Posed and Answered with Christian Burns of Burnswork
Christian Burns is the artistic director of burnsWORK (SF, CA) and co-founder of interdisciplinary arts space Parsons Hall Project Space (Holyoke, MA). Christian choreographed his first dance at age sixteen and in 1994, after finishing his formal training at The School of American Ballet, he began practicing improvisation in earnest. As a performer he worked with influential dancer-makers such as William Forsythe, Alonzo King and a sustained five-year collaboration with the renowned improviser Kirstie Simson. His choreography, improvised performances, and dance-for-camera works have been commissioned and presented throughout the US, Europe and Asia. He has been awarded the Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange (CHIME, mentor), Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship for Choreography, National Choo-San Goh Award for Choreography, Paula Citron Award for Choreography for Camera (Moving Pictures Festival, Toronto, CA) and a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Dancers. burnsWORK is a Company in Residence at the SF Conservatory of Dance.
What is your favorite part of each day?
Between 6-7am before my family wakes up, I enjoy quiet coffee time.
When was the last time you saw a work of art and were left speechless, in any art medium?
‘The Living Room’ produced by Briana Breen and podcast Love + Radio (podcast)–not a work of art, but a powerful expression of connectedness and humanity; President Obama’s eulogy for Clementa Pickney and his eulogy in honor of Beau Biden.
What do you look for when hiring a dancer ?
Experience. Somebody who can self-create, who has a point of view, who knows how to ride with uncertainty and doesn’t need everything answered before taking a step forward.
How do current trends affect your work (you) ?
If the way I work has either fallen into or out of trendiness it’s of no concern of mine. Trendiness is pack mentality, being part of a pack is of very little use for me. What’s generationally interesting is the way the word ‘trend’ seems to have flipped its meaning – when I was younger in the mid eighties, we never wanted to be associated with trendiness, and now there seems to be a different association – a way of getting on board with an idea.
If you could have a dinner party with ANY three people, who would they be?
My maternal and paternal grandfathers, both of whom I never met and Louis CK; might make for an interesting dinner party.
When you have an idea for a project how much do you leave open ended for your dancers to shape and how much do you prepare prior to rehearsals.
Hopefully I never leave anything ‘open ended.’ I work a lot with creating in the immediacy of the moment of performance, but the more improvisation a work requires, the more research and practice is required. There have to be highly defined agreements about content, context, aesthetic values, choreographic goals and intention for communication. I love seeing a dancer work their way around a question and watching their body as thought, that’s when a process can get really interesting.
I do a lot of research before every project, reading, writing, studying pieces of visual art, nature walks, but mainly I work very hard at making space for my thoughts and mental floating. The most selfish part of preparation is the ‘doing nothing’ – to allow for noticing the ideas signs for creativity to occur. Of course, it sounds misleading, because it takes tremendous discipline, rigor and consistency to create this ‘space’ for mental floating and wandering in order for the ideas become evident and capture them.
In your eyes, what is lacking in the dance world?
More performers 40 – 80 years of age would be a start, and choreographers that have the courage to create for the magnificent minds and bodies of dancers 45 and up and the vision to see the artistic riches gained. To be frank, if dance wants to mature the way other mediums already do, there needs to be increased interest in aging as a gain not a loss. I would like to see further challenges to normative thinking that dance has to be associated with youth and beauty. Could you imagine a world of literature that only comprised of comic books and romance novels? Ok maybe thats not fair.
What are other passions and interests in your life?
Parenthood and visual art.
What are you sick of in the dance world?
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more aware of capitalism in my life as I do now. In general I feel really sad about the commercialization and commodification of choreographic product. So much pressure to self-promote, self-market, self-brand. Obviously the internet has liberated ‘the small guy’ for having a shot at creating new opportunities, but the constant chase to connect is killing something about the nature of the work itself.
I personally feel torn between a 19th c. mentality and a 21stc. mentality. The endless force to keep going faster and faster, is enabling a lot of connecting but I am dubious about its substance (this is a comment of the general state of things not just the dance world).
It would be refreshing to have more honesty in the world of grant applications – most people’s ideas never fit into a application’s mission, and all we independent choreographers do is tell tall tales in order to be competitive. We lie. We all do it. We say what will sound best and some of us get really good at it and others don’t. But from an artistic standpoint its a total sham. Beyond that, there are now increasing indications of grants providing ‘workshops’ to find out how to be more competitive. It’s like paying for SAT testing tutoring that teaches you how to score higher on the test. The SAT should be measuring your acquired knowledge, not your testing ability. I know I sound ridiculous, naive and ornery (and not taking me too seriously) but its TOTALLY TRUE!
Stop trying to make successful work, make your best work.
Most influential book you have read or person you have met and why?
Leaves of Grass, Zen Mind Beginners Mind and my first Playboy Magazine.
Do you cross train?
I have a fairly old school callisthenic regime plus light weights and cadio. At 43 it’s the ‘slipping a disk by bending over to pick up the mail’ injuries I fear, so cross training is a matter of general health maintanance.
Do you think its important for aspiring dancers to go to college?
Definitely not. If dancing is really the life experience you want, you should dance anyway you can. If college excites you, you should go to college. If you are planning on teaching at college level and know you will be shooting for an MFA go to college. But if you aspire to dance, college is not remotely required. You have to do what feels right for you. Its a complex issue.
What would you like to know about the many talented and interesting people involved in the dance community? Follow “Posed and Answered” and leave your questions (and suggestions of artists!) in the comments.