rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Trashing Performance

30 October 2009

The writing of words and the writing of dance

Author: Jonathan Burrows

Dear Adrian,

Thanks for your thoughts about working. Perhaps this is how we begin?
   I like your idea to take further this fascination we have had for the relationship between the writing of words and the writing of dance. I think of our mutual responses to the work of the poet Michael Donaghy, particularly 'Wallflowers', his meditation on what he calls 'that serendipity provided by negotiation with a resistant medium'; for which he chooses the analogy of a traditional dance, the form of which acts as a container for what is shared without restricting the freedom of each individual to be spontaneous in response to it. Language itself has this quality.
   Dance practice, on the other hand, has come to value the immediate gesture above all other forms of communication, driven perhaps by the experiential power of physical choices made in the moment. How do we begin to unpick this? It seems to come down to the old argument about where we place the audience, or readership, in relation to the practice of art making. This is something which Michael Donaghy seemed acutely aware of: in 'Wallflowers' he describes the form of poetry as being a tool to 'burn it in deeper than prose' in the minds of the audience. He was a player of traditional Irish music, a flautist, and he talks about the imperative in traditional music that the player improvises. At the same time he makes clear the absurdity of thinking that you can break the form without losing this bedrock of shared communication that exists with the audience.

   I took part in a workshop in 2007 led by the choreographer Philipp Gehmacher and the theorist Peter Stamer. During one of the sessions Peter Stamer threw out a challenge to one of the most cherished notions of dance, that ‘being in the moment’ is the best of all possible time-frames. ‘It is’, he said, ‘just another construct’. I have dedicated my whole life as a performer to trying to be more 'in the moment', so this invitation to shrug it off was very liberating. It echoes with Michael Donaghy's questioning of the immediacy of the spontaneous act. ‘I for one’, Donaghy says, ‘have never ascertained how long I have to think of something before it stops being spontaneous. Perhaps it's not a matter of duration. Perhaps true spontaneity takes it's own time.’

   It would be nice to think we could unpick these contentions, redraw the battle lines, without doing damage to our own, albeit slower, spontaneity. And without seeming to attack the world of the improvised, despite how loudly the improvisers tend to shout at times. Perhaps we could look at why a written text or dance is what it is, and when it might not be useful to write? Tim Etchells, for instance, points out that to arrive at speech you might have actually to speak. I leave it there for now and hope that this rambling attempt to approach some kind of a subject might spark you.

With best wishes, Jonathan

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