Interview with Victor Swoboda for The Gazette, Montreal, May 3 2013 

Burrows and Fargion's absurd leap of faith

Duo Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion haven’t ignored grand themes when creating comical works

MONTREAL - Comedy is a rare commodity in contemporary dance, whose practitioners generally present their explorations of life and death, time and space, identity, relationships and other big questions in the gravest possible terms. Whatever else contemporary choreographers do, they don’t provide much ha-ha.

Enter British dancer/choreographer Jonathan Burrows and his Italian composer/performer partner, Matteo Fargion. Their duets over the past decade have undoubtedly been funny to those tuned to absurdity. One critic compared their shows to standup comedy routines.

Theirs is the rarest form of comedy, because beneath the joke lie those very same questions about life and death, time and space, identity and relationships. To find similar comic turns with serious twists, look toward Chaplin, Beckett and Shakespeare.

Burrows and Fargion were last seen in Montreal in 2003 at the final Festival international de nouvelle danse (FIND), where they performed the North American première of Both Sitting Duet, which later won New York’s Bessie Award and became a classic. Throughout the 50-minute piece, the two seated figures played rhythmically with their hands. Nothing much happened and yet so much occurred.

It was the type of paradox Burrows revels in because it invites spectators to re-examine their notions of what constitutes dance. The questioning must have been all the more dramatic in the case of those at the same FIND who also saw William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, Reproduced, in which a company of dancers rolled out 20 wide tables and proceeded to cavort over and under them with tremendous energy. In the hands of Burrows and Forsythe, both minimalist and maximalist dance art can pack a meaningful punch.

At Usine C next week, Burrows and Fargion will present two separate double bills. Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece form one bill, while Counting to One Hundred and One Flute Note form the other.

All Burrows/Fargion works defy descriptive analysis. Like any true works of art, they reveal themselves only through being experienced.

“We never give any program notes, because we think they just get in the way of what the person will see,” Burrows, 52, said in a recent telephone interview from Brighton, England, where from time to time he shouted to his three-year-old son not to wander too far away on the beach. “Almost after every performance, somebody comes up afterwards who says, ‘I never saw anything like this before, and I kind of got it.’”

The day before Brighton, Burrows was in Beirut, where he and Fargion performed one of the two duets scheduled for Montreal. In the midst of the latest Mideast crisis, Beirut may not seem to be a place for laughter. Burrows admitted that they were quite nervous about playing in a tense country harbouring hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. The two needn’t have worried.

“It was one of the most responsive and volatile audiences we’ve had for a while. A kind of audience we often get in East European countries. There were people calling out things during the performance and clapping at unexpected times. It was really very nice, I must say.”

The two regard their performances as conversations with the audience. From the moment they appear on stage, they’re feeling out the house, preparing their interlocutors.

“You get this series of sounds and responses and reactions, and that in turn provokes and encourages the possibility of the performance. A lot of the preparatory work we do is really about tuning in to that — how we set up and walk on to the stage. ... We always try to invite the audience by how we stand or look at them.”

Obviously the two enjoy playing before a sympathetic audience, but — paradox again — a hostile audience is fine with them, too.

“We do like an audience that will enter into the agreement with us, but at the same time an audience that doesn’t makes for a very interesting performance — and often a very strong performance. Sometimes we play at music festivals and the audience sits as though it’s listening to a Beethoven string quartet. There’s something marvellous about that.“

In The Cow Piece, both men fiddle with tiny cow figurines on small tables while occasionally declaiming texts. On the face of it, the set-up doesn’t promise much. But marvellously co-ordinated actions give rise to expectations whose resolution is often unexpected — and funny. Of course, men playing with toy cows is comic to begin with.

“We were going to use pencils and rulers, but as soon as we worked with them, they developed personalities. So I tried something that already has a personality. My wife collects toy cows. Now of course they’ve taken over.”

Hard to believe that Burrows in his youth danced for several years with the Royal Ballet, where he recalled that reigning choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan “gave me nice things to perform.”

Except for ballet’s constant insistence on self-improvement, Burrows enjoyed the Royal Ballet experience, although five years ago he had something of a shock when he watched the West Australian Ballet performing Giselle in Perth. Suddenly Burrows saw ballet as though for the first time — how odd its conventions and stylized movements looked from a “real world” perspective.

“When the curtain went up, I had this ‘boing’ when I thought, ‘This is so strange. Such a strange world.’ And naturally I kind of loved this oddity.”

It is apparently not such a stretch to go from ballet’s enchanted forests to a man flipping toy cows on a table.

“I don’t feel such a different performer now than I was then.”

© Victor Swoboda, The Gazette, Montreal, 2013