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Jonathan Burrows interview with Lawrence Dunn on 52 Portraits, for the Huddersfield Music Dept Online Journal, September 2016

Clocking in at maybe 200 minutes overall, with an enormous cast, this has got to be the most ambitious project you have both worked together on. Given that it’s all split up into little bits maybe it doesn’t feel like that, but considered as a single entity, one would have to look at least toward mid- century ballet to find something even slightly on this sort of scale. And yet, all these dances are being quietly released week-by-week onto the web. How did this project come about?

I had been thinking for a long time about other ways dance might occupy the internet, other than music videos and short clips of spectacular dancing that you might see on Facebook. And the model for me was the year I spent on and off following Tim Etchell's daily political playbill series called Vacuum Days, which ran for the entirety of 2011. Matteo and I had had a two year experience of working with exploratory digital software, motion capture and so forth, as part of William Forsythe's Motionbank project in Frankfurt, so we had some idea of that place where art meets the digital, but what I liked about Tim's project was that it wasn't about things looking digital but rather about the obvious ways we all use software. So we decided to make a project which would take the short form of Facebook postings, but give it this accumulating quality, so it might transcend the usual instant and forgettable nature of dance clips on social media. And the choice to stage each portrait at a table, was made with the understanding that many people would watch them while sat at a table with their laptop, so the watcher sits opposite the performer, sharing a familiar technological situation.

And the project has given Matteo and I a way to engage with making a much bigger kind of piece, with a large number of collaborators, but at the same time working in the way we always work: from the start step at a time, paying attention to detail and focussing everything on the gap between one thing and the next.

I wonder if the dances made for this project might represent a return to an earlier way of working—as the majority of your pieces over the years have been performed not by third-party dancers but by yourselves. One early collaboration was a 1995 dance made for television, called Hands. Was that the last dance made with the camera in mind? How would you compare your approach then to now, twenty years later?

Recently Matteo and I seem to have found more satisfactory ways to invite other people to join us in our work, encouraged perhaps by a moment in dance where collective practice has become important again. And we're very glad about that.

And in terms of making something specifically for camera, yes, I guess for many years we've been more interested in making rougher representations of actual live performance, but 52 Portraits goes back to what we were trying to achieve for camera in 1994 with Hands. In fact for me I would say that I think 52 Portraits is finally a way of continuing the Hands project, which we wanted to do for a long time, and it seems sometimes these things take decades and you just have to wait.

These dances are all called portraits, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to look at all of the two-hander pieces (going back to Both Sitting Duet) as being self-portraits of one kind or another. Would it be wrong to think of your work, generally speaking, as being more interested in portraiture than tableaux?

I think your question touches upon something very interesting about dance, which is the way that no matter how abstract or distanced it seems, there is always a sense of the person revealed. Having said that though, the job of the dancer or performer is usually to resist the autobiographical impulse at all costs, because to embrace it is to reduce other rich and contradictory elements, like more abstract or formal things, and then you risk losing some of the peculiarities and uncertainties which make performance resonate.


If I had to pinpoint the difference between Hands and these pieces, it could be the collective effect-by-osmosis of the duets. We as viewers of your pieces have gotten used to seeing Burrows and Fargion: the effect of this is that, when watching these dances for other people, the style of movement echoes Jonathan’s own characteristic movements; and of course pretty much all of the music is played or sung by Matteo. It brought to mind Gilbert and George, who, because they have for so long appeared in every one of their paintings, one now ‘expects’ to see—even if they are hidden or don’t appear at all. With their paintings there emerges (at least with me) a certain ‘where’s-wally’ looking-around-for-them. In other words, the difference between Hands and 52 Portraits is that, in the portraits, Burrows and Fargion are consistently ‘in the background’—is this reasonable?

I think you're right that many of the people who've worked on the portraits know our work, and are in some sense in negotiation with it already when they enter the room, regardless of what they propose. This might be dangerous in terms of trapping what happens in a certain too familiar place, but at the same time the more familiar aspects and performance tone of Matteo and I's work creates a common ground where we might meet and move things forwards without too much instruction. And these 52 meetings with different artists are anyway feeding and disrupting and interrogating what Matteo and I do and think and assume and doubt and wish for, so the exchange is mutual, and that's the point of doing it.

There’s also something in the duets that feels therapeutic—I fairly often get the feeling that Jonathan is Matteo’s therapist. Do you think there’s something therapeutic about these portrait dances too?—especially given that the song texts regularly dig into the dancing individual’s backstory and childhood, desires, etc.

Well you're right that the therapeutic nature of the dancing body is never far from the surface when we practice or watch dance, but for me the process of 52 Portraits is perhaps more sociological and political. The intention of the lyrics is to throw the usual idea of the perfect, blessed, angelic dancer figure, and focus on more interesting, conflicting and contradicting information and ideas about what a dancer might be and why we might dance, and to expose the hidden politics of dance practice. Matteo and I are interested in counterpoint, both as a love between the parts but also as a friction which causes something else to happen. So for us the lyrics and music of each portrait are about sustaining and at the same time questioning the thing done.

