Jonathan Burrows
Article by Daniela Perazzo Domm on Speaking Dance
Burrows and Fargion’s Speaking Dance: The storm after the calm

Dance Theatre Journal, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2005

The latest piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, the last in a trilogy, closes a circle and appears to take their research to a different level. From Both Sitting Duet (2002) to The Quiet Dance (2005), and now with Speaking Dance (2006), the choreographer and the composer have gone from sitting to walking, and from quietness to speech, reinterpreting the meanings of these simple actions and conditions and, above all, deconstructing the grammar of dance and music and reinventing their relationship.

In this new collaboration, which premiered at Dance Umbrella last October, they build on their first two duets and go a step further, moving from the silence and stray sounds of their previous choreomusical compositions to create a new form of language, made of words, texts, music and folk songs, as well as of gestures, movement patterns and bodily attitudes. In fact, the ‘sitting’ and ‘quiet’ elements of the first two works of the trilogy were anything but stillness and rest; they embodied more a condition of latency, a sort of calm before the storm. So if Burrows described The Quiet Dance as the piece that ‘lies just underneath’ the rest of his work and explores what ‘unfolds more slowly and in its own terms’, for Speaking Dance he talks about a resurfacing of images and materials that played a part in the creative processes behind previous performances but didn’t make it into the final compositions. Ideas and choreographic fragments that have been haunting them and kept coming back, but never seemed justified as they didn’t fit into the clear logic of the other two duets, are now consciously allowed in and fight for their right to some space within the structure of the new work, generating a sort of implosion.

The creation of Speaking Dance feeds on this history and partly relies on the contextual knowledge of the spectators. It doesn’t necessarily presuppose an expert audience, but it certainly rewards those who, having seen the two previous works, have an understanding of them and have a sense of what might follow. As I see it, the piece meets and subverts these expectations at the same time, both responding to and surpassing the anticipation of its public.

At the start, there is the familiar entrance of the two performers in plain clothes and the short walk from backstage – understated and matter-of-fact, where relaxed and nervous body language blend into each other. They sit down on two chairs in front of the audience, in a manner that has become recognisable since Both Sitting Duet. For a moment the spectators think that, after the walking diversion of The Quiet Dance, they have now gone back there, to the ‘static’ (well, in dance terms!) position of a musical duo. The first surprise is that this time the ping-pong game is not of hand gestures but of words, although the title already suggested this – from the rhythmical repetition of ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘right’, or the production of chains of signifiers that could almost function as a demonstration of the Saussurean principle of the syntagmatic relations of phonemes (‘left’, ‘lift’, ‘stop’, ‘step’), to the more evocative ‘small dance’, ‘tired dance’, ‘fragile dance’, and ‘voices’, ‘silence’ which seem to tell us about the multifarious and multilayered qualities of the work and of dance itself.

But after the first ten minutes of this cut-and-thrust exercise, which feeds on the duo’s expert confidence in handling complex rhythmical sequences, the piece takes a different direction, catching unaware those in the audience who, on the grounds of the two previous duets, thought that the piece would continue in the same fashion until the end. This time it doesn’t happen. In working on the piece, Burrows and Fargion struggled with rebellious material that didn’t seem to fit into any overarching structure. After strenuously resisting breaking their loyalty to their own working principles, they finally surrendered to this intrusion and arrived at the decision of allowing the composition to be diverted and transported by a variety of impulses. As Burrows explains, ‘Matteo and I both agreed that we really didn’t have the stamina or the patience to make a third piece which held to one thing, as Both Sitting Duet and The Quiet Dance do …. So then we thought, what if we allowed ourselves much more freedom to have ideas and work on them, and make a lot of material, in music, in dance, in words and all the combinations, and just work fast and not question too much what we are doing …? Matteo was very doubting because this is not how he works; he wanted a raison d’être to begin with, he wanted a principle; but I said, “I don’t think we have a choice. We have to let ourselves work and, at this point, we have to trust ourselves to some extent”’.

