Heading(s) with Christian Burns

While our BFA Program students have been enjoying in-person classes thanks to two new outdoor dance studios on Dominican University of California’s campus, a portion of their curriculum also adapted for online learning. Last fall, faculty member Christian Burns led the Junior Class through a creative study of their unity through isolation. Here we share their cumulative video piece – Heading(s) – as well as an interview with Christian about the process.


A dance for screen, featuring the BFA Class of 2022.
This dance piece was created during Shelter in Place within the Covid-19 Pandemic in 2020. Despite the significant emotional cost of being isolated from loved ones and community for so long, the dancers bravely created personal expressions of movement, poetry and song that reflect the bottom line: love is all that really matters.

Q&A with Christian Burns

What was the creative process behind this video?
My constant priority was in finding a meaningful connection with the group. The ‘rehearsals’ veered all over the place, from traditional phrase making, to improvisation prompts, to writing, to sharing stories. Zoom and other virtual platforms are an idiosyncratic space for creativity, but do allow for moments of unity within shared experiences of isolation. It was both lonely and intimate, hedging towards connection and closeness with every meeting.

I began with no fixed agenda for this piece’s final format. I knew creating a dance-work within these unique circumstances would require a new set of criteria for translating choreographic ideas into meaningful expression. By dropping my safety-net for ‘in studio’ dance making, I chose to focus on listening to what was really happening between us, in our interactions on Zoom, in our bodies, and through that trust an eventual form would present itself to me.

Were there notable challenges and/or triumphs of the process?
It was a constant challenge letting go of preconceptions about the kind of work I should be making. I struggled internally giving myself permission to allow the creativity and the ideas to speak for themselves, to let our journey together be enough to hold the piece together. I was aware that it was going to be about us, about us in the reality of those meetings finding connections with one another, about finding moments where emotions emerge and ideas emerge. This notion that human impulse, emerging from seemingly nowhere, can ignite us into form and expression, has been central to my choreographic and improvisational body of work. I am always trying to capture “the moment” expression emerges. So I eventually became aware that our very interactions in our meeting were the actual material itself. I certainly employed traditional choreographic techniques resulting in numerous phrases that the dancers interpreted, but all of the ‘in between’ interactions are what became as important as the dance steps. The dance was the conversation, much more than the dance steps. 

This notion that human impulse, emerging from seemingly nowhere, can ignite us into form and expression, has been central to my choreographic and improvisational body of work.

– Christian Burns

How does creating for the camera differ from creating for the stage?
There are some similarities between camera and live dance, but it’s also so different. You need to decide what world you want to present; the dance world that lives in theaters or the world itself that within it has dance and movement. I decided I didn’t want to make a dance work that was a substitute for being in a theater, I didn’t want any visual language that eluded to theater, drama, lights, polish or sparkle. I just wanted to create something poetic and authentic to what was happening.

For cameras there are lots to consider; frame, scale of body to space, emotional states, environment, interior/exterior, the entire play of subject/object and framing is much more visual than in theater. I personally enjoy this quite a lot as my brain usually translates dance through color, texture, line, edge, density… I choreograph as a wanna be painter. There was a big focus on the literal frame of the camera eye, its defined edge rendering the body seen or not. This awareness of an evolution of the frame of painting and frame of proscenium – we considered the edges of the box that holds the actions and ideas allows for an almost illustrative eye, what is visible or not, what is exposed or obscured, becomes the language. You also have much more control in what you intend your viewers to observe than in live theater.

How do you approach the classroom?
In terms of teaching I focus most of my energy on being as honest and human as I can with my students and accompanists. I am very rigorous about technique but I am also very aware of how delicate and fragile learning and creativity can be. It can disappear in an instant and no matter how hard you wish it otherwise it won’t return that class. You can’t force people to dance and expect they will have a genuine experience dancing. You have to cultivate and atmosphere of curiosity and desire for experiencing learning through direct movement. Which is a really tough thing to figure out in our current distance-learning formats.

I find that teaching is a lot like creating a small dance. We all start at the beginning feeling cold and disconnected in our bodies and the class progresses so does warmth, awareness, sensation, and intention. If it comes together you can feel that sense of a shared experience, much like a performance. Some days it works and some days it doesn’t. It’s a mysterious process under the best of conditions and an absolute challenge under our current remote teaching conditions.

CHRISTIAN BURNS has been choreographing, teaching and performing in the Bay Area for 21 years. His pursuit for finding meaning and purpose through dance has yielded a dynamic range of interdisciplinary dance works for stage, video and visual art. Christian is a faculty member for the LINES Ballet BFA Program, Training Program, and Summer Program. Click here to learn more about him.

(Photo by Keith Weng)