In the Studio | En Studio

Susie Burpee: The Contours of Character

By Megan Andrews
  • Susie Burpee in her own work The Spinster's Almanac / Photo by Deborah Hickey

Susie Burpee creates “fully human characters, struggling for connection” (The Toronto Star). Her work has received Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Choreography and Performance, and she is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Dance.

Burpee’s multi-faceted professional career includes performance, creation, teaching and mentorship. She completed her professional training at the School of Contemporary Dancers (Winnipeg), augmented her studies at the Limón and Cunningham schools (New York), and trained in character and bouffon at L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier (Paris). She was a company dancer for Ruth Cansfield Dance, Le Groupe Dance Lab and Dancemakers, and she continues to collaborate with Serge Bennathan, Lesandra Dodson, Tedd Robinson, Linnea Swan and Dan Wild. Currently, Burpee is resident guest artist at Canadian Children’s Dance Theatre. She is also guest teacher in the professional programs of the School of Contemporary Dancers and The School of Dance (Ottawa). Her latest work, Road Trip (je ne regrette rien), is a collaborative duet with Linnea Swan that interweaves bouffon and contemporary dance.

You worked as an interpreter for a long time before you began creating work for yourself, first at Ruth Cansfield Dance (1993-96), then Le Groupe Dance Lab (1996-2000) and then with Dancemakers under Serge Bennathan’s direction (2000-2006). What did you acquire, creatively, through these experiences that set the stage for you to embark on an independent career? What are you seeking now, as an independent, to nurture your craft?

During those company years, through the practice of performing, I came to understand myself as an interpreter of contemporary dance. I became aware of my ability (and responsibility) as an interpreter to offer a point of view on the work I was dancing. For me, one of the most interesting things about being an interpreter in someone else’s work is the relationship between the vision of the creator and the vision of the interpreter. Of course, the interpreter’s vision only exists within the context of true understanding of the intent of the creator and their work. It is this place of understanding - the symbiotic relationship of creator and performer - that I find most compelling and most beautiful. Because in the end, it is really about understanding each other in the context of something that isn’t about ourselves at all.

I’m fortunate that my company experiences gave me an arena in which to put these ideas into practice. As I began to put forth a point of view on the work I was performing, I began to understand the creator within the interpreter. Creating work became a natural extension of my work in performance, and the desire to look at this more closely led me to choose the independent artist life.

Under the umbrella of dance companies, “time and practice” was what allowed me to develop as an interpreter. To nurture my craft as an independent, I seek, simply, the same: time and practice.

Susie Burpee in her own work A Mass Becomes You / Photo by Omer Yukseker

Since you struck out on your own as a choreographer, are you still actively seeking work as an interpreter for others? How do these different roles complement or conflict with one another for you?

I continue to perform the work of Tedd Robinson, Serge Bennathan, Lesandra Dodson and a few other Canadian choreographers. This work is sparing, but meaningful. I love falling back into “dancing for other people” for the reason I have previously mentioned (the meshing of two visions), but for other reasons as well. For me, there is always this amazing moment in the creative process where things turn over, or “drop-in”. It is the moment when you understand yourself and your purpose within the work, and it feels to me like this strange and beautiful higher knowingness of self. It is a mostly uncharted place I visit inside myself, to which, without dance, I would otherwise have no access. It’s amazing to me that this very personal enlightenment occurs during the act of serving a higher purpose: the work - a larger vision that needs you for its very existence, but isn’t about you at all.

Linnea Swan and Susie Burpee in their work Road Trip (je ne regrette rien) / Photo by David Tilston

The commissioning relationship is an interesting beast, in which certain creative constraints (for example length of work, number of dancers, performance venue) are set up through a contract, initiated by individuals who will be or organizations that will provide the interpreters. As choreographer, you then usually have a short period of time to make a work with a group of relative strangers. How do you approach this challenge?

I find the commissioning relationship curious and delicate, and I consider each situation for its individual qualities. Sometimes there is opportunity in unfamiliarity. Relative strangers can do remarkable things together.

Human nature and the human condition are my greatest curiosity. I ask the questions, “What exactly determines human nature, and to what extent is human nature malleable?” Through observation of people’s behaviour and deportment, I seek to capture the fleeting moments of our complexity and vulnerability that make us individual, while maintaining the philosophy that the personal is inherently universal.

