The Bay Area dance world presents an embarrassment of riches: from ballet to modern, embracing street, jazz, tap, flamenco, ethnic — and pretty much everything else — along the way. Tucked away amid this bounty is a quiet, but dogged gem: Berkeley resident Christian Burns.
Burns’ career has alternatively leapt and lingered according to his internal sundial. Periods of intense growth find their genesis in his formative years, spent training at The School of American Ballet in New York City.
From such well-laid grounding, Burns stretched ballet’s structured posture into novel forms as a member of Minnesota-based James Sewell Ballet, San Francisco’s Alonzo Kings LINES Ballet, and as a guest artist with The Forsythe Company in Dresden, Germany. Since 1998, when he moved to the Bay Area to co-create the dance duo company The Foundry with former San Francisco Ballet dancer Alex Ketley, Burns has delved most deeply into investigations commonly referred to as “dance improvisation” or “contact improvisation.”
Like jazz music, the form is characterized by spontaneity, but steeped counterintuitively in repetitious practice and rigorous training. Simple concepts — like falling, sharing a point of contact with another body while moving, or using solo body parts to inscribe “O’s” in space — become glorious, ephemeral compositions in the hands of master improvisers.
Burns, currently a faculty member at San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, LINES Ballet BFA at Dominican University and LINES Ballet Training Program, now directs burnsWORK, founded in 2010.
“I’ve had a consistent, two-pronged career,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s hard to wear one hat.”
Burns wears the choreography hat most often now that he is in his early 40s. He choreographs traditionally, creating predetermined and repeatable works, but also improvisationaly, responding imaginatively to sensory layers arising from his instinctive, childhood-remembering body.
“My dad was a commercial artist and I was artistically inclined. When I improvised, it was the first time I felt I was drawing with my dancing. It was the body as tool: all my experiences merged into a pure, creative place,” he said.
Burns tasked himself with creating dances that were more like living environments than respectful repositories.
“I’m interested in the mastery of the beginning,” he says. “It’s not like I have no idea what the outcome will be, but it’s about taking an awareness of style or training and releasing it into abstraction.”
Sonority Rules, a nearly two-year project whose second installment concluded with recent performances at San Francisco’s Z Space, is a collaboration with musician Donald White. Working once each week, the two artists sought untrammeled sensory and sonic connections. Burns learned how to read music; drawing clues and cues from J.S. Bach’s piano scores.
“I found reference points in clefs, measures, issues of time. I became the dancer/author, phrasing and organizing time in my body. Themes emerged as Donald played something that was fixed, centuries old and I responded spontaneously.”
In the work’s backward curving arcs and occasional scroll-like gestures (viewable online at Burnswork.org), the music’s Baroque textures and traditions are reflected and amplified. There’s a harmonious dichotomy. One art form transcribes written rules in repeatable sound; the other carves images in the air.
Another dance, mid-c and other histories (2011), Burns says “didn’t work.” Still, it pivoted his perspective enough to reveal new methodologies (an onstage conducting technique not unlike baseball coaching’s hand signals) and awakened him to the reality of being not only a dancer, but a dad.
While working on the piece, Burns and his partner, Mari Aizawa, a manager at Pixar, became the parents of three-year-old Zenas. The biblical family name, found in the disciple Paul’s letter to Titus, connects Burns’ rambunctious toddler to multiple generations.
“He’s changed everything about me,” Burns says. Accustomed to the achingly slow, deliberative timeline of a dancer’s progress, his son’s rapidly changing physicality astounds: “It’s amazing to see his body go from not knowing to mastery in just weeks.”
He and his family appreciate Berkeley for being what he calls “an ethnically diverse, politically sensitive, highly educated, you-don’t-have-to-be-a-millionaire-to-live-here” habitat. Visiting the marina or south San Pablo galleries and riding bikes through his “Berkeley central” neighborhood provides a practical, comfortable lifestyle.
burnsWORKS are funded largely from the teaching that fills Burns’ pocket, with some support from donations via Dancers’ Group, the company’s fiscal sponsor. His next project, a collaboration with Hope Mohr, with lighting installation by producer/designer David Szalsa, will run Dec. 4-5 at The Garage in San Francisco. Uncertain of the work’s external shape, Burns knows its interior intimately: looping and lyrical, timeless and trajectory, collaborative and connected, his body will paint impermanent, memorable images.
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