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Interview on Hands with Catherine Long for South East Dance, England, 2008


Catherine Long: What was your ambition in making the film?

Jonathan Burrows: The idea behind Hands was to make a dance that you could only watch on a television. We came up with the image of a pair of life-size hands on the screen, which would dominate the corner of the room and be intriguing enough that you wouldn't change channels.

My original thought was that the hands should be moving with the precision and speed of a pianist's hands. I asked the composer Matteo Fargion to write a piece of music, but instead of using notes he should use six hand gestures. I expected his hands to be a virtuosic blur of movement, but then he turned up with a kind of slow and plodding old man's hand dance. It became the first minute and a half of the film. After that I took over and doubled the speed.

CL: What do you think was particularly successful?

JB: The most interesting thing about the film for me is that it's four and a half minutes of television without an edit, something that is supposed to be impossible.

CL: Would you change anything if you could make the film again?

JB: I'd let Matteo perform it, which he did originally.

CL: What were the themes/ideas behind the work?

JB: You never know what the real subject is until it's in front of an audience, all you can do is to be as true as possible to what's happening while you're making it. In this case the starting point was quite abstract, but it arrived at a very particular atmosphere and attitude which seems to put people in mind of the patience and stoicism of people who works with their hands. Then again this wasn't entirely a surprise because hands carry such strong marks of age and experience, we read them all the time without perhaps knowing it.

CL: Describe the techniques you employed in making the film.

JB: I made five minutes of choreography but then had to cut thirty seconds to allow for the credits. It seems absurd now but it took me hours to decide what to cut, so that the flow of the thing stayed strong. We shot it in one take, with me using a metronome to make sure I finished at the right moment. The lighting was by Jack Hazan, who lit the area of my lap with the care and complexity you would use in lighting a huge stage: every part of the knees and thighs had different shades of shadow and brilliance. Noel Balbirnie was focus puller, running to and fro with a tape measure and keeping up a stream of instructions to me so as to allow an easy shift of focus as the hands came forwards. The director Adam Roberts came up with the slow pan at the start, which we fought hard to try and persuade him to not to do, but which I now see is essential for setting up the patience of the viewer to sit and watch the hands. It takes away the distraction of wondering what else is in the room.

CL: What was the production process?

JB: Because we had no edits we decided to use the money to pay for 35mm film, which would have a special sparkle that might just help the viewer to stay attentive. The problem was the first shoot had a problem with the camera, and we had to use insurance to set up and re-shoot the whole thing one week later. It was heart breaking. But in the end the Arts Council and BBC were happy with the result, and it did get broadcast in several other countries which was probably fairly unusual for a dance film.

Ever since then I've tried to think of another idea for how to make a television film, but I have too much expectation now. When we
made Hands it was a leap in the dark, taken with as much intelligence as we could muster, but also with a lot of naivety to try something new.

© Jonathan Burrows and Catherine Long 2023

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