World Theatre in Sofia 2012

Voice, Text, Sound, Dance


Interview with choreographer Jonathan Burrows on the occasion of the guest performance of ‘Cheap Lecture’ and ‘The Cow Piece’ created by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion at Varna Summer International Theatre Festival 2012 and World Theatre in Sofia 2012. Questions asked by Angelina Georgieva for LIK Art Magazine. 

It is often remarked that you are one of the few people who has successfully moved from a career as a soloist with the Royal Ballet where you were for the respectful 13 years, to one as an avant-garde choreographer. What was the reason for this shift in your engagement with dance?

I had always been interested in other ways of dancing and performing, and even as a student I worked as a volunteer for Riverside Studios which was one of the leading avant-garde theatres in London at that time. Through the work there I met and began to dance for the experimental choreographer Rosemary Butcher, and at one point even took a sabbatical from the Royal Ballet to tour with her. However there was little chance of funding then for independent dance artists, so I waited  until there was some chance of surviving financially and being produced before I left the ballet. Also it took me a long time to realise what it was that I wanted to do, which is a process you can’t force and came about for me by meeting Matteo Fargion, with whom I’ve collaborated ever since.


In your career of an independent choreographer and performer it seems that you have moved again from strictly compositional work with dance as a mover towards more complex choreographies which involve in the last years a variety of elements such as voice, body, props, sound in a very precise rhythmical structure. What has changed in your notion of choreography meanwhile?

For me there’s no contradiction between the more danced pieces I’ve made and the expanding of the work towards new mediums over the past decade: it’s just about getting older and not wanting to move so much, and also about being sensitive and excited towards new currents of thought around performance, away from formal aesthetics and towards more conceptual and performative work. What all the things I’ve worked on have in common is an interest in music composition, which comes from my work with Matteo and also the study I did with the composer Kevin Volans, who was also Matteo’s teacher.


What is the relationship among body, voice and text material that is of interest for you precisely in the context of dance? Since Both Sitting Duet (2002 )you have created in collaboration with composer Matteo Fargion, vocalization and speech enter in your work as equal elements to body and movement…

The use of new materials like voice, text, projection and objects, comes from a practice Matteo and I have of beginning each new piece with the question ‘what is the unfinished business here?’ – meaning what do we feel compelled to do that we didn’t think we could do? So of course one of these things is the question ‘why don’t we speak’, because speech is a fundamental tool of communication for us and if we choose not to use it we make a strong statement. So we started to speak and so forth, each step challenging our own notion of what it is we thought we were doing. And at the heart of our love of music composition is the idea that meaning is something which resides not in this musical note or that musical note, but in the relationship between the notes. And that one note can be altered by the next note, or by something which happened previously. So the more elements you have in play the richer this web of meaning becomes.


Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion in Both Sitting Duet , © Herman Sorgeloos

Both The Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece that will be presented in Bulgaria this summer refer to John Cage’s work –  to his Cheap Imitation and Lecture On Nothing. How do you relate to Cage’s legacy and these pieces, how do you work with them so they furnish your mutual work with composer Matteo Fargion?

Cheap Lecture started because Matteo was giving performances of John Cage’s 1950 Lecture On Nothing, and I invited him to show it in a theatre in Belgium. He said but why don’t we speak it together so as to make it fresh, and I thought well if we go that far then why not remove Cage’s words and replace them with our own. The piece isn’t a homage but rather a questioning and reactivating of a way of thinking that has influenced so much performance work from Judson Church to the present. And The Cow Piece questions the same structure again, and in fact we’ve now made two more pieces which continue this process, and each piece arrives at something completely different.


In your mutual performances it’s often that there are no more strict roles of a “composer” and “performer/choreographer”. What’s the basis of this exchange between you too?

Matteo and I’s duets were premised from the start on the idea that we would share everything in common: concieving, making, rehearsing, performing and administrating the work. There are two advantages of this: the first is that when the work is seeming lost or under attack you don’t feel so lonely, and the second is that it’s great to have a different take on what you know too well. For me I like that Matteo can make dance visible again.

You are very active also as a professor, leading various courses at universities and giving a lot of workshops. What is your pedagogical method and it’s aim?

There has been a proliferation recently in courses for dance and performance and many artists like me have benefited from them as a way to support our own practice. It isn’t always easy however as there are few rules as to what might be useful for a student, so it’s a hit and miss game and you never really know what anyone learned or whether it was useful. My strategy more or less is to try and introduce some ideas about music composition, perhaps because they’re in opposition to prevailing post-structuralist modes of thinking. But at the same time they’re illuminating and even if you dislike them then your dislike might point you towards what you need. And I also try to look at ideas around performance itself, even trying to encourage the students to question what it is and why they would do it, and why anyone would want to watch it. For me in return I am fed by fresh thinking from the students I work with, which has a direct impact on the work I make.


You published A Handbook for a Choreographer which presents with your vision on various concepts in dance. What made you decide that the moment had come to write it? What would you like to share with it?

I noticed that there wasn’t a book for younger artists which reflected the multiplicity of ways of working which we now use in dance. Nobody had written such a book because it’s a risky position to take, that you would assume you knew enough to try and say something. My attempt came out of a series of talking workshops where I wrote down many people’s thoughts about how and why dance worked or didn’t work, so I tried to ground the book in a wider set of opinions. And politically I chose not to quote only famous people but to include all sorts of artists working in dance, of different ages and from different genres.


You are active as a choreographer, performer, lecturer, writer and also as a curator, you participate in many talks and discussions…  A quite broad field of activities which in a way corresponds I guess with the broader notion of choreography today and the infrastructure of the scene. Many other contemporary artists in the dance field are that multifunctional as well. What allows and drives this multifaceted presence of yours in dance environment?

Like most dance artists I began to take on different kinds of work as a way to make a living, but gradually I’ve realised how all the elements – making, performing, teaching, writing and curating – feed each other and help me keep a more balanced view of what’s going on and how I might fit into it or not.

 photos: © Herman Sorgeloos

The interview is published in LIK Art Magazine, nr. 6, June 2012.