A DIALOGUE BETWEEN JONATHAN BURROWS AND MAMADOU M'BAYE,
By Diane Shooman
On Thursday, 17 July 2008, Mamadou M'Baye and Jonathan
Burrows met for the first time, and held a conversation about their respective
teaching. corpus initiated the
meeting because both performers appear to be working toward very different ends
as artists and teachers. Yet, among many other things, complex, textured rhythm
plays an important role their work. The course I observed of Mamadou's was
entitled “African Children's Dance” and his clientele were 5 1/2 to 8-year
olds. Jonathan's course was called “Creative Writing and Dance” and the
clientele were experienced professionals. Mamadou was working on movement,
story and song, and Jonathan had teamed up with Adrian Heathfield for this
workshop on choreography “… to find what is possible and what is not possible
when you choose to speak, and what is possible and what is not possible when
you choose not to speak.” The following is an excerpted version of the dialogue
between Mamadou M'Baye and Jonathan Burrows.
Mamadou M'Baye: With the children, I try to
translate my culture. In every country in Africa there is one group of
families, the Griots, who explain the story of Africa to the people. For
example, what is your family name?
Jonathan Burrows: Burrows.
M'Baye: If you were born in Africa, in your
tribe, they would talk to you, they would tell you the beginning of Burrows
from the first generation to the present day. They dance too, they show it with
movement, with songs. I come from one family like that.
Burrows: Your family are Griots?
M'Baye: Yes, they are Griots. My mother was
singing, my father was drumming.
Burrows: Do you have these genealogies? Do you
know the strings of names?
M'Baye: Oh yes.
Burrows: I read "Roots" by Alex Haley recently.
He traced one of his forebears through a Griot. (A lively conversation about
Haley's family and the history of Senegal and Gambia ensued).
M'Baye: The first thing the child hears when
he is born is songs. And these songs are the songs of his or her roots. For
example, next week I'm in Africa with my children, for holidays. When I visit
my aunt, she doesn't say "Hello, Mamadou, how are you?" No. She sings the
meaning of the roots of my family "M'Baye". She says …what is your family name
M'Baye: She sings: "Burrows, Burrows from …"
(sings). This is how we say "How do you do?" So this is what I try to give the
Burrows: Who follows you in your family?
M'Baye: In my family, who follows me? My
Burrows: And they're learning?
M'Baye: I have three boys. It is crazy,
because they were born in Berlin. That means they are in two cultures, between
two civilisations. But I am also working in a school with children. And with
all the children, I do instruments and culture. Every four weeks, they each
learn a new instrument.
Burrows: But not just drums?
M'Baye: We sing and there are drums,
saxophone, guitar, piano, violin, bass. At the end of the year, we do a concert
with all the instruments. Then each child tells me which instrument they want
to continue with.
Burrows: I play a melodium, which is a button
squeeze box. I play English folk music on it. I have for 20 years.
M'Baye: That's the key. You know, today in
class, you heard the children singing (sings the opening phrase of the refrain
that the children sang). I translate for them the story of the song. Some times
I cry in my class because here they are, European children. And after the first
day, they are more African than me.
Burrows: Do your sons speak Wolof?
M'Baye: My sons speak Wolof, French, German
M'Baye: I speak 25 African languages, because
in Senegal there are 27 tribes. And every tribe has a completely different
language, as different as German is to French. All of our neighbors speak
different languages. And as a child, when you play with the neighbors' kids,
you have to eat with their families. Even if you're just one year old. If you
don't eat there, the parents go to your parents and say "Why? Why doesn't your
child eat with our family?" And by eating together, you learn their language.
So when I came to Europe, and moved to London, it was no problem. I moved near
Highgate Station, Hornsey Rise.
Burrows: That's where my flat is.
M'Baye: It was around 1979, 1980. There were
white South African people …
Burrows: Yeah, there were a lot of South
Africans in that area, yeah.
M'Baye: French, Africans, a beautiful
Burrows: Yeah, yeah (agreeing). I still have my
flat in Crouch End, but I live in Brussels.
M'Baye: Yeah? I live in Berlin. It's crazy. I
told myself, "I want to go everywhere in the world. I want to see the world.
But not Germany." When I was a child at school, the French taught us about
Hitler. I said, "I won't go to that country." But as I was crossing Germany
from Amsterdam to Norway with my brothers, I said: "I'm getting out here. I
want to know the Germans today." And since this time, I've been living in
corpus: I love these stories. In fact, I love
the fact that you entered this room and immediately started telling a story.
Both of you are working with stories in your present workshops …
Burrows: At times in the workshop we have done
something that involves people telling stories. But I mean, that's what we like
to do; human beings like to tell stories. Even when there is not a story there,
we look for a story.
M'Baye: When I show a movement, like this, I
give them the language of the movement. The children are from Austria …
Burrows: How old are they?
M'Baye: The first class is 5 1/2 to 8.
Burrows: (chuckles) That's a nice age.
M'Baye: The second class is 9 to 12-year olds.
On the first day, when I introduce a movement, sometimes at first they have a
problem. In German, we ask: "What's happening?" I say: "Was ist los, was ist
los? Was ist los, was ist los?" (Accompanies this rhythmic speech with an
opening gesture of the arms and alternating feet).