So the piece travels from the world of words to those of dance and music, with a common denominator connecting them all, rhythm. Burrows stands up and performs a dance swinging his arms and twisting his upper body, whilst Fargion sits quietly or sings Italian folk songs accompanying himself with clapping at a faster rhythm. Recorded music comes from a small stereo lying on the floor next to them, or is produced by the two performers on mouth organs played loudly and intensely. The elements that the dancer and the musician experimented with in Both Sitting Duet and The Quiet Dance are brought together here with a new confidence and the daring yet humble attitude of artists who have come to grips with each other’s discipline through years of collaboration and who, after the two previous ventures into the other’s territory, can now afford a different degree of freedom.

Audience’s expectations are further challenged when, quite late in the piece, Fargion stands up for the first time whilst Burrows remains seated. The situation seems to signal that the roles are about to be inverted and that the musician is preparing to dance, whilst the dancer will provide the rhythmical base. But Fargion remains still, whilst Burrows recites the words ‘only in dreams did he know how to fly’. With a poetic leap, the audience can imagine Fargion’s stocky body follow his fantasy and soar. Applause and laughter marked this moment the night of the premiere at The Place, indicating that the spectators watched the performance with a certain sense of where they wanted it to take them.

Even more than in previous works, the movement and sound scores are interwoven with references and correspondences. These are both intratextual and intertextual, thus connecting together different moments of the performance or establishing links with previous works, as well as with other moments in the history of dance. Burrows says that these relationships are unplanned, they occurred accidentally: Burrows’ text on flying in one’s dreams and Fagion’s earlier chain of phrases such as ‘trying to stop’ and ‘trying to fly’, for instance. But can we still talk of a coincidence when we find out that the poetic image of the flying dreamer comes in fact from a piece of writing by Rudolf Laban? ‘We didn’t know it was Laban,’ says Burrows. ‘We just found a piece of paper stored away in a vast file of ideas months and months before, and we thought I had written it! And I knew I hadn’t, but it did sound like me, somehow: there was something about it, but that was more because it was the kind of thing that I would like. Then I looked through my bookcase and I saw the spine of a Laban book and understood it was from there! So I pulled it out and I found the extract. And it seemed very nice that, in a piece which would be about trying to visualise a dance that you can’t see, even though we do it in some way not how Laban would have intended it, at the end of the day you come back to Laban! I liked that.’
Other correspondences can be traced between this work and the two previous ones in the trilogy. There is a section that almost every critic has commented on, for its funny character of slapstick comedy: a sequence of three hand gestures accompanied by the words ‘chicken’, ‘yes’, ‘come’, written on pieces of papers which Burrows and Fargion produce from their pockets, unfold and show to the audience. The general interpretation found in the reviews is that the gestures were devised as illustrations of the words, reinforcing a predictable hierarchy between mind an body. In fact, the gestures came first and they are a quotation from Both Sitting Duet, where they are executed with no reference to chickens and calling. But since, as Gadamer says, ‘we can never escape from the fact that in our everyday experience of the world, our vision is oriented towards recognizing objects’,(1) words were subsequently attached to the hand movements, transforming them in a form of linguistic communication. Whilst this process of reduction of perceived material to known images could be linked to dancers’ practice of giving suggestive or illustrative names to their steps in order to remember them and talk about them with the other dancers, it is also an implicit reference to the way in which the audience of Both Sitting Duet perceived and read the gestural patterns of the choreography, connecting them to objects and situations from their own lived experience. This can be linked back to the title of this new work, where ‘speaking dance’ may also refer to, in Gadamer’s terms, ‘how art unites us in its communicative dimension’, plunging us amongst ‘the profound tensions’ between ‘the wordless language’ of art and ‘verbal language’.(2)

