Both Talking - An Interview with Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion

Both Talking – Interview with Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, Sept 2003
by Donald Hutera, Dance Umbrella News Oct 2003
Image by Herman Sorgeloos (Burrows left, Fargion right)

Both Sitting Duet is a wonderfully intricate, precisely timed sharing of stage space by long-time collaborators , choreographer, and Matteo Fargion, composer. Like the title says, it is a (mostly) sedentary performance in which the pair occupy two chairs close to the audience and each other. Each has a thin notebook at his feet containing a ‘score’ of actions which, as extracts from a post-show interview conducted at last May’s Nottdance Festival reveal, have a secret source.

Jonathan Burrows [left] and Matteo Fargion in 'Both Sitting Duet', photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Donald Hutera: How did this piece come about?

Jonathan Burrows: When we decided to work together on this piece we had no preconception of what we would do. Because previously I had always been the boss, commissioning Matteo to write music, we decided that this time we would work equally.We wanted to find something that we could place between us that was neither too much Matteo nor too much me, but which could be an arbiter of our process.We looked at many different possibilites ­ text, films, music, concepts ­ and found nothing.We decided to go into the studio anyway and start work. That day Matteo arrived and said, “I think I’ve found the thing we need. It’s so obvious that we didn’t even think of it.” And he pulled out this score that both he and I were obsessed with about seven or eight years ago. The question was, what do we do with it? We decided to do something in a way very dumb, which was to make a direct transcription ­ with the same tempo, bar for bar, note for note ­ of what is actually a 70-minute piece of music.We made perhaps eight minutes, or maybe four or five.We looked at it on tape and were quite surprised, because whereas the world of this music is a kind of hovering, rocking, quiet thing, we seemed to be more jolly and folkdancey. That was what won us over. But we don’t like to say what score we used.

DH: Why not?

JB: Because those people who know it would always be waiting for it, and those who don’t would feel excluded. It’s kind of irrelevant. It was a tool.

DH: So you had these eight minutes. How did the piece develop further?

Matteo Fargion: We just carried on, working our way through the whole score.We decided we would do any editing only after we’d reached the end of it.We did cheat, only in small changes of tempo. That’s why the performance lasts about 45 minutes. It shrunk.

DH: I noticed, glancing at your scores, directions for movement triggered by words like ‘lasso’, ‘twist’, ‘fingers’, ‘shakedown’, ‘flick’ and ‘brush.’ What was it that determined which actions you do when?

JB: We had a few parameters for ourselves. One was, we wouldn’t search hard for what was interesting.We’d take the first thing that came. Secondly, the rhythm of the score itself chose what worked and didn’t work.

DH: Tonight’s audience response was very warm. What kind of response do you usually get?

MF: We’re always surprised. One night there can be complete silence, which is terrifying, and the next there’ll be a lot of laughter, which can also throw us.

DH: It was interesting listening to us in the audience listening to you ­with our rustles, sighs and shifts.

JB: We hear you listening too, which is why I like doing it with everyone sitting in the same room. We’re all listening.

DH: A German critic referred to both Both Sitting Duet and Weak Dance Strong Questions [Umbrella 2001] as “major small pieces” and wrote about “the radicalism of omission”. Another says your work “is primarily an examination of the potential and the limitations of dance.” And from The Guardian: “If Einstein ever pondered on dance, the dance in question would have looked something like the work of Jonathan Burrows.” Oh, there’s one more: “The spectacular thing about his work is that he leaves out everything spactacular.” How do you react to phrases that couch what you do in high-flown terms?

JB: We’re going through a strange, interesting period where theoreticians have become interested in dance. I like it that somebody will sit and try and find a perspective other than “This looked beautiful” or “That didn’t look beautiful.” At the same time, it tends to place us in a position of either going against something or making a statement. I don’t think that’s what I want to do. It’s not against anything, and it’s not a statement towards something. It’s just the thing that it is.
DH: Is that “what-it-is” quality in all your work, or did it take some time to get to that point?

JB: The fact that people are writing this way about dance encourages you to think that way. All of those critical thoughts have helped me to believe more in the reason why Matteo and I pursue a dogged traditional course. It used to bug me that, in a way, the thing that Matteo and I do is, and has been, very old-fashioned. It’s about the relationship between music and dance.We all know what that relationship is, but we can’t really grasp it.We think that we dance to music. But I’ve noticed more and more that that’s not what I do, and I don’t think that’s what I see other people do. I see them hanging and falling always around the music, but never grasping hold of it.We worked a lot on this piece trying to find a way to perform it where we’re not marching in step, not like an army going “crunch, crunch, crunch”, but rather that the counterpoint between us is somehow in all the spaces around the marching.

DH: There’s something you’ve said, Matteo: “Counterpoint assumes a love between the parts.” Where did that come from?

MF: It was in one of our early conversations about counterpoint, which interests us both.We were zooming in on “Let’s do counterpoint” and trying to define it in another way. Jonathan was grilling me and I think I said, “Well, you have to assume that the two parts are in love somehow.”

DH: Could performers other than the two of you do this piece?

JB: If they loved it and were connected enough with each other, I’d like that idea. And if they were willing to put in the time, say, three months, on it.

DH: What did you learn tonight, about the piece, or yourselves?

JB: Not to smoke.

MF: I learned that it’s fun to do, and it’s always scary and takes a lot of concentration.

JB: Oh, another thing. Before we started I was nervous. I suddenly realised that because I’ve performed an awful lot in my life, I always assumed it gets easier. But in fact it’s only worth doing if every time you risk everything, which is what it feels like.

Jonathan Burrows

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