In order to examine these questions, my history has been to make self-solo work or work with artists who have been long-time colleagues. I felt that the depth of “knowingness” of the self, or of another close peer would give rise to a deeper examination of human nature. Truth or not, it was certainly true of my own creative process for a time. In the last couple of years, I have begun to approach commission work, and have new-found inspiration in meeting new artists through choreographic work.

I generally employ a pre-process in order to answer some of my own questions around commission work. The artist(s) and I work in the studio for a week or so, getting to know each other and seeking a better understanding of the possibilities of the kind of work we could make together. At the end of this period, we can then decide if working together is the right fit, or what the scope, scale and shape of the project might be. It is only then that the resource gathering begins.

Susie Burpee in her own work A Mass Becomes You / Photo by Omer Yukseker

Your self-solo pieces The Countess of Main Events (2004), The Spinster’s Almanac (2007) and A Mass Becomes You (2009) all reveal quirky, slightly off-kilter female characters. The tone of these works is perhaps a bit neurotic, with layers of physical comedy and sometimes a lurking sexual undercurrent. I get a sense of the power of these female characters but it is contained, held back. In critic Michael Crabb’s review of A Mass Becomes You (in The Dance Current: online), he says: “There is a constant undercurrent of desperation and Beckettish hopelessness.” Do these descriptions ring accurately to you?

The words “quirky” and “off-kilter” (although not out of the realm of the world of my solo work) I often feel don’t do justice to the characters I create. The characters in my works open themselves to the audience and reveal the darkness, absurdity and deviance that sit within us all. They are courageous in the way they reveal a raw vulnerability, and therein lies their power. I’m not interested in looking at power as a state of faster/higher/stronger. Power, to me, is about choice. I choose that my characters exhibit fully human qualities, and in turn, in performance, I empower them with behavioural choices. Gloria Steinem once said: “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon.” I intend that my solo works challenge and provoke thought around what we consider “acceptable” behaviour.

Re: “neurotic”
One of the characteristics of the disorder of neurosis is obsessive thought and/or compulsive behaviour. The characters in my solo works often exhibit certain obsessive behaviours, in an attempt to look at how we, as individuals, relate to the world. I am interested in our need to connect with and, at times, control our environment.

Susie Burpee in Broken Spoke by Lesandra Dodson / Photo by Maria Cardoso

Reflecting on these solos within your repertoire and in context of your duets with Dan Wild, Mischance and Fair Fortune (2005) and Fidelity’s Edge (2010), do the characters have relationships to one another?

No. My self-solo characters incorporate bouffon, and my duet works with Dan Wild don’t. This immediately situates them in different performance contexts.

How have you come to know these characters through performance?

Philippe Gaulier, a master teacher in character/bouffon (and with whom I studied) says, “to know your character is death”. What he means is, if we already know everything about a character, then we leave no possibility of being genuinely surprised in performance. Dealing with a moment of surprise on stage is about truth. If we, as a performer, experience truth of a moment, there’s a good chance this truth will reach the audience.

My characters continually surprise me on stage. The works that I make that incorporate bouffon are largely unfinished by the time they premiere. They can’t be finished, because the work of the character only begins when it meets an audience. Inherent in this work is the proposal that likely nothing will go as planned, and that each performance is a live, in-the-moment reaction to a turn of events. Through performance, the character is revealed through what they choose to do in reaction to ever-changing conditions. As an interpreter, this work is sometimes terrifying, and always illuminating. My favourite moments in performance are those moments when there is a surprising and unexpected turn of events, when it seems as if the whole work might suddenly crash and burn and the character is forced to make a brave behavioural choice while the audience sits in witness. These moments are one-of-a-kind and significant in their ephemeral nature. They reveal so much about the character, and always, something illuminating emerges out of the beautiful wreckage of the moment.

If I thought I knew everything about a character before performance, I would eliminate all opportunities to empower the character with choice, to give the audience something to dream around, to provide dramatic tension and to offer moments of truth.

I never name the characters. That assumes a level of knowingness that I don’t desire to achieve. Somehow naming them is too … simple … and it would, effectively, stunt their development.

Susie Burpee in her own work A Mass Becomes You / Photo by Omer Yukseker

You are a very accomplished technical dancer and you also have training in physical theatre/bouffon. How do these “tools” come together in your creation of a character? How do you begin, and how does the movement signature evolve?

