Jonathan Burrows interview with Macarena Hernandez for Poesía en Voz Alta, Mexico City, 2021
In your workshop, what did the Small Talk format contribute to the choreographic-performance projects/experiences? What are the contributions of this type of conversation for creative production?
It feels to me that the period of lockdown due to Covid, has allowed a particular moment of reflection within contemporary dance. I mean it has of course been disastrous financially for many dancers, especially in more fragile economies, because of lost teaching, rehearsal and performances. I don't want to underestimate the impact of that, and how it's also been particularly hard for young dancers in training, who don't know what kind of dance world they'll emerge into after lockdown. But at the same time somehow the culture machine paused, and things that usually get drowned out by the marketplace of contemporary dance, had the possibility to feel more validated. And one of those things that touched me in this period of pandemic, has been the quality of meeting together, even online, which is a huge and equal part of the work that dancers do. I mean how dancers communicate and share easily and in an open way, and how dance itself is a model for this being together. Nobody could perform in a theatre or gallery, so this other mode of artistic process revealed itself as equal performance, and that will stay with me.
It seems also that this moment has allowed for more discussion about greater diversity within contemporary dance, which requires listening, and can benefit from the ability of people from different places and demographics to be easily together in the same online space. And most importantly the institutions were ineffective at first, which allowed artists to take the floor. I mean I think we need to prepare ourselves now for what comes next, but I sense something will be held onto from these unprecedented times. So the meeting I had with dance artists through Casa Del Lago in Mexico City, was part of a continuum of reaching out and being reached out to. And by great good fortune it turned out to be a meeting of mature artists, thinking and wondering together, and the wondering went on for some time afterwards through emails.
Somebody reading this might ask, well what were they wondering about? My memory then is that the conversation started with asking do you have a question about choreography. Thinking about it now this seems a bit of an academic start, but it depends how you view the word choreography. In the context of this conversation the questions that came up were about choreography as a felt sense, and as a way of moving through, perceiving, remembering, communicating, imagining and anticipating the world. It's an image of choreography as an unfolding process of mapping experience, in relation to a given environment. This then includes improvisation as an equal way of making dance. So we talked a lot about challenging the binary between set material and improvisation, and about challenging the binary between those who identify as a dancer and those who identify as a maker.
How to conceive choreographic practice from a collective perspective? What does this notion contribute? Could this practice be conceived as a space to try out ways of relating in other levels (such as social, economic or political)?
This is a big question, whether choreographic practice can be conceived from a collective perspective, and I don't know if I can really answer it. On the one hand there is something about dance practice which is always about being in relation to, and about embodied knowledge which accumulates faster when you practice with other people. On the other hand there remains an image of the choreographer as the person who organises other people's experience, and this is despite many years of work by many artists to break down that hierarchy. Recently I find myself wondering if there's a slightly idealised image of collaboration in contemporary dance, which sets up the expectation that everything must be fully agreed before anything happens. In my collaborations with the composer Matteo Fargion, we've tended towards something that looks more like an anarchist perspective, where the person doing something is the person who decides for that thing, but the doing remains fluid and another idea can arise from another direction and be absorbed. The decision to work this way is more pragmatic than politic. It just seems easier to think and physicalise together when things keep moving. Often one or the other of us might begin work on something and not reveal it for quite some time, and then afterwards we'll sit down and discuss it. Then immediately the new idea is handed over for the other to play with, and so it goes on.
I like very much a description I read recently from the anthropologist Greg Downey, who has been studying capoeira with Mestre Nestor Capoeira in New York. Downey describes how at first in capoeira you copy what you see the others doing, and it feels superficial, but you return again and again to that capoeira circle and the superficial movement begins to become a feeling. And as Mestre Nestor Capoeira says, the feeling then becomes 'a vision of life', and one that can help even your economic circumstances. It's about doing together in a way that allows spirit to emerge. You have the same in the hip hop cipher. I was working recently with former B-boy Fouad Nefill at P.A.R.T.S, which is the school of the choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in Belgium, and he put it in a beautiful way. He said: "There's an idea which is about entering the cypher by listening, so not with movement or any more tricks, but you prepare mentally to enter. It's also about what way do you want to be driven in the cypher. To dance to beat your opponent isn't always the best way to beat your opponent, sometimes the focus within the cypher is what matters." For me this image of focus within the circle says something about the possibility and power of collective doing and embodiment in dance.
Can you tell us about any thoughts during the process of creating 'Let us stop this mad rush towards the end'?
The performance 'Let us stop this mad rush towards the end', which was shared online as part of the Casa Del Lago event, was a commission for the London Festival of Contemporary Music in December 2019. The invitation was to work with a full orchestra, and the event took place in a large underground industrial space, which had previously been a concrete testing facility within the University of London. We had to work fast, and it was clear from the beginning that there would only be two rehearsals with the orchestra. So with these restrictions in mind we came up with the image of a solo voice at one end of the hall, and far away at the other end an orchestra, and between these two poles a single dancer would tread a constant path backwards and forwards, in an attempt to link the disparate sounds.
Two other things happened which helped shape the piece. The first is that I play English folk music, and my mentor the concertina player Will Duke had said one day that ornamentation in music was a way 'to stop the mad rush towards the end'. I loved this image of rhythmic detail as a way to enter and expand time, so I suggested the singer Francesca Fargion should chant this as a fixed loop over and over. At the same time we asked the orchestra to improvise whatever they wanted, while the dancer Claire Godsmark travelled this huge distance between them. It was complete luck really that it all fell together, and as the orchestra began to sing "Let us stop this mad rush towards the end', it was immediately obvious that the words conjured a sense of environmental urgency. It wasn't what we'd intended but it was there, and it was somehow very moving.
© Jonathan Burrows and Macarena Hernandez 2021