JB and corpus: (laugh in surprise and
M'Baye: This movement – it's a language. It's
Burrows: I make my living doing very strange
performances with another man who's a middle-aged bald gentleman. He's not a
dancer, he's a composer. We work a lot with rhythm, we work a lot with
counterpoint. I was looking for a way that we could be more complex with
counterpoint. And in fact Matteo (Fargion) who I work with, his wife knows a
lot about African music. She suggested to us an African notation system to do
with complex counterpoint in two parts. And that was what we worked with. And
we do build up in the performance a very fast and very, in a way, virtuosic
counterpoint of sometimes movement, sometimes sound. Sometimes we sing,
sometimes it's speaking.
M'Baye: African music is the sounds of Nature.
In my classes, I say on the first day: "We are not dancing, we're cooking."
M'Baye: We're making vegetable soup.
Burrows: Yeah. With ingredients.
M'Baye: I tell the children: "This vegetable
is from Senegal, this vegetable is from Ivory Coast. This vegetable is from
South Africa." And then we cook!
Burrows: That's a kind of strategy towards
distracting the self enough so that the self can be revealed, because otherwise
your desire to dance is so strong that you hold on too strong to yourself to
dance. I like the analogy with cooking. Matteo is a very good cook, and that
analogy of cooking with composition is something that he often mentions. It's
about choosing the right ingredients and putting them together.
corpus: I visited both of your classes today.
Being in your groups back to back, one common feature was the trust and
confidence of the participants, and their openness to each situation. Mamadou,
you were working with little children, but you conducted professional class. I
was astonished by the length and complexity of the phrases they were dancing
and singing, and their joy, their thrill, their delight and ease. I felt your
genius as a teacher. You were challenging and encouraging them all at once, and
they were having the time of their lives. I couldn't help but wonder what would
happen if every child's heart, mind and spirit could thrill to intricate
structures and long to recreate them with other kids, because they are conveyed
with such respect and love and joy. I have to confess, I was so moved I locked
myself into one of the little bathroom stalls and cried for all the children,
present and past, including myself, who never had a chance to take a class with
you. (M’Baye and Burrows laugh sympathetically).
M'Baye: I talk to myself, you know, I ask myself:
"Why am I a teacher? Why am I teaching dance? Who am I?" I told myself:
"Everybody's a prophet". Everything we need is waiting for us. (Pointing to
heart). We just have to get to it. When we do some work, when we do it with
heart, with the natural giving heart, it's just to be there. God bless us!
corpus: Thank you! Then, after reapplying my
mascara, I slipped in as discreetly as possible into your class, Jonathan,
despite the "Do Not Disturb" sign.
Burrows: I didn't put up that sign. I like
corpus: Half the group was in the middle of an
improvisation, for which Adrian and you appear to have provided some
parameters. There was such a clear space, even though there was a lot
happening. The participants were open, listening carefully to each other,
having such a good time. I was fascinated and so impressed by the keen sense of
time, and by the subtle rhythms people set up with each other. You could feel
Burrows: There is a lot of contemporary dance
that uses words and narratives. But there had been a split between spoken
theater and danced theater. We want to look at ways that we can bring the two
together. What we were working on today was where rhythm mediates between
speaking and moving.
M'Baye: (Affirmative nod)
Burrows: That is something that would be very
familiar to you (indicating Mamadou). But I just picked up on it, because I set
a task for people to make something in duets on Tuesday, and somebody chose
that as a way to bring the two things together. And it was very wonderful. It
was simple what they did. So that's what we were looking at today. Not complex
rhythm. Because that takes longer than two hours to absorb and work on. But at
least some beginning about the part that rhythm plays, and how it can form a
bridge. I saw that often what happens in the presence of speaking in
contemporary dance performances is that things become very serious. And heavy.
It can lose spirit. And rhythm is one thing that kept the thing alive.
corpus: Speaking of life, I'd like to ask both
of you what as teachers you hope to awaken in your students.
M'Baye: I don't like to show them that they
are students. I give them the key of the door. Then I say, if you have time to
lock, then you will have time to open.
Burrows: Yes, it's up to them.
M'Baye: When they listen to this language,
then mostly they give me what I need from them, and then I give them what they
need from me, the key.
corpus: The awareness that they have the power
to find doors and open them?
M'Baye: 90 percent of human beings get the
key, but they don't know which door to open.
Burrows: It's usually the one right next to
them, but they're trying to open the one that's across the way … that's the
problem. (All three laugh.) The ones that are going to do something interesting
are going to do it anyway. It doesn't matter what I say. I try to avoid the
word "exploration". It sounds like you're approaching something with the sense
that you know that it is not the thing you are actually doing; it's an
exploration of that thing. I'm not exploring something; I'm just working. But I
always end the workshop by suggesting that people forget everything I said and
what we worked on. If anything was useful, it already did its work … When it's
not conscious anymore, when it has become theirs, then they can use it and by
then they don't know that they're using it. … Sometimes the material knows
better than you. If it interests you, it was there before you came. You just
recognised it in the workshop.
M'Baye: I say, if you can talk, you can sing.
If you can walk, you can dance.
(August 15, 2008)