Article by Ramsay Burt
on Both Sitting Duet
First posted in ballet-dance magazine, November 2006

(This is an extract from a longer chapter - which also includes discussion of works by Boris Charmatz, John Jasperse, and Raimund Hoghe: it's about the performance of masculinity in pieces that mostly aren't necessarily about masculinity)

Both Sitting Duet (2002) was a piece which Jonathan Burrows made and performed with Matteo Fargion, a composer and not a trained dancer, who has been creating music for Burrows' work for several years. Since both wanted to create and perform on equal terms, they decided that they would dance while sitting down. The movement material they devised for the piece consisted of serial repetitions of simple, everyday actions and gestures that included: reaching down to touch the floor; brushing a palm across the denim jeans covering a thigh; clapping; counting with their fingers; and making a circle by touching the tip of one finger against the tip of the thumb. The result was an abstract piece that seemed to start almost before the audience were ready for it, and finished abruptly in a 'non-ending' that lacked any conventional hints at resolution or conclusion. This makes it sound dry and minimalist, which in some ways it was; but on another level, as I will explain, it was also ironic and witty. Somewhat to Burrows and Fargion's surprise, it proved so popular that the two of them spent three years touring it around the world.

Although Both Sitting Duet was performed in silence, apart from the sounds the dancers themselves made, the material for it was developed from a late piece of music for piano and violin, For John Cage (1982) by the US composer Morton Feldman (1926-87). One dancer's material followed the piano part, the other followed the violin. Feldman, who first met Cage around 1950, composed the music for Cunningham's Summerspace (1958). Because the score of For John Cage is so complicated, Burrows and Fargion each developed their own movement scores. In performance, each had his own score, written in a notebook, open on the floor at his feet, and from time to time, one of them leaned forwards to turn a page.(1)

As musicologist Steven Johnson has observed, Feldman disliked 'intellectual systems and compositional rhetoric' and had a 'preference for abstract gestures set in flat “over-all” planes of time' (Johnson 2001: 649). Feldman adopted the term 'over-all' which art critics had coined to describe the way abstract expressionist and colour-field painters in the 1950s and 1960s created dissolving or dispersed compositions. Rejecting traditional, hierarchical, centrally focused compositions, these all-over paintings placed equal emphasis on paint marks wherever they were on the canvas. Cunningham echoed this idea when he observed that there are no fixed points in space. Like most of Burrows' works, Both Sitting Duet also had a flattened, all-over quality with no development of climax, and static, but unpredictably changing sequences of actions and gestures. As Burrows told Danielle Perazzo, it is 'a piece that is moving forward all the time and remaining where it is' (Perazzo 2005: 5). 

While Burrows and Fargion shared the same movement vocabulary, there was little actual unison. Instead, they often seemed to be executing the same actions slightly out of sequence with one another, or seemed to pass cues back and forth between them, or they would perform the same gesture four times together and then one would wait while the other repeated it one more time. Within the overall sameness of their material, these small variations created a subtle counterpoint between the two dancers. Feldman once explained that he used repetition as a deliberate device to disorient the listener's memory. He, thus, kept changing the number of times a particular chord was repeated so that there was no discernible pattern (Feldman 2000: 137).(2) Burrows told Valerie Briginshaw that, when musicians perform Feldman's score, they are always counting beats for when to come in. He and Fargion, however, had started off by simplifying these, only to find 'the reason he'd written it that way, and we had to find our own technique to break the rigidity of the repetitions and breathe life into them again' (Briginshaw 200x: xx). Feldman's uneven, unpredictable repetitions disorient the listener, making it difficult to get a sense of the piece's formal organisation, and direct attention instead to its length and sense of scale. As Johnson points out, Feldman was more interested in 'enveloping environments, in which listeners experience music from “inside” a composition' (Johnson 2001: 651). Both Sitting Duet was also somewhat like that. Because it was difficult to get a sense of its overall shape, the spectator focused more on affects generated through patterns and rhythms which varied in terms of speed, energy, and focus.