And one of the pleasures of the project has been to experience the skill that dancers have, to be precise and at the same time spontaneous, and to pitch their performance with self-conscious awareness in relation to the camera and the viewer. And all of them come with a different methodology. And for me this is another aspect of the project, that as well as giving equal space to known and unknown artists, it also gives space to different approaches to working, in a way that challenges the way the dominant discourse wants always to simplify and to reject what doesn't conform or no longer conforms.


In this project there is a striking mix of persons doing the dancing. Some are quite well known (Betsy Gregory, William Forsythe, Robert Cohan, Siobhan Davies), while many others are young and relatively unknown. To put it bluntly—what’s your relationship with factual biography? In that, with a young dancer whose background is unknown, one could essentially tell any story one would like?


The portraits work like this: I make some exchange with the artist about what they might do, inviting that they start from what is overused, worn out, dug up, archeological and somehow burned into their motor memory; and I suggest that they might trace or map those remnants into the space in whatever way, not to show the moves but just be in the act of engaging with them. And I offer the musical form of La Folia, which Matteo and I worked with extensively throughout 2014, and some use it and others don't and for the ones who don't I suggest other ways of mapping the thing, like a song sung privately in the head, which perhaps contains some sort of questioning. And every person arrives and says the same thing, 'I've had no time, I've got nothing really.' And then they sit down and the work comes out. This all takes no more than an hour or so, and Hugo Glendinning is lighting as he goes and shooting from the start. And when we're done I ask them some stock questions and some questions provoked by the conversation in the room, and I ask for a piece of music that matters in whatever way. And I write the text from the interview on the train home, using what they say verbatim, and I send the lyric and chosen music to Matteo, and Hugo sends him the video, and the music is written very fast. And the performers never hear the music until they see the final portrait. The process is a kind of benign ineptness, built upon a lifetime of working together. The actual skills we use are hardly evident, and the same goes for the dancers. The human body changes too rapidly, and experiences what's happening on a somatic level too intensely to grasp half of what is happening at any given moment, so we learn to deal with the superficial. And to answer your question, it's not about truth or not, it's much messier than that, because that's how the body is.

Was there anything as regards historical models of portraiture that affected the way these dances were composed?—the lighting, for example, is very much chiaroscuro. For me, two different sorts of historical portraiture seemed to be relevant—one being the private, ‘at a distance’ picture (Vermeer’s interiors, for example, or Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream, whose model was his lover Hendrickje). The sort of pictures which are full of desire, psychology, maybe even a little erotic voyeurism —but very much ‘observed’ by the artist.

The other sort of picture would be the ‘fantasy’ or ‘character’ portrait, where either a stock figure or a real person is bent into a shape or a pose by the artist. These pictures are more rhetorical, and are not seen from ‘afar’ but are instead very much flatter, with the subject foregrounded almost to a point of disembodiment. Raeburn’s The Skating Minister springs to mind. It seemed to me that these dances had these two sorts of portraiture present as models and flitted between them.

I like very much your picture of these two kinds of portraiture, which sound like what Robert Lowell described in poetry as 'the raw and the cooked'. I think both are present in 52 Portraits, and it's usually an accident of who we're working with and what happens on the day. I've been thinking more about this issue since I read your comments and looked at the images of Rembrandt's mistress and Raeburn's skating man, and I've come to the conclusion that sometimes the difference in the gaze that's invited in 52 Portraits is to do with the colour of the clothing which the person chooses to wear. I've noticed that dark clothing leaves the person floating in a space which softens and contains them without distracting us with surface; whereas light coloured clothing places the performer very much within the room, in a more two dimensional and plastic way.

Finally there is within performance, as within the visual arts, an ongoing tension between more objective and more subjective approaches and gazes, and I'm aware that portraiture is a dangerous thing to attempt in a climate resonant with this discussion. However my reason for doing it is not so much to represent or defend a subjective stance, or get into that argument at all really, but rather to use the portrait form as a way to challenge the hierarchies of currency within dance practice which constantly want to place one approach or style above another. And I do this because as an audience member I continue to find extraordinary experiences in the most unlikely and least acceptable of places, regardless of style or conceptual viewpoint. It seems to me that the only criteria really as to what resonates seems to be that the person is more or less consistent and more or less evidently sentient.

One curious aspect of all these dances is their always being done at a table. What was the motivation for this?

Use of tables in contemporary music interests me quite a bit—Tim Parkinson and James Saunders have made a point of doing their duos mostly at tables, directly facing the audience. Plenty of improvisers using electronics also perform using a tabletop set-up. Keith Rowe (of AMM) once said that putting the guitar horizontal on the table did quite a bit to alter the nature of the instrument and its music, so that the music wouldn’t come from the torso, and be representative of the ego as it were—but rather would be reflective of the world.