Coincidentally, I recently came back to a piece of writing by Douglas Dunn, reproduced in Sally Banes’ Terpsichore in Sneakers.(3) It is titled Talking Dancing and is composed of sixteen couplets, where all lines contain different combinations of four words: ‘dancing’, ‘talking’, ‘is’, ‘not’, which form affirmative and negative, contradictory and complementary sentences on the nature of dancing and talking and on their relationship. They are circularly arranged and they go from saying that the same is the same (that is, ‘Taking is talking / Dancing is dancing’) to saying that the same is the same but in an inverted order (that is, ‘Dancing is dancing / Talking is talking’) via saying that the same is the other (that is, ‘Talking is dancing’ / ‘Dancing is talking’) and a series of negative and double negative (that is, affirmative) sentences. This text struck me for its affinity with the theme and mode of investigation of Burrows and Fargion’s work. Reflecting a posteriori on the work, Burrows talks about the peculiar relation to meaning that seems to have arisen from the way in which Speaking Dance was created. He describes it as a kind of ‘impossibility of meaning’: ‘Performing the piece now feels like we are chasing meaning but then constantly undermining it from another direction, or from another form; so if we are making music, then it’s undermined by the dance, or the dance is undermined by the words. And as we chase meaning, the piece becomes breathless, and the breathlessness arrives at a kind of ecstatic state’.

I see what he means, but I’m not convinced, and I tell him. There seems to be another meaning coming out of this act of undermining the meaning that they are chasing, a meaning that the audience seemed to have felt in a strong way the night of the premiere, when their reaction was overwhelmingly warm. I also felt wholly engaged by the piece. Being Italian, I obviously understood the folk songs sung by Fargion – lyrics that I learnt in my childhood and used to sing in the car with my parents on the way to our summer holidays – but I don’t think this was the key to the connection I felt. ‘Even if you don’t know the songs’, Burrows says, ‘or you don’t know what the words mean if you don’t speak Italian, they have the feeling of other songs, the kind of songs you sing with your family when you are a kid or something.’ And he continues, ‘but the other thing that the songs did was that they gave this reassuring continuity in the midst of something that was kind of exploding’ – like a refrain, a recurring motif.
The folk songs are only one of the aspects that contribute to what is certainly one of the main qualities of the piece, a trait that critics have unanimously commented upon: its distinctive sense of intimacy, which gives the occasion of the performance the feeling of a friendly, informal gathering of friends. The matter-of-fact, unpretentious attitude of Burrows and Fargion during the performance, and towards the performance, is one of the defining traits of the piece, together with the open, almost collaborative behaviour they adopt in relation to the audience. As in Both Sitting Duet, but even more so in this new work, due to its freer structure, the dancer and the musician look at each other, communicate via imperceptible gestures and signals, laugh at their own mistakes and react to the spectators’ responses, allowing them to feel equally at ease. This form of sharing a space and an experience seems to me to have a lot in common with the modes and dynamics of traditional storytelling, which Walter Benjamin describes as ‘an artisan form of communication’.(4) The craftsmanship involved in this art, which relies on the ability of the storyteller ‘to fashion the raw material of experience, his own and that of others, in a solid, useful, and unique way’(5) , is what determines its difference from other forms of communication, which aim at delivering information or at analysing the psychological implications of an event or situation. Storytelling does not dwell on details or psychological analysis, but ‘sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring it out of him again’.(6)
The power of communication of Speaking Dance lies in the way all the material is filtered through the experience of its two performers-creators. Its meanings are constructed through the way in which the work leads the spectators to follow its numerous threads and disentangle its weave. This web plays at different levels: not only philologically, with links to previous works or within the piece itself, but also, and most of all, by establishing a connection with the spectators’ own lives and experiences. If Both Sitting Duet was ultimately about Burrows and Fargion telling the audience a story about themselves, their friendship, artistic collaboration and cross-disciplinary research, Speaking Dance seems to open the communication up and allows the spectators to see beyond the ‘story’ and its tellers, and into their own imaginative world. With its use of random words and suggestive phrases and its references to folk traditions and dreams of aerial dances, Speaking Dance speaks to the audience and makes them fly.

1) Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 38.
2) Ibid, pp. 38, 39.
3) Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980, pp. 200-201.
4) Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, in Illuminations, London: Fontana Press, 1992, p. 91.
5) Ibid, p. 107.
6) Ibid, p. 91.