An interview with Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion

Words by Katie Hagan.

It seems apt that choreographer Jonathan Burrows and composer Matteo Fargion have based their new work Let us stop this mad rush towards the end on an interpretation of Shakespeare’s line: “double, double, toil and trouble.” Known for making art which is earnest as it is mercurial, cerebral as it is cheeky, the dance world’s double-trouble duo will debut their commissioned work at this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF); exhibiting art which will no doubt take choreography and composition on journeys from separation to reconciliation, richness to emptiness, chaos to calm.

Ahead of the premiere of this collaborative, site-specific orchestral work, the dance art journal caught up with Jonathan and Matteo, who divulged pockets of information about their new work and gave insight into their fertile understandings of what movement and music can be but never are.

Q: Could you tell us about Let us stop this mad rush towards the end?

Matteo: The piece is for a 60-piece orchestra, with a soloist and a dancer, performed in a cavernous industrial space with the musicians positioned miles apart from each other. Sounds more like a Karlheinz Stockhausen piece than something Jonathan and I might do! In reality it’s a very simple idea: an endlessly repeating short song sung at one end of the space with the orchestra quietly playing along at the other, the dancer running and dancing between the two. There is no mad rush towards the end, in the music at least.

Jonathan: Matteo and I have for a long time thought of what we do as being music, because of the way we work often with musical concepts and translations. And there’s a new generation of contemporary composers who also want to work with performance, so we’re finding allies now in that world.

The title of the piece came from a remark made by the concertina player Will Duke, who was describing why you might ornament a tune and alter it at each repetition, so you kind of slow down and enter a different sense of time. That image resonated with me, because it describes well the feeling of dancing or performing or taking part, when time shifts gear and you’re suddenly in the centre of something more expansive. The dance is created and performed by Claire Godsmark and the text is sung and played by Francesca Fargion, both of whom we’ve collaborated with many times before.

Q: Are you incorporating the session’s brief: ‘To double is to create, to make mischief, to sow chaos and confusion — ‘double double, toil and trouble’ — but also to transfigure and transcend.’

Matteo: I think it’s great that contemporary ‘classical’ music is experiencing a renaissance at the moment, with festivals like the LCMF presenting truly experimental work. The piece we’ve made addresses the concert’s theme in several ways, on paper anyway. Jonathan and I work as a double act, there are two soloists, the orchestra doubles the song and the piano accompaniment, transforming and transfiguring it by constantly redefining it with different colours. And the dance is in gentle dialogue with the music.

We were attracted by the risk involved in asking an orchestra to improvise a kind of heterophony, in the way folk musicians would collectively play a tune. This seems quite mischievous to me. Some chaos and confusion may ensue, hopefully just the right amount…

Q: Poets, artists, dancers, dramatists, musicians have always experimented with form. Do you see your work as experimentations?

Jonathan: Form is not at all important, unless you happen to be the kind of person who enjoys, grows and learns through a practice of thinking occasionally in a more form-al way. After 30 years of working together, Matteo and I rarely talk about form at all. It’s just an embodied part of how we function. It’s a felt sense not a mathematical set of rules.

Matteo: If experimentation is in part defined by working towards unknown outcomes, with the strong possibility of failure, then yes I think that’s what we do. For me structure and form are essential elements of composition, always looking after us as we focus on more important things. Material is meaningless to me without it being in dialogue with the right (or wrong) structure.

Q: What is choreography to you? What is music? Why do they co-exist perfectly? When do they not fit together?

Matteo: In work that involves music and movement I’d suggest a culinary analogy: the right pasta (movement) with the right sauce (sound). If well-matched, they co-exist without question. Problems arise when one of the two demands too much attention and obliterates the other.

Jonathan: I’ve thought and discussed for many years with many people what the difference might be between choreography and composition, but I’m still not sure I know. I suppose in all the ways that choreography conjures a different image than composition, it proves itself often enough a useful and liberating word.

Image: Luca Ghedini

Q: Jonathan — I read your ‘Traces’ from Siobhan Davies Dance’s ‘material – rearranged / to /be’. For me it encapsulates the paradox that is writing about dance! Were these some of your motivations for creating ‘Traces’?

Jonathan: When Siobhan Davies asked me to write a text for the catalogue of her gallery event ‘material / rearranged / to / be’, it made me think about what we mean when we call dance immaterial, and why those immaterial qualities might be attractive to visual artists and galleries.

But the more I thought and wrote the more I kept returning to the possibility that the best qualities of dance might be about doing something that in a way has no easily quantifiable purpose or value, despite all the promises we make in marketing and funding applications. I can’t easily justify this position, as clearly at the simplest level dance reflects hierarchies and power structures. But for me the experience of dancing remains potent with uselessness, which is why I think people like to do it whether in a dance class or on a night out. The uselessness reboots my perspectives on life.

Q: What is next for you?  

Jonathan: It interests Matteo and I at the moment to share practice with other artists, not in the traditional sense of collaboration but more like where you invite someone to enter your world for a moment, and you in turn enter theirs. So one of the ongoing projects we’re busy with is ‘Music For Lectures’, where we invite someone to give a talk and we back them with a rock band. We’re touring two versions of it so far, with Katye Coe and Mette Edvardsen, and we’re working now on the third iteration with Wendy Houstoun.

Matteo: My strategy has always been simple: say yes to whatever comes along and then do the best work possible in that situation. The main thing is to keep finding pleasure in working, whether it’s making pieces together, performing, writing music or teaching.

Matteo and Jonathan will be premiering their work, Let us stop this mad rush towards the end on 15th December at LCMF 2019. Follow this link for further information, and to get your tickets!

Header image: Ben Parks.

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