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Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion - 'Speaking Dance'

by Ramsay Burt

October 18, 2006 -- The Place, London

There were no preliminaries in “Speaking Dance”. The two men just walked on stage, sat down, and immediately began a duel of words: 'left', 'right' 'left', 'right', 'left', 'right' in quick succession as if chasing each other's tails. Fast, light, precise -- it sounded like a tongue twister and indeed the seemingly endless, unpredictable repetitions mutated: 'left' became 'lift', 'stop', 'step', and 'stamp' emerged. Just when I was thinking that 'Speaking Dance' would entirely consist of speaking these rhythmically complex repetitions of words that describe movements, the performers added a short movement sequence that involved deftly rubbing the forearm with the opposite hand, and a quick burst of rhythmic clapping soon followed.

Other unexpected elements were added throughout the piece. Fargion sang Italian folk songs in a light, untrained but precisely modulated voice, accompanying himself with fast clapping. While he did this, he watched Burrows dance a series of slashing and swiping movements he performed with his arms. The movement pulled him forwards, almost off balance. There seemed to be cues in the movement sequence that made Fargion stop singing and start a new verse, or stop altogether. Here, as elsewhere, there seemed to be a game-like structure. There were sections of singing or speaking to pre-recorded music --on a piano, an accordion, or what sounded like a simple Cassio keyboard with drum and bass. For a couple of short, energetic sections they played breathlessly on small mouth organs.

On a formal, abstract level the piece used repetitions of small, largely ordinary words, actions, and musical themes to create seemingly endless yet quirkily unpredictable, game-like patterns of events. On another level, the piece was very funny -- or at least the Dance Umbrella audience at the Place thought so, laughing almost from the start. This is the third piece that Burrows and Fargion have made and performed together -- the other pieces are “Both Sitting Duet”(2003) and “Silent Dance” (2005). I guess that many of the London audience came with expectations from having enjoyed the first two pieces so much.

But what made them laugh? The silliness of these plain, simple actions combined with a great sense of comic timing and quirky surprises accounted for much of the laughter. Some of the sequences were almost childish. One, for example, seemed to be a variant on the game 'Stone, Paper, Scissors'. When Fargion said 'chicken', 'yes', 'come', or 'stop', Burrows had to make the corresponding hand gesture -- chicken's head, thumbs up, wave forward, or open palm held up. While they are not of course stand-up comedians, the two must know they can be funny and have undoubtedly decided to deliberately exploit this. My favourite moment was when they shouted 'shake', 'flip', 'crash', and other onomatopoeic words to a well-known Bach chorale that had been recorded on a keyboard with painfully slow drum and bass.

We in the audience also laughed because Burrows and Fargion's manner somehow conveyed that it was safe to do so. A number of people writing about earlier parts of what has become a trilogy have observed that it is lovely to see two men relating so warmly together on stage and displaying such generosity towards one another. This is clearly at least in part a result of their working practices. Burrows is a dancer while Fargion is a composer. Each of the three pieces has explored different ways of allowing them to perform together on equal terms despite their different abilities.

“Both Sitting Duets” took as its starting point a score for a piece for piano and violin by Morton Feldman, each dancer performing movements set to one of the instrumental parts. They had decided that both would sit for the entire piece because this reduced the range of movement possibilities in a way that made the gap between Burrows and Fargion's dance experience less significant. Each had a score written in a notebook which they followed while performing “Both Sitting Duet” and “Speaking Dance”. Dancers usually learn the whole piece, however long, by heart, whereas musicians invariably use scores. Fargion had to perform “Silent Dance” from memory without one. The piece was, of course, far from silent, with both performers singing or counting through sequences of unpredictable repetitions. In “Speaking Dance”, Burrows had more dance-like material while Fargion did more singing and playing of music. There was also a musical game sequence where the dancers listened to a piano melody and had to choose to sing a note from it while naming it -- 'A flat', 'B flat', 'C', 'D', 'E flat', etc.

Unpredictable repetitions are a feature of all three pieces, coming from Burrows and Fargion's long-term fascination with Morton Feldman's music. Feldman's uneven, unpredictable repetitions disorient the listener, making it difficult to get a sense of the piece's formal organization. They direct attention instead, to its length and sense of scale. Feldman was more interested in enveloping environments in which listeners experience music from 'inside' a composition. I often seem to start off watching Burrows's pieces by trying to work out what the rules governing the composition are, but when I have given up, because these are never clear, I find myself becoming absorbed in the piece's overall ambience.

In the post-show discussion, Burrows suggested that now that all three pieces have been made, they have a surprisingly classical, musical form. The first introduces a set of premises, the second is a slow and meditative exploration of possibilities introduced but not addressed in the first, while the third is fast and sums up the themes and ideas from the first two.

When asked what his influences are, Burrows named an Oxfordshire Morris dancing team and a piece “Gestures in Red” that Douglas Dunn performed at Riverside Studios in the first Dance Umbrella Festival back in 1978. This piece totally divided the audience -- some walking out, one after loudly calling it a load of rubbish, others sticking with it and applauding strongly at the end. (What Burrows didn't mention was that he himself, at the time dancing with the Royal Ballet, had also performed an early piece in that first festival.)

It is a mistake to think that conceptually challenging or innovative works like this trilogy deliberately go out of their way to contradict conventional expectations for the sake of it or in order to be fashionable. Work that pulls one out of one's comfort zone can make one aware of ideas and experiences one wouldn't otherwise encounter.

Burrows and Fargion are mature, thoughtful performers with enormous experience. There didn't seem to me to be anything self-indulgent about “Speaking Dance”. Much of it looked tricky to do at the fast, energetic pace they set themselves. Some sections seemed to have an almost strained intensity that I found strangely moving. Burrows and Fargion seem to have got in touch with some basic and fundamental truths about relationships -- between each other and between themselves as performers and us in the audience. This is what, in my view, makes “Speaking Dance” such a fine work.

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