I begin with movement, and instinct. Of particular interest to me at the moment is the development of a movement language in a manner that is quick, arbitrary and instinctive. Rather than seeking to develop, from the outset, movement with intended meaning, I look to understand meaning at a later stage, when it sits in context of the work. In order to facilitate this, I employ a method of creating an arbitrary order of events. I am interested to see where the “chips fall”, and what meaning arises out of the collision or landing of events.

Working in this way supports my belief that nothing that happens in life is truly arbitrary. In terms of personal action, I believe that, if only on a subconscious level, our mind is always at work to influence our behaviour. So working in the way I describe really just gives me a framework within which to follow my instincts. It is liberating.

As in life when we seek to make sense of events after they have happened, following my creative instincts is quickly followed by my desire to understand the work on an intellectual, conscious level. What is the work examining? What questions does it propose? What is the container for the work? I trust that my subconscious already knows what it is curious about, and I follow that curiosity initially. When my conscious mind needs to understand it, I follow up with an intellectual examination of what I am making. The questions and answers that arise I keep at the forefront of my mind as I continue to create, and they guide the process to its end, like a “conscience” for the work.

I feel your works reveal the contours of identities. I’m thinking of the way one can reveal the figure on a coin by placing a paper over it and shading the surface with the edge of a pencil. Obscured by the paper, the coin remains hidden but shapes and edges appear on the paper’s surface depending on the amount of pressure applied. To me, your works are like the shaded paper: the actual specific characters remain hidden and what we see are certain edges and contours of their identities. I wonder where you are in these works. How would you reflect on your experience of these identities in performance?

I’ve always referred to the works I create in the third person. For instance, in A Mass Becomes You, “she” runs across the stage with multiple boom boxes in tow, “she” seeks find complicity with a skipping CD … etc. There is something about the work that feels “once removed”, and it has everything to do with the fact that the work is not about me. I intend that it speak to something larger than me. The personal is inherently universal. So … “I” don’t do those things on stage, “she” does.

Even with the duets, I often refer to them as “the Danny/Susie duet” or “the Linnea/Susie duet”, as opposed to using the possessive “our duet”. I can’t pinpoint it quite yet exactly, but there is something “once removed” about it that I think speaks to an understanding of the purpose of the work.

Susie Burpee in her work Fidelity’s Edge (duet with Dan Wild) /Photo by Omer Yukseker

Your latest work Road Trip (Je ne regrette rien) is a co-creation with Linnea Swan. You trained together at Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, you also danced with Dancemakers together for a time, and you’ve b th studied bouffon. You’ve mentioned that you have a mutual interest in the potential for bouffon to be used in a sophisticated manner in contemporary dance. What do you mean by this and how have you approached this exploration?

There are many elements that define bouffon work; however, the predominant aspect of interest for myself and Linnea (and our work together) is how the performer relates to the audience. In bouffon work, the performer is both conscious of, and acknowledges, the audience. Therefore, how the audience responds to the unfolding events directly feeds back into the work, thus altering the action. Consequently, bouffon work, like clown, does not exist without an audience.

The way we use this form in our work is a sophisticated distillation of these concepts. Existing within a highly structured physical vocabulary and taking care to not entirely break down the fourth wall, we complexly weave the degrees to which we “play” with this audience awareness. As performers, we measure audience response in the moment, and react and play to it through subtle timing and in-the-moment decision-making. We alternate between this state of being and a state of performance where the fourth wall is firmly in place. What is unique about this coexistence of interpretive states is the shift from one to another quickly and unpredictably, changing the state of play and altering the way the audience perceives the moment. Our complicity as interpreters (we can read each other quickly at the same time we are reading the audience reaction) makes this quick shift of performance states possible.

This form of work carries with it unique properties in performance. The audience understands themselves to be a part of the action of the piece. This results in a unique relation between the work, the performers and the viewer. Because the fourth wall is still employed at times, the audience has the opportunity to maintain suspension of disbelief, while experiencing being a part of the action. It is this subtle interplay between these two states of viewing that makes the work distinctive.

In this piece, you’re working with the danced quote. With explicit permission from the choreographers, you’ve pulled movement phrases from works in their repertoire that you’ve performed. What motivated this creative choice?

The characters and content in Road Trip (je ne regrette rien) arose from an extensive investigation into our fifteen-year shared artistic history. We trained together, danced for the same choreographers and companies, and have performed the same works over this period. It seemed a natural point of departure for working together, and one that we felt would give rise to some important questions. The piece is, in fact, composed of quotations of material that we have danced in our past together, used with permission of the choreographers.

