the moment and I’ve sought relatively small amounts of funding in the past three years, so this award is helping me towards making my next piece and allowing me to keep working in a flexible way. Full story

Who or what are your influences/inspirations?
Most of all perhaps the Judson Church generation of choreographers from New York, because it was seeing them in the early 80’s that confirmed for me what I love about dance. Particularly David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, Douglas Dunn, Steve Paxton and Lucinda Childs. It’s not to do with style but something about a particular attitude towards performing.
And I see it other places too, in Merce Cunningham, in the traditional dancers of Bampton near Oxford, in Nijinska’s Les Noces. I would describe it as ‘I do this thing here and now and open to the audience, but I don’t shove it in your face and I don’t presume my dreams are richer than yours’.

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