The music for these dances is enigmatic too—it feels both throw-away and carefully laboured. Each is a song, with lyrics referring to the dancer, and each uses a model tune (from Tina Turner, or MIA, or Iggy Pop, or The Roots, or Stravinsky’s Les Noces) though I’m not sure they’re all that recognisable as they are mostly reconfigured and recomposed (I certainly didn’t recognise any). What was the thinking on this?

I think we just liked the idea that someone's ordinary life or ideas, might be sung as though what we are hearing is crucially important. And the act of singing has a way of universalising what has been said.

Do you have any thoughts on informality and formality? There feels something deeply informal about these dances—domestic, at turns—but also something about masks and formality and outward presentation. The music too, is often very informal, but this can sometimes feel jarring somehow, but I don’t know ‘with what’.

Matteo and I have had a policy for many years of saying yes to any invitations to perform, and then figuring out how to do it afterwards, whatever the space and conditions of working. Hence the title of the new piece we're making, which is called 'Any Table Any Room'. So we might be performing one week in a large proscenium arch theatre, and the next week in a hall without technical equipment. And each of those two extremes requires a different approach to the balance between what is formal and what is informal in the performance, and both qualities must be there in order that the audience members are invited and engaged, and at the same time free. The whole purpose of our performances is to be under the same roof, which is a term we borrowed from the director and performer Jan Ritsema, and the same philosophy applies to the portraits.

There does seem to be a dialogue, both overall, and in the song lyrics themselves, between a certain ‘behind-the-scenes-ish-ness’—things to do with funding and the Arts Council, careers, education, boring practicalities—and something deeply lyrical. But then I guess this is a preoccupation of much of your work? (A Choreographer’s Handbook swings quite a bit between these two places.)

In dance now there is a slow recognition that artistic practice includes many different elements, including how we deal with the practicalities and with the public face of what we do, and I wanted 52 Portraits to reflect this in a respectful way. We are living through a period when there is a vast infrastructure of arts professionals, waged and protected by holiday pay and pensions and so forth, in ways artists can only dream of. And this class of arts professionals does good work but is also busy creating gateways for artists to pass through or not, and are constantly having to collude with government to create ever increasing bureaucratic mechanisms that we must negotiate. I wanted that 52 Portraits highlighted the voices of artists while quietening these voices of bureaucracy, and one way to do that was to let artists speak directly about the daily job of surviving.

As we are now more than halfway through these dances being released, is there any long-term structure or development across them—even something emerging by accident?

The only principle for curating the project was that it must be people whose work we love. But as the project has developed so it has become clear that it can never give room for everyone who should be there, and so we are looking at ways to make clear at the end that the list of 52 is in no way comprehensive and that it could go on. And we have already been asked would we do it again in another context, and our preferred model would be that the idea is put into the commons and anyone who wanted to make or subvert or do whatever they want with their own portraiture, would be welcome. And the list of 52 is in a sense deliberately random, shifting from known to quite unknown people, through obvious choices but with occasionally surprising choices. And the important thing for me is that everyone is equal under the roof of the project, so when I was asked could someone show just the portraits of older performers as part of another event, I said no, because to single out the older performers would be to make a judgement on their age, and for me there is a politics in the fact of ignoring all the usual hierarchies which stereotype or marginalise artists for whatever reason.

An extra question, not sure about this one:
Jennifer Walshe recently fingered you (rather cutely, in a footnote) in MusikTexte, where she was introducing the term ‘New Discipline’— meaning a recent tendency toward incorporation of movement and the body and sociality and theatricality in an outwardly musical context.[1] I’m not sure there’s anything ‘new’ or indeed, ‘disciplined’ about the trend she’s noticed (that might have been the point of her term), but anyway, did you have any thought on this? Do you think of what you’re doing as expressly new or experimental or revisionist?

Well this is a nice article by Jennifer Walsh and it's very flattering to be mentioned in it, and I think she explains very clearly that her use of the term 'New Discipline' is pragmatic, so as to provoke a recognition of what's happening in terms of this current interest which composers have in performance. And of course this rekindled interest in the performing body is strongly present also in the visual arts. But for me it's what I've always done because I'm a dancer, and I guess the more necessary question I have is why there's been this sudden turn back towards the body, and I think we're all still trying to work that out. Meanwhile Matteo and I tend to be moving in the opposite direction, where we talk of what we do more and more as being music, in order to clarify our position within the continuing conceptual moment in dance. Because we somehow fit in with this conceptual moment, but in other ways we make decisions which disappoint, so we're at pains always to make clear we never promised to entirely fulfil the conceptual obligation, and the reason is that we're busy making music. It's rhetorical but it helps. It keeps our options open.

© Jonathan Burrows and Lawrence Dunn, 2016

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