Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion: Blurring the Border Between Music and Dance

Photo credit:  Herman Sorgeloos

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

Considering the fact that Jonathan Burrows is a choreographer and Matteo Fargion is a composer, it is interesting to note that there is very little “dance” and even less “music’ taking place in the performance of their duet called “Both Sitting.” The two sit on chairs in the middle of the stage, eyes looking down to read the scores sitting on floor in front of them, as they perform a rhythmically complex and dynamically rich series of hand and arm gestures. Their demeanor is matter of fact and focused on the task at hand, which is to bring the musical score to life through their silent gestures. As such, “music” and “dance” are fused into one: The dance doesn’t offer a visualization of the music – rather it is the music. We don’t hear it: instead we see it.

Burrows and Fargion began making duets together in 2002, starting with “Both Sitting”, for which they won a New York Dance and Performance ‘Bessie’ Award. Burrows was born in England in 1960, studied at The Royal Ballet School, and performed as a soloist with the Royal Ballet from 1979-1992. During these years, he also choreographed for the ballet company before striking out on his own with The Jonathan Burrows Group. At this point, his choreography took a decidedly experimental turn, and he began collaborating with the Italian-born composer Matteo Fargion. Eventually, Burrows decided to dissolve his own company to work exclusively with Fargion in a partnership where they contribute equally to the conception, construction and performance of their pieces. The resulting duets are informed by their wit and affability, creating performances that entertain as well as expand the notion of what a dance can be.


In their 2009 duet called “Cheap “Lecture,” Burrows and Fargion stand center stage, reading aloud from hand-held pages that pile up dramatically as they continuously drop them on the floor. Speaking in rhythmic counterpoint with each other and with sparse notes from an unseen piano, they talk individually, overlapping, and sometimes in unison. Their “lecture” is a stream of consciousness description of what they are doing on stage – or rather, as they put it, “We don’t know what we’re doing and we’re doing it.” Ideas that they roll through include strategies for making compositions, the nature of music, dancing and rhythm, the relationship between the performer and the audience, and possible interpretations of the “meaning” of their duet. They remind the audience, however, “It’s not necessary that all of us immediately understand everything that is happening.” In “Cheap Lecture,” the pair exposes the structure of their performance as they simultaneously enact the performance. In doing so, they grant the audience the aesthetic pleasure of learning the structure of the duet and the process by which it was made.

The stakes are higher in their most recent duet “Body Not Fit For Purpose” (2014). The two are seated at a table center stage, referring to the scores in front of them, as Fargion plays the mandolin and Burrows performs abstract hand gestures in counterpoint to the music. As usual, the pair is focused on the task of enacting the score, but now they announce each section with a politically charged title such as “AK-47,” “George W. Bush” or “Fear of Immigrants.” The contrast between the seriousness of the titles with the abstraction of the music and gestures creates a sense of the absurd. Their attitude is matter of fact, as if they are performing a task that clearly must be done, but the question of exactly who or what is compelling them to do so hangs in the air. The absurdity of the situation brings to mind the futility the individual often feels when trying to change the social order, but also the nobility of carrying out the struggle nonetheless. As they reach the conclusion of “Body Not Fit For Purpose,” Burrows and Fargion tell the audience that in making the piece they have followed the structure of La Folia, one of Europe’s oldest melodies. Perhaps they have been compelled by the history of Western art itself, and perhaps the sense of the absurd is at heart the question of the power of art in relation to political and social forces.

Philadelphia’s Thirdbird will present Facing Front: The duets of Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion over the course of two weekends from June 19 through June 27 at the Neighborhood House Theater in Old City.   In addition to eight unique performances of their duets, the two week period will include master classes and workshops as well as the “Marking Time” anthology of collected writing and visual material on their work.

In the spirit of opening up their work to audiences, Burrows and Fargion have participated in a web project called Motionbank, which focuses on creating on-line digital scores in collaboration with guest choreographers. On the Motionbank website, the public can access the duo’s score notebooks and also full performance recordings of seven of their duets.


Facing Front: The duets of Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion
June 19, 2015 to June 27, 2015
Neighborhood House Theater, 20 N. American Street in Old City Philadelphia
Tickets: http://www.birdbirdbird.org/facing-front-tickets

Friday, June 19
7pm Both Sitting Duet + Artist Talk
9pm Quiet Dance & Speaking Dance

Saturday, June 20 
7pm Body Not Fit For Purpose
9pm Cheap Lecture & The Cow Piece

Friday. June 26 
7pm Show and Tell & Rebelling Against Limit
9pm One Flute Note

Saturday, June 27 
7pm Body Not Fit For Purpose + Artist Talk
9pm Cheap Lecture & The Cow Piece


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