Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion

'Both Sitting Duet

by Ramsay Burt

October 2003 -- The Place: Robin Howard Dance Theatre, London

Two chairs, angled slightly towards one another. Two identical but well thumbed notebooks open in front of them on the floor. Burrows and Fargion enter from the door at the back. They're wearing jeans, solid boots, Burrows has a dull coloured, round necked, short sleeved t-shirt, Fargion a blue, broad checked short with the sleeves rolled up -- i.e. they're casually dressed, dressed down, and definitely don't look like they're about to dance a conventional dance.

They sit down and before you realize it they are already into the movement, reaching down, brushing the floor, stroking their palms across the denim on their thighs, and so on. Sometimes they are in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes looking up to catch a cue from the other; sometimes looking bored and waiting for the other to finish. Generally, their eyes are down, checking their notebooks. Occasionally one leans forward and turns the page -- rarely if ever do they both turn a page at the same time. Their manner and they way their seated movements relate to each other is rather like that of classical chamber musicians.

Burrows has an extremely dead-pan facial expression, while Fargion gives more away, looking continually surprised. People laugh a lot at times, particularly at first because the material was so unusual and hence 'funny' – grown men so seriously executing such peculiar things. People laugh at sudden changes and at the introduction of surprising new material. and there are some extremely funny moments - for example when they both stand up and place their feet very deliberately so that they pivot round through 360 degrees, craning their necks so as to keep on reading their notebooks.

As often with Burrows's choreography, part of the fascination is working out what movements are intentional and significant, and what is just coincidental, ordinary behaviour (what's background noise and what's information); and within the significant material, how much is marked and how much fully stretched. Burrows has more sensitive hands, quicker, cleaner, clearer gestures, but sometimes if Fargion has the same moves as Burrows (which he often has, in a slightly difference phase or sequence) you can see what the moves are more easily with Fargion because he's slower and more matter of fact.

There is little or no deliberate sound during the initial stages of the piece, just the swish of hands on denim or skin on skin, and the occasional thump as they sit back in their chairs. Instead the focus is on the placement of hands on things, on the delicacy of gestures that take the hands up in the air in a kinked circuit and down again. These gestures are not mimetic, but have the precision and focus of mime.

Or the torso folds forward so that the head bobs between the knees and then returns to vertical. Or their heads turn left, right forward in 90 and 180 degree turns. Mostly simple movements performed with quiet sensitivity and clarity and used repetitively. The patterns of repetitions and the relationship that develops between the two performers is increasingly fascinating.

The choreography nevertheless is far from repetitive but develops in its own rather surprising way. Later they both sing in fast high pitch bursts that sound like 'ee..oo..ee..oo..'. They count their fingers touching a fingertip with the flat palm of the other hand. They stand up and robustly stamp. Burrows places his chair behind Fargion's and each stretches out their arms like airplane wings: when Burrows's slope up, Fargion's slope down and vice versa making a cross. And as usual with Burrows's work there is an 'unexpected', abrupt ending -- no build up, no gradual cadence: one second it seems to be movement as usual and before you realise it the lights have quickly faded and we're clapping. (I don't think there were any other changes in the lighting throughout the piece).

Afterwards some of the more curious audience members (myself included) went on stage and looked through the notebooks which the dancers have left behind. They had each devised their own score for the piece which is built up of individual sections each with a descriptive subtitle – lasso, twist, brush, etc. Fargion, as a composer, has used musical time signatures and notes (but no staves). Burrows has written down a number for each count and added words or scribbles. His score is thus much longer than Fargion's and he had to turn the pages more often.

In an interview with Donald Hutera, Burrows and Fargion explained that they had taken a piece of music and created their choreography note for note. They wouldn't say what the piece was. It was in fact a piece for violin and piano by a composer within John Cage's circle, and while these composers mostly used innovative, unconventional methods of musical notation, in this case, because it was a late work, it was scored entirely conventionally.

The affective quality of their dance piece, in Burrows's opinion, is unconnected with the feel of the music they worked from. Burrows says he thinks that he and Fargion have worked in an old-fashioned way in their concern with the relationship between dance and music. From this I assume he is referring to the idea of dancers' and choreographers' musicality: that the way a 'musical' dance artist creates or interprets music comes not just from the coming together and coincidence of sound and move but from a sensitive and appropriate movement response to the music on structural and affective levels.

To suggest that the way Burrows and Fargion are doing this is 'old-fashioned' is surely disingenuous. Nothing in the world of performance survives unless it is performed again, but each performance of it is nevertheless unique and has the potential to create innovation. The way that Burrows and Fargion have approached the relationship between movement and music in “Sitting Duet” is new and fresh. It articulates an intriguing relationship between what I have suggested is noise and information. The performers' informal, unseductive, uncharismatic presence directs attention away from the dancer towards the movement itself and the affective qualities that their movements generate.

As such it has a lot in common with the current so-called conceptual dance in continental Europe. It is also a conceptual piece in so far as the original music is essentially absent and only present through its translation into another idiom. In its own, quiet, reticent manner, "Sitting Duet" does far more than reproduce an old-fashioned idea about the relationship between dance and music; it changes the way we think about it.


Edited by Jeff.

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