Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece
Ballet.magazine, October 2010
'You can't call us minimalists any longer', says Jonathan Burrows of his and Matteo Fargion's latest double-bill. The second part, The Cow Piece, is a cul-de-sac in the series of duets he's been doing with Fargion since 2002, starting with Both Sitting Duet, which did – more or less - what its title described. The Cow Piece ends with the performance area almost as littered as one of Pina Bausch's messier works: reams of paper, a dozen tortured model cows, miniature nooses and an array of musical instruments.

The hour-long set starts off deceptively austerely with Cheap Lecture, recited in turn by both performers. They admit that they borrowed the structure from John Cage's 1959 Lecture on Nothing (which Fargion has performed as a 'rhythmic reading'). Where Cage would pronounce 'I have nothing to say and I am saying it', Burrows and Fargion claim 'We don't know what we're doing and we're doing it – and stealing it'.

The result is a 40 minute patter song, a rap about rules and audience responses, delivered deadpan. They discard the pages of their 'scores' one by one. If the pages are anything like Cage's lecture script, they're printed in 48 units of 12 lines, spaced so that the rhythms don't necessarily correspond with the sense (if any) of the sentences. It amounts to a kind of collective brain-washing, patterning our expectations and alerting us to repetitions without giving us time to think. We're so busy laughing and trying to keep up that we can't think. Think what?

While we're still befuddled, they launch into The Cow Piece, a Mornington Crescent game that disrupts the rules established in Cheap Lecture. They seem to operate in parallel universes, following inner rhythms that happen to coincide – and which they acknowledge with a smile of surprise. Cows get serenaded and abused. Fargion, their executioner, croons Dido's Lament to one of them; Burrows sings them a comic song, foretelling their fate in ballet mime, fists crossed.

Together they play a jig or reel on a ukelele and accordion. Burrows, of course, was a folk-dance expert during his years with the Royal Ballet, as a dancer, musician and teacher. Still nimble at 50, he comes across as a music-hall artiste in the style of Dan Leno, who used to cut Irish capers while reciting mournful Cockney ballads. Burrows and Fargion make a superb po-faced double act, complementing each other as highly intelligent clowns. They're perfectly serious about their work, investigating the boundaries of postmodern dance and music while entertaining themselves and us.

Jann Parry