rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Trashing Performance

8 February 2010

The orthodoxy of subversion

Author: Jonathan Burrows

Dear Adrian,

The gap between letters is long and our phone conversations have, in the meantime, proved faster at summing up thoughts. I shall nevertheless try to pick up the written thread, albeit in a perhaps less theoretical way (though I enjoy the glimmer of theory).

   I mentioned in my last letter the poet Michael Donaghy. There is, in his prose writings, something which has struck both of us, to do with his interest in identifying the moment when what has been a necessary radical force becomes in itself the new orthodoxy. One target of Donaghy's arguments was the teaching of free verse as the one true methodology in many literature departments of American Universities in the 1970s. In his talk 'American Revolutions' he describes how the poetry of the 1950s, from the beats to Lowell, became at that time the template for an ideal of literary freedom, such that the idea of letting go formal rules became, in itself, a kind of formal rule. The remarkable thing, I think, is how long a radical thought can sustain its sense of radicality, often through two or three generations of devotees who shine ever brighter as the ideas become ever more codified and unassailable.


   It makes me think of your example of Steve Paxton's description of Boris Charmatz dancing the idiot-child dance at a contact jam. I saw Boris do this once, in a dance with Steve Paxton, and it was like the layers falling off the sacred cow of contact improvisation until you saw, for a moment, the thing itself. Boris turned the code on its head, pretending not to know the way the form worked and so returning it to the democratic principles and sense of physical discovery it had always been meant to embody. And the interesting thing was that those in the audience who didn’t like what Boris Charmatz was doing, expressed their irritation by pointing out how dangerous it might have been for Steve Paxton that Boris was throwing himself around and over him like an out of control dog. So the critique came in terms of a desire for more control. But it seemed to me that Paxton knew exactly what was going on, and was even complicit in it. He appeared to love it.

   Paxton himself has always had a pleasure in throwing a spanner into the works. An example which springs to mind is the moment during one of the influential Dartington Summer Schools of the early 1980's, at the height of the first wave of enthusiasm for contact improvisation in the UK, when he announced that only somebody who had studied classical ballet for five years could really perform contact work. I always imagined he had made the statement because he sensed that a generation of dance artists was in danger of bypassing technique in a rush to embrace the newer freedoms of soft and more improvised forms. He seemed aware that in order to keep moving forwards you needed everything. Recently I heard Steve Paxton state that the generation of Judson church in the 60's never saw themselves as overturning technique, they wanted rather to add to it, to develop and extend the possibilities.

   We seem to be navigating ourselves around the idea of how to negotiate the relationship between old and new, especially in a time when the marketplace pushes us always into buying the new and even the old is repackaged and sold back to us. And everything is performance, even shoes and cars, or talking to somebody on a phone.

   When I wrote my previous letter I tried to paraphrase a particular quote from Michael Donaghy, in which I remembered him making an attempt to describe the relationship of old to new in traditional music, and the freedom to be found in the known form. I've tracked it down now and once again it's from his 1999 essay 'Wallflowers':

'A player in such a tradition is expected to improvise, to "make it new", and the possibilities of expression within the prescribed forms are infinite. But it's considered absurd to violate the conventions of the form, the 'shape' of the dance tune or story, because you leave the community of your audience behind, and you bring the dancers to a standstill. By "traditional form" I mean the shape of the dance, those verbal and rhythmical schemes shared by the living community which link it to the dead and to generations to come.'¨

   This makes me think of the moment we shared in a workshop in Vienna in 2007, when we asked everyone to place six objects in relation to each other on the floor, and suddenly there were objects up walls and out in the car park. We were trying to work out why so often the first urge of many participants in workshops is to subvert the given task, as though the act of subverting might demonstrate the most creative possible approach. And after some thought you said it was perhaps linked to the idea that the creative act must involve a breach, or a transgression. Perhaps we can all recognise that impulse, the sense that we can only move forwards if we break with the past. But at which point might that impulse become just another habit of thought and action, another orthodoxy? At which point might it be interesting to ask ourselves, what would happen if I just followed the task? Or rather, what if I gave myself once again something to subvert? This is linked to another current of thought that floated around in that Vienna workshop - that contemporary performance is defined by its refusal of a convention, such that every performance as it begins must establish its own conventions with the audience, enough that the audience can read it.

   There is an English squeeze box player called John Kirkpatrick, who in 1981 wrote an article against the trend amongst folk musicians of playing medleys of tunes - all the best bits packed together and changing frequently to keep the audience attentive. I think his argument fits somehow into this meditation on the relationship between old and new. In the article he talks about how you 'get there through a gradual dulling of the senses by means of prolonged, repeated physical activity and its appropriate accompaniment.' The emphasis here is on 'repeated'. Again an attempt to describe a freedom, arrived at not by heightening the senses but by finding a way to quieten them, such that something else happens. To distract yourself from yourself so that your self becomes more visible.

   This is the opposite of the message we are sold by advertising. Advertising has borrowed the notion of performance and turned it into an idea of perpetual self-revelation through sensorial overload. And this has become an image of the creative act which has permeated culture and the media, and become a filter through which all performances are read. So where does that leave us? How do we orientate ourselves in relation to this more powerful image of what it is that we thought we were doing?

With best wishes, Jonathan

Donaghy, M., 2009. Wallflowers. In: The shape of the dance: essays, interviews and digressions. London: Picador, pp.5.

Donaghy, M., 2009. American Revolutions. In: The shape of the dance: essays, interviews and digressions. London: Picador, pp.114.

You can find a recent interview with Steve Paxton on the website of the Brighton Movement 12 Group:
Steve Paxton Transcript. [online] Available at:

Kirkpatrick, J., Medley Mania [online] Available at:

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