rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Performing Idea

29 June 2010


Jonathan Burrows
Adrian Heathfield

Some notes and sources from the encounter at the Writing Dance workshop Lime, Schwankhalle, Bremen

   Regarding methods of performance making we wondered what would arise if we repeatedly asked ‘how little do I need?’ We worked from the assumption that a space is never empty. We worked with the simple gestures and with spoken language, exploring their relations in patterns of alternation, unison and overlap. Each time something was made or placed within the space we asked the question ‘what is already resident in what is there?’

   We pursued approaches to performance that took into account Ludwig Wittgenstein’s observation that ‘the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one’s eyes.)’


   We experimented with and discussed the formal means through which elements are drawn to the attention of the spectator: aesthetic phenomena of sameness and difference, constants and variants, rhythmic qualities.

   JB noted Terry Eagleton’s thoughts on the meaningful being dependent on meaningless elements in a text: ‘In Lotman’s view, a good literary work is one rich in information; and information is a matter of deviation. The more stable, predictable elements of a text, such as metre, belong to what one might call its dominant code.  But because they are so regular, they tend also to be less perceptible. These are known to information theory as ‘redundant’ elements, which are necessary for conveying information but not in themselves informative. Think, for example, of the letters of the alphabet, which are meaningless in themselves but a necessary medium of meaning. The text is at its most informative when it deviates unpredictably from one of its codes, creating effects which stand out against this uniform background.’


   One recurring question was an artist’s relation to their inherent knowledges: how to challenge what has solidified into the known in order to approach the unknown. In particular with movement work the question arises in relation to physical knowledge, to internalized modes or techniques that have become habits of movement. AH noted that this relation between habits of the body-mind and the unknown is conditioned by the paradoxes of forgetting. Forgetting being a process that is both necessary in order to sustain proficient physical functions and a barrier to encounters with otherness. You hold implicit knowledges that are active but not apparent and readily accessible to you: so the work of unlocking what you are holding (but can no longer make visible to yourself) must first involve a kind of unlearning / re-membering of the forgotten.

   JB noted that these habits are doubtless patterned into movements, but for him the ‘problem’ is not so much one with isolatable movements but how the body-mind orders them sequentially: the physical logic of their relations. Improvisation has been seen as a means to escape or transform the internalized disciplines or habitual practices of the body-mind. However it is self-evident that improvisation is not the only means to address this kind of sedimentation. Some difficulties with improvisation in this regard may be: that, as Xavier Le Roy has noted, it can succumb to an unquestioned ‘ideology of the new,’ that it can be too readily affiliated with the impossible aspiration of freedom from constraint and notions of absolute spontaneity. In response to this problematic of how one encounters the unknown it may be worth considering that within a practice each methodology or set of principles needs another methodology to question it. Also, that form can be a stop to expression, but it is also often the method of its delivery.


   We watched John Giorno’s performance of his poem, ‘We Got Here Yesterday, We’re Here Now, And I Can’t Wait To Leave Tomorrow.’

   We considered the nature of repetition – how it alters the spectator’s work of making sense - particularly in relation to patterns of expectation, satisfaction and disappointment. JB noted William Burrough’s take on Giorno’s repetitions and their relation to patterns of thought:

   ‘The repetition that characterizes John Giorno’s poetry is rooted in the basic nature of language, or symbolic representation, which is actually concerned not with communication, but with orientation in time; you wake up. You go to the bank. How many times will you repeat to yourself while you get ready to leave for the bank, I have to go to the bank to go to the bank the bank the bank...’ As if you could not get to the bank without repeating your intention to go there over and over to yourself.  And the audience recognize this seemingly senseless repetition as part of their own mental processes - ‘Yes, our minds sound just like that.’  The changing emphasis on different syllables as the phrases are repeated helps to break apart the too-familiar ‘meaning’ of the words, to crack them open and show their emptiness. This explicit realization conveys a feeling of liberation’

   AH noted Giorno’s use of breath, so that repetitions are carried across the length of a breath, marking each repeated phrase with a different quality as the exhaustion of air is carried into the intonation and sentiment. Repetition is altered through the deployment of affective corporeal differences.


   It was noted that the desire to express oneself frequently gets in the way of expression by over determining it. How might you avoid the tendency to impose yourself upon the thing made? We made things that we gave to others to work on in order to prevent our materials from becoming too dear or too near. We invented creative exercises that deployed obstacles to self-expression (physical and linguistic limitations and constraints) and multiple means of distraction for the performer in order to condition a productive lack of self-awareness. AH noted the qualities of actions that arose from invisible principles, instructions or recently acquired scores: seeing the performer thinking through and evaluating the act whilst doing it, the performer gives off the feeling of engagement with some thing elsewhere and consequently a feeling of self-loss. We observed that once relieved of the burden of expressing ourselves, we arrived at a better expression of ourselves. This approach to making is not so much to invent things, but rather to receive what arises.


   JB noted how the prodigious technical capacities of contemporary movement improvisers far exceed those of the early innovators in this field. In contemporary dance practice there is considerable evidence of increased potential in terms of what it is physically possible for a moving body to do. The subject of virtuosity arose. For AH – who enjoys virtuous performances  – virtuosity may become a block to the resonance of a piece. It may become the focal subject of the work, re-organizing its meanings according to its own encultured associations. Exceptional human endeavor, for instance, is often recuperated within heroic notions and used to consolidate notions of identity. The question arises then: how might you deploy something exceptional to release creative, symbolic, physical potentials rather than returning them to the attributes of an individual?


   JB noted that in the making of Quadrat, Beckett had proposed a simple system of set steps (6,4,4), choreographing four hunched and hooded figures in an infernal interlocking circuit of synchronized squaring and crossing. However, when it came to the realization of this choreography, Beckett found that the pattern he had imagined would lead the performers to crash into each other in the centre. Beckett was forced to introduce two extra steps (6,4,2,4) by which the performers would repeatedly sidestep each other. This deviation from the plan is now central to the powerful metaphorics of the piece, in which bodies tirelessly pace around, approach and avoid each other. JB notes this moment as a reflection of the arrival at the incidental. The incidental is to be distinguished from the accidental and the operations of chance (it also avoids the magical thinking that surrounds the two). The incidental discovery is the product of a thoughtful forward movement. The incidental discovery arises in the attempt to be as clear or as purposeful as possible. This is not about waiting for the ‘happy accident,’ it is just about recognizing that the incidental material is the thing you were waiting for. JB recalls an interview he heard with the poet Seamus Heaney in which he articulated a commitment to the incidental in roughly the following way: ‘I write poetry to arrive somewhere that I could not reasonably have been expected to arrive, but which I recognize when I get there.’

   AH notes that Beckett’s sidestep may also be an example of the organic form of adaptation. Organic systems include a capacity to deviate from and return to their principal system of growth / reproduction. Adaptation discloses the imperative to live, despite the obstacles to life inherent within it. This is one of Beckett’s recurring concerns: ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’ AH recalled Morton Feldman’s comment – cited in an earlier workshop by JB - that what is memorable in art is often the inorganic moment, yet the inorganic is dependent upon the organic for its existence.


Wittgenstein, L. In:  Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell Publishers Ltd., (1953) 1999, paragraph 129, p. 50.

Eagleton, T. In: How To Read A Poem, Blackwell Publishing, 2007, P. 55.

Burrows, W. In: ‘Foreword,’ You Got To Burn To Shine - The Poetry Of John Giorno, Serpent’s Tail, 1993.

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