Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, guest artists of the University of Utah’s Department of Modern Dance, presented two duets this Friday at the Marriott Center for Dance. BothCheap Lecture and The Cow Piece functioned as performance poems for two voices.
Cheap Lecture was strictly metered in relationship to rhythmic structures crafted by John Cage for Lecture on Nothing and Cheap Imitation. (The latter Cage made for a collaboration with Cunningham in which a Satie work couldn’t be used because of copyright issues.) The piece made many witty references to art works and makers ranging from Pina Bausch to Schubert. It flashed on Gilbert and George and on many twentieth century “New Music” composers who used text inside of strict aesthetics, but this pithy duo was fast-paced and interested exclusively in the ways in which the art making process mirrored the absurdity of life. One memorable section highlighted that the pair “doesn’t know what they are doing” yet they are doing it, again and again.
The Cow Piece, though still highly structured, featured nonsensical songs in Italian, English and other unidentifiable languages while the pair are alternately torturing and playing house with six miniature cow figurines. Burrows and Fargion danced, hammed, played lutes, harmonicas and accordions deconstructing well-known texts and songs such as “I Will Survive”, “April in Paris,” and Blue Oyster-Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Throughout, they maintained a distinctness, stationed behind dueling desks and microphones which rendered them as a two-part harmony of absurdity that carried the audience through a marathon of visual, aural and linguistic play.
Like the collaboration itself, the two intertwined pieces read as one conversation. In accordance with that idea of collaboration, Ashley Anderson and Samuel Hanson have written this description together and decided to include below their conversation about where the dance took them…
Ashley Anderson: Both pieces were glimpses into the way work can be truly interdisciplinary. I hear that a lot in marketing of work but this was actually it. Not just because of a weaving of music, poetry and dance but also due to the use of the formal training associated with each. The audience didn’t see Jonathan performing ballet (as his biography might have led one to believe) but we did see was an incredibly formal performance of text, music and fleeting gestural movement sequences, each of which utilized the discipline (or lens) of ballet to reveal ideas about what performers and audience members do in the theater. Similarly, we didn’t watch Matteo working as a composer for either piece but instead, a composer from within the pieces. For both artists it seemed an exploration of how a composer might dance, how a ballet dancer might deliver poetry and how the almost rigid confines of each art form could inform the other. This was not the rambling monologue present in numerous dances of the contemporary moment, it was something quite different.
Samuel Hanson: What’s interesting to me about that is that I actually guessed the dancer (Burrows) to be the musician and vice versa at the beginning. It was only about two-thirds of the way through the evening that I arrived at realizing who “belonged” to which discipline. I think this shows how deeply they must have researched each other’s values, interests and instincts. In other words, it shows that they probably rehearsed a lot, which they celebrate in the work, stating, in so many words that, it is only through repetition, that we arrive at certain kinds of transcendence and newness.
Another interesting dichotomy they embodied, which I think is unique in “contemporary” (or as I would still call it postmodern) dance is the juxtaposition of an operatic kind of humor or heightening of emotive content with a rigid, seemingly arbitrary, formalism. I think anyone who was there would agree that the big (huge for some) laughs in the second half were the “payoff” of enduring the wordiness and almost theoretical shape inscribed in the first half.
AA: Speaking of who was there, I don’t understand why there wasn’t a larger audience––both of the students in their workshops and from the community. In the first piece there was a section of text which quite beautifully explained that there is a prevailing assumption that “artists can make anything” when, in fact, they “can only make what they are able to make.” And in the case of these duets, text about performance peppered with moments of song and dance are it. In a portion of the piece they describe the plot of Giselle and my mind drifted to the large audience watching Ballet West’s Giselle at the same moment and wondering if there wasn’t a better way to both describe and unite the work we do in dance… Maybe the students they taught already saw the work in another context. Even so, if given the opportunity, I would’ve gone back tonight. I would’ve watched it over and over.
SH: I agree it was a missed opportunity for the many who didn’t make it out. Where many of us, perhaps necessarily, carve our identities out in very specific ways––e.g. “I am not ballet,” “I am not modern,” “I am not even dance…”––these two guys had a broad appeal that might have started some very interesting dialogues if more people had been there.
AA: There is also something about formalism that really lets people into material they might not otherwise be willing to engage with. For example, as they read you can see they have a stack of papers that are dropped one at a time to the floor upon completion. Just knowing that once the stack of papers is complete the dance will be over gives you a kind of freedom to enjoy. They also give you that freedom by offering permission to close your eyes and just listen to the piano, or passively disengage with the portions of the text that aren’t interesting to you. So, despite being a performance speaking mostly to makers of performance, I think it also speaks to people who primarily watch….it reminded me of this piece by Maguy Marin which is extremely repetitious. But you know it will end when a piece of string playing the guitar runs off of the spool. Just knowing something will end at a certain point helps you to enjoy it rather than stay frustrated or wondering what time it is or something.
SH: I love that Maguy Marin piece too. I think you’re absolutely right that there were just a few key things that made the intensive repetition work where it otherwise might have been interminable. You can see why Satu Hummasti (who wrote the grant) and her colleagues would want their students to see a piece like this. It’s not just good, its also instructive in how to use experimentation, language and repetition in a way that many of the dances they see here probably aren’t.
Ashley is the director and founder of loveDANCEmore, a branch of her non-profit ashley anderson dances. Samuel helps out with the journal and occasionally with new media projects.