If Both Sitting Duet was made of movement material that was unusual, and structured in an unconventional, defamiliarising way, it, therefore, posed the performers the problem of finding new ways of bringing to the audience's attention the particular qualities on which it depended. While on one level, therefore, it was an abstract work, it also became an investigation of performance as such. As Burrows told Perazzo, this level came from 'ideas about the performance and about the relationship between the people on stage and with the audience. And this other level, in a way, became the subject of the piece' (Perazzo 2005: 4).
At one performance I attended, one of the lanterns lighting the stage made occasional cracking sounds early in the piece, as it heated up, adding another, unpredictable rhythm to an already complicated pattern of choreographed events. Rather than being put off, the dancers began to smile when the lantern continued cracking, and then one of them turned his head to look at it, all without interrupting the flow of choreographed events. The enveloping ambience of the piece was hospitable and open enough to include whatever else was happening around it.

A lot of the irony and wit in the piece came from an appreciation of the open relationships across different layers of meaning that the piece generated. It is in this way that the dancers' gender, almost by accident, became significant within the piece. Many reviewers commented on their age and gender. Thus like Deborah Jowitt began by asking:  'two middle-aged men sitting on chairs for 98 percent of 45 silent minutes, moving their arms, heads, and torsos -- how fascinating can that be?' only to answer herself 'Very very' (Jowitt 2004: n.p). Jennifer Dunning in the New York Times noted that 'the men worked with an engaging air of complicity' (Dunning 2004 n.p.), while Jowitt enjoyed their delicious 'blend of everyday behaviour and ingenious lunacy'. Somehow their age and gender, together with the easy intimacy that was established through their interdependency was endearing. This was conveyed through the counterpoint between their respective movements. Burrows told Lydia Polzer that he had always assumed that counterpoint was about the tension between two parts. But Fargion had suggested to him that 'Counterpoint assumes a love between the parts' (Polzer 2004: 17). This warmth infused their execution. At each performance I attended, after a little while, individuals began to chuckle or laugh, and towards the end of the performance, the whole audience were laughing together at choice moment.

Valerie Briginshaw has written at length about the use of repetition in Both Sitting Duet. Repetition, she argues, makes one aware not only of the sameness of the thing repeated but also the inescapable difference between each individual repetition and the thing it repeats. In Both Sitting Duet, she argues, repetition actually makes the spectator aware of both sameness and differences, not only between repeated events but also between the two male performers. They are like one another as men, but the more they seem to be performing the same material in the same way, the more the differences between them become apparent. As Briginshaw points out, 'problematic, iconic images of white, middle-aged, straight males, traditionally associated with the dominant subject position, are repeated differently and transformed through the minutiae of differences that matter in the performance' (Briginshaw 200x: xx).

The openness of the piece's structure means that the audience can feel included within the evident warmth of Burrows and Fargion's relationship, particularly when spectators can share, through laughter, their appreciation of ingenious lunacy (and chance events like the lantern's cracking noises). I noted earlier Fargion's proposal that counterpoint assumes a love between parts. Burrows has suggested this idea 'gave the whole thing a gentleness and a kind of love in it which the audience feels' (quoted Polzer 2004: 17). Within this intimacy, that in part is enabled by the piece's subtle, generous counterpoint, spectators no longer see the dancers' masculinity as part of the universal hierarchy of gender. Briginshaw argues that 'the relationship between Burrows and Fargion is such that they inhabit each other's perceptual worlds' (ibid.). As I suggested in chapter two, duets, as a choreographic form, often allow spectators to project onto the relationship between the two dancers, aspects of their own experience of relating to others. From the audience's point of view, I suggest, Both Sitting Duet can gently remind them individually of the sometimes unsettling difference between self and other. One's gender is central to this difference in so far as it determines one's status in relationship to the dominant (masculine) subject position, and yet this, in itself, can never adequately account for one's sense of one's singularity. What, I suggest, is so satisfying and valuable about Both Sitting Duet is the gentle way it allows one to find in the relationship between Burrows and Fargion the possibility that ones own connection with others can depend as much on one's singularity as it does on one's gender.

© Ramsay Burt, May 2006

The original article can be read online at:

1) The scores consisted of individual sections, each with a descriptive subtitle: lasso, twist, brush, etc. Fargion, as a composer, used musical time signatures and notes (but no staves). Burrows has written down a number for each count and added words or scribbles. His score was thus much longer than Fargion's and he had to turn the pages more often.
2) Feldman has written about finding inspiration for his interest in patterns by looking at the woven patterns in Anatolian rugs and at Jasper Johns' cross-hatched paintings (2000: 139) which, as Johnson points out 'feature a sly balance of hidden regulation and mundane repetition' (Johnson 2001: 651).