Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece
Tobi Tobias, theartsdesk.com, New York, November 3rd 2011
More So Than Ever
When the presumably odd couple Jonathan Burrows (dancer and choreographer) and Matteo Fargion (musician and composer) played The Kitchen back in 2004 in their Both Sitting Duet I titled my review (lots of description, some analysis, intimations of enchantment) 'Less Is More'. Seven years later, they're back in New York for three performances at Danspace Project, for which they may have been thinking that less was not quite enough. Opening night was essentially a double-header: their first success here was preceded by Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece, two works, made in 2009, that New York hadn't seen yet.
Now, what about Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece? Both are dazzling, and they belong together. The first makes its point largely through words; the second, through absurdist deeds. Both ramp up Burrows' and Fargion's particular gift--articulation and offbeat timing in spoken language and body percussion--to such a virtuosic degree that a first-time onlooker's head starts to reel. I, for one, felt I was taking in only part of what was actually going on. I'd jump at the chance to see both pieces again, right now. Best of all, soundly rooted in the couple's earlier work, they move it along to more complex developments, refining and advancing their unconventional aesthetic.
Cheap Lecture is a loving mockery of sessions purporting to convey information - even wisdom - by a pair of professorial types. You've sat before them, puzzled or benumbed, in college or the halls of adult education. (Granted, this pair is dressed like handymen, but that costume is just these artists' trademark.) Each fellow, standing, speaks into his own standing mike, but the two thread their utterances into their partner's as if to represent a single person. Silences, little and large, make for the duo's off-beat timing, and their use of repetition owes much to Gertrude Stein. Each guy holds a sheaf of paper that is supposedly the script of his talk. Page by page, he drops it onto the floor when he finishes making one of his pointed/pointless points. Behind the speakers is a large screen onto which are projected the key words and phrases of their rant; these might be the notes taken by a dutiful listener, pathetically intent upon enlightenment. Be assured, though, that the B&F tone is neither bitter nor supercilious. Life is absurd, they're telling us, and we're all in it together.
The Cow Piece uses the same setting--but to another purpose. Burrows and Fargion stand behind a pair of laboratory-style tables, each of which has become home to a mini-herd of a half-dozen three-inch plaster or plastic cows. On an undercoat of white, half of them are spotted black; half, sienna. The men are their irresponsible shepherds, given to the intermittent playing of invitations to peasant-style dancing - on a harmonica, a mandolin, and (my erudite guest informs me) a miniature harmonium.
The men arrange and rearrange their cows obsessively and count them again and again like uncertain, if loving, parents. Farjeon even names his - Italian names, like Bella and Lavinia, that refer to his ancestry. As the pace of these doings and the energy put into them accelerate, the men - like very young children whose playing has gotten out of hand - escalate into gleeful cruelty to their cattle, knocking them down and, clever devils, hanging them on minuscule ropes made of string. Throughout the piece, the narrative is, accompanied by all the iterations, gestures, and skewed timing typical of the makers' style. The crazy antics and even wilder joy are horrifying and amusing at the same time.
Something I continue to find amazing about Burrows and Fargion's work is that many of its viewers think at first that they've stumbled upon little-known-talent - you know, just by accident. No such chance. The duo has performed its repertoire internationally, consistently intriguing its audience, and has been officially commended with honors such as a New York Dance and Performance Award (a 'Bessie') and high-end commissions (for Burrows) from the likes of William Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt and Sylvie Guillem. At first glance, the pieces don't seem to have any hidden ambitions but rather to be like something you yourself (or, more likely, a clever child) could fashion with one of those kits of 1001 click-together parts. The simplicity of means in Burrows and Fargion's work and the sheer fun that pervades it seduce you into loving it. All the while it's inexorably revealing its genius.