Review: Dance Umbrella - Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion
Counting to One Hundred / Cheap Lecture / The Cow Piece / One Flute Note
Reviewed: 5, 6, 13, 14 October
2012 in Dance Umbrella history will undoubtedly go down – to the delight of many and possibly the consternation of a few – as the year of Jonathan Burrows. Not only did he co-curate the festival with Artistic Director Betsy Gregory, Burrow’s own work – in the form of a ‘collect-them-all’ set of pieces created with frequent collaborator Matteo Fargion made up nearly a quarter of the programme, and were some of the hottest tickets going. The Burrows and Fargion oeuvre is worth exploring for its own sake, but also because its bare bones structural sensibility and the inevitable aesthetic texture this way of working calls into being is both playfully, even reverently, referential of its precursors, and – if other choreographers on the programme are anything to go by – potentially highly influential in its own right.
Burrows and Fargion enter the space perfunctorily hand in hand to perform the brief, aptly titled Counting to One Hundred. This preface-like ditty, could serve either as a primer on the duo’s creative process or as a meditation on the rudiments of partnering. The two patiently work their way through the tight score they’ve set for themselves; simply counting to one hundred itself seems to be the main task at hand. Tempo shifts in their monotone counting, posture adjustments and interludes of semaphore-like arm movements are performed from an in-one centre stage position; a kind of simultaneously po-faced and expressionistic safety demonstration.
Burrows looks like he’s measuring Fargion for a suit as he makes precise and choppy motions along the other man’s extended arm, quietly muttering ‘go on’ almost under his breath every now and then. This comes across as the kind of almost irritated prompt that a more experienced dancer might give his partner-protege as they negotiate an intricate combination in rehearsal. With a clipped pace and puzzling collection of mapped out marks to hit, the game that comprises this composition seems designed to be tricky. Fargion, the composer of the pair, points a directive finger at the tech booth to cue intervals of recorded music. But when this action misfired at one point during Saturday’s performance – no sound was forthcoming when Fargion gestured, causing him to call out ‘track 2!’ helpfully and eventually to go back and cue up the CD himself – the result was only incidentally disruptive.
The pair’s placid demeanour, worker bee sincerity and stagehand-esque wardrobe made us aware from the start that we were watching an exercise. Indeed, the utility of this genre of performance shifted from being ‘experimental’ quite a few years back, and a piece made in this vein is now pleasantly recognisable as simply another experiment, in the way any artwork emancipated even a little bit from rigid strictures, like tradition and the marketplace, might be. In their earlier piece Cheap Lecture (2009), Burrows and Fargion quote directly from the gentle unassuming grandad of their chosen compositional methodology. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who went back for a fresh read of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (1959) in light of their work.
Although the term conceptual art was coined sometime later, Cage’s thinking, which is crystallised succinctly and beautifully in Lecture, was quietly cataclysmic to the understanding of how art could be made. The interdisciplinary convergence of artistic mediums that began in the second half of 20th century, practically becoming de rigueur in most forward thinking circles of the 21st, was fomented in large part by Cage. This was due in part to his dissection of music, silence and sound, revealing the skeletons of compositional structure that inform work like Burrows and Fargion’s, which they call an ‘ongoing conversation with the structure‘ of Cage’s Lecture, generously acknowledging his influence.
Part of the charm of these pieces is the way in which they take ‘found objects’: text, movement, a snippet of song, blithely putting them through the wringer of this Cage-ian structure to see what comes out on the other side. Burrows and Fargion are able to do this whilst all the time allowing a smile to play, barely perceptibly at the corner of their mouths. The pleasure they take in the humour of their work is graciously served up just before it turns into an inside joke.
In One Flute Note, they seem to challenge themselves on this point by taking as a starting point the 1973 Mike Oldfield album Tubular Bells, in which Vivian Stanshall famously recites the names of the instruments being played during the course of one of the movements. But the wink and nudge aspect ends there, or rather gets shaken up, atomised by the rigours of the choreographic formula. Burrows and Fargion hide and reappear behind flats on either side of the stage, scoot chairs around the space in cryptic configurations, taking turns calling out a recipe of instruments and their descriptive qualifiers: one flute note, strange singing, tubular bells. The recitations alternate with recordings of the instruments and sounds being invoked, in frustrated call and response variations that seem to be mathematically schematised, the funniness of it all catching us on the fly.
On the night I saw it, Burrows and Fargion seemed a bit harried in their execution of this piece, and considering this work alongside the more tongue in cheek and puckish Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece, also on offer in this year’s festival; One Flute Note and Counting to One Hundred, make for a drier, more cerebral double bill. But these experiments are proper choreographers’ choreography and composers’ compositions, mini masterclasses in the recycling of meaningful material within the paradoxically freeing constraints of structural requirements. These works resonate as accomplishments in the mixing of the conversational idioms of performance mediums: wit, skill, timing, presence and humour, with aesthetically existential concerns that run deeper than sentiment or the commodified entertainment value of either music or dance.
Jeffrey Gordon Baker is a New Yorker in London studying for a PhD in Aesthetic Theory at Birkbeck College, University of London.
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