This exploration elicited many questions, including issues of ownership - which organically arose out of the investigation into our shared experiences working for other artists. In an idiom where the work is developed collaboratively and is also highly specific to the performer, who owns the material? It begs the question, “How do WE, the performer, define the work?” - and subsequently, “How much does the work define us?” Further to that, if we ARE the work, and the work is ephemeral, it provokes a different level of consciousness surrounding larger issues such as mortality. Our mortality, of course, as human beings, but more significantly, our artistic mortality due to the nature of our relatively short careers and the ephemeral nature of dance.

When creating Road Trip, it was of the utmost importance to us that we were re-purposing and using the choreographic quotations in order to examine these questions in a subversive manner. This is where the sophisticated use of bouffon is at work. It allows us to create a heightened reality where we can look at these thoughts and questions through a different lens. Examining these questions in this way resonates with the audience on an intuitive level. In Road Trip, what began as a highly personal exploration ultimately transformed into a set of fictional characters in an alternate reality, negotiating universal issues.

Linnea Swan and Susie Burpee in their work Road Trip (je ne regrette rien) / Photo by David Tilston

As co-creators, you have a way of working together that I’m curious to learn more about. You’ve described it as a methodology, which suggests to me that it is a somewhat formalized process. Could you offer an overview of how you work in the studio or a specific example that would shed light on your working process?

Road Trip is our inaugural work together and this summer (2011), we will begin creation on a “part 2”. Linnea and I are still developing how we work together, and what follows is an excerpt of some recent writing we’ve done about our process:

“Traditional narrative is driven by character desire and its influence on events as they unfold. Contrary to that approach, we begin with an arbitrary order of events and then ask a series of questions designed to manifest desire in the characters that compels them onward to the next situation. It develops enigmatic, non-linear narratives that reveal the intimacy and complexity of female/female relationship and our fleeting existence (both on the stage, and in life).

“In Road Trip, overall cohesion is implicit as all the material is derived from the same source: our shared memories - remembered cognitively and through our bodies. It is a narrative constructed with an arbitrary beginning and end, suitably appropriate to the story of Relationship, which is only recognized after it has begun and is ongoing thereafter.”

You have a longstanding collaborative relationship with Winnipeg singer/songwriter/composer Christine Fellows. You danced at Le Groupe under artistic director Peter Boneham and he has continued to be a figure in your creative life, as has Serge Bennathan. You’ve created two duets with performer Dan Wild and now you’re working with Linnea Swan, with whom you’ve shared a long artistic path. How have these artists informed your work or what do you draw from them? Are there other significant figures who influence your creative palette and if so, who and how?

I feel so blessed to have worked with extraordinary artists consistently over many years. Serge and Peter were instrumental in my creative development, both as an interpreter and as a creator. I maintain a close relationship with both of them in and outside the studio. I still hear their voices in my head sometimes when I work: “Vas y, Susie!” (Serge), or (Peter) “Do that again, but this time do it while you’re running backwards and singing that song you sang earlier … oh, and put that big hat on …”. The support of my artistic development from these senior artists has meant a great deal to me. In recent years, Tedd Robinson has also been a great mentor for my work, and working at La B.A.R.N. the last few summers has allowed me to develop new ideas and working methods.

It is hard to put into words the importance of my artistic relationships with Dan Wild, Linnea Swan, and I must add, Bonnie Kim (creative facilitator/rehearsal director for the work). These relationships are about history, knowing, understanding, companionship and witness. We share a similar regard and respect for the work of working. We value what has come before, and seek to find its importance in the “now”. We care deeply about the dance milieu, and work to continue to be positive forces in its development. Our artistic outlook, in conjunction with our lengthy histories, makes possible deep and complicit work. Oh, the places we go … I am grateful.

Susie Burpee in her own work The Spinster’s Almanac / Photo by Deborah Hickey

Why do you dance/make dance?

Through my artistic work, I want to make a positive contribution to the world. My performance works showcase human nature and the human condition in a way that encourages audiences to consider themselves and those around them in a different light. It is this moment of consideration that creates an opening - a break in our thought pattern. Thinking differently, if only for a moment, can set in motion a series of events that lead to greater understanding - of the self, and of others. It can act as a catalyst for positive change in the world. I understand that the art I create is a part of this equation.


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