Reservoir: Jonathan Burrows (ENG)

Kaaitheater bulletin Jan 2007English

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In the Reservoir section we give an artist the opportunity to tell us about his ‘reservoir’: the library, video collection, archives or experiences on which he draws when creating.


I started out as a dancer because my sister went to The Royal Ballet School and this seemed an exciting thing to do, not because I particularly thought anything about dance, but because I was jealous she got to be away at school. The Royal Ballet School was a harsh place for a child to be, but by the time I figured that out it was hard to turn back. Well I did ok and they liked me as a dancer, but at a certain point for some reason I wasn´t turning out what they wanted me to be, so they picked up on a spark of me being interested in choreography and they kind of pushed me in that direction. I only realised this a few years ago, and I had to take some time then to decide for myself is this what I want! Well they gave me a contract with the Royal Ballet as an apprentice choreographer, but nobody there knew what that was or quite what to do with me, but I hung around and eventually made a niche for myself in the best way I could. I ended up a soloist.

But at the same time I fell in with a group of people centred around Riverside Studios, and this was an amazing place in the beginning. It was run by a man called David Gothard, who managed to draw all sorts of important artists to work there, so you´d see Samuel Beckett sat at the bar, and Dario Fo was often around, and Tadeuz Kantor, and Cage and Cunningham showed their duets there and so forth. And it was there that I saw the first glimpse of American post modern dance, Douglas Dunn, David Gordan, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and it seemed like the clue I´d been waiting for. And then the English experimental choreographer Rosemary Butcher asked me to dance for her, and I did for thirteen years on and off, and she became and remains a vital source for me. So for a long while I lived this strange dual existence, tights and make-up one night, and experimental dance the next. It took me a long time though to know what I wanted to do with all this conflicting information. I went on trying to choreograph, even for the Royal Ballet touring company, but I didn´t really start making anything I felt made sense to me for at least eight years or so. It was only after that that I met Matteo.

Matteo himself has always been an influence from the word go, and remains so. But he had also studied composition with the composer Kevin Volans, and I had the idea to ask Kevin if I could go and study with him as well. So I spent two years, a few days or weeks at a time, going over to Ireland where he lived and having this extraordinary education in ideas around how to make something. Kevin had been assistant to Stockhausen for a while, but had also been a friend of the American composer Morton Feldman, another important figure in music. The ideas that came out of that time with Kevin are still crucial to me, and of course they´re the big link between Matteo and I now, and Both Sitting Duet is a translation of the score of a piece of music by Morton Feldman.

I was never a very good ballet dancer so I was always looking for ways to move that I could manage better. Of course I found that in dance forms like release work and contact improvisation, but also in folk dance stuff I´d done at school. I liked the traditional mens dances from England. When you saw the real thing the dancers had this weird quality of absurdity mixed with profound dignity. I´ve seen people dance so drunk they couldn´t stand, but when they came out to perform something happened to them and they took on this timeless body that carried them in a way that sent a chill down your back. There´s still a bit of that movement, and perhaps attitude, in what Matteo and I do.

The interest in music and music composition that I got from Matteo and Kevin Volans has continued for me, but it´s also been slowly enriched by more ideas about theatre and performance. Working with Jan Ritsema on Weak Dance Strong Questions was an important time for me, which opened up ways of seeing and thinking about things. And this coincided with a new wave of ideas about dance performance, led perhaps by Jerome Bel and Xavier Le Roi, which threw out a challenge to dance to find diferent kinds of clarity in what was attempted, not to rely so much on the old sometimes easy poetics of more aestheticised dance.

At the same time I travel round now from time to time giving a workshop which is based a lot on talking, and I find there´s a huge amount of knowledge and questioning out there about this thing that we do, and it´s a constant source of delight and stimulation for me. I sense that the thing is out of the hands of the few now and there´s something in the air which is encouraging all sorts of new channels and investigations, across the world and across many different artists in dance and performance.

At the same time I´ve been obsessed recently with poetry. It seems a wonderful era in English language poetry, but I can mention for instance Jo Shapcott, Douglas Dunn (another Douglas Dunn!), Seamus Heaney of course, Michael Donaghy, the Australian Les Murray, Hugo Williams. I sometimes think that poetry is closer to choreography than anything else. I´m still trying to articulate why, but it´s something to do with the way both forms come at subject matter tangentially and then use form to amplify the meaning, to arrive at something you recognise but couldn´t have articulated. For the same reason I´m passionate about the playwright Martin Crimp.

My other passion is for dub reggae. Not homophobic dancehall, but serious spiritual reggae, played kidney shakingly loud. I don´t know why I love this but I always have. In the late 70´s and early 80´s in London you either loved punk or reggae, and I loved reggae from the first time I saw it played live. I get excited by the combination of sparse choices which arrive at dense overlapping and uplifing waves of sound. It´s a very disciplined form, always holding back but always delivering at just the right moment. The greatest of the UK sound systems is led by an man called Jah Shaka, and I´d follow him anywhere to hear him play.

In dance Merce Cunningham and Steve Paxton remain benchmarks for me, both in terms of physical intelligence and artistry and in terms of thinking about what dance is and can be. They´ve both pushed at those boundaries, at the same time as holding on to some core principals of their own which go on sustaining them. I would also go anywhere to hear or see either of those two!