Burrows & Fargion: Rebelling Against Limit

Image credit: Peter Rapp drawing for Rebelling Against Limit.
© Peter RappImage credit: Peter Rapp drawing for Rebelling Against Limit. © Peter Rapp

Rebelling Against Limit feels right on the button: self-aware, sincere and penetrating. This short lecture concert involves various elements: spoken and written text delivered and cued by Jonathon Burrows, who is sat centre stage behind a table, laptop and microphone; cartoon drawings by Peter Rapp projected on to a screen behind Burrows; and live piano played by Matteo Fargion, positioned downstage right, facing in towards the action. It’s a lovely mélange through which a lecture performance is constructed – a graphic, musical and textual vehicle for an argument.

As Burrows himself admits, while the lecture performance genre is becoming a little tired, it has utility: the format allows us to catch a glimpse of another aspect of the work beyond the art object. They can shed light on the wider process and underlying ethos. I’m game. Incidentally, the latest Coffee Morning at Chisenhale Dance Space, hosted by Trio Collective, was on Discussing Discussions In/As Performance.

Fleetingly, the audience is party to an account of the situation inside the work and the reflections and understandings yielded from that practice. Burrows acts as a speaker extrapolating first hand experience and embroidering it into an audio-visual tapestry of what he and Fargion perceive to be true. Shrewd emphatic statements elucidate what goes on in the thick of making a dance, select words making it on to an on-screen distillation for added visual emphasis or comparison. The nuts and bolts of an understanding are committed momentarily to the blackboard before being cleared. The screen always returns to black, the words or images that will appear next remaining unpredictable. The stage, the screen, the air are temporary containers of activity and information.

Everything that is discussed is shown to us through myriad examples: through a played composition, the projection of a drawing or a photograph of a notated score or through dynamic verbal delivery (where choices about cadence are made, and pauses and clipped-ness employed for effect). All of these tactics amount to the accomplished intertwining of the subject of the work with the substance of the work.

I find myself treating the flow of words and notes a little like looking at a waterfall. At times, it feels good just to be in the presence of these things with a sort of soft focus as they do their thing; at other times, my attention narrows, concentrating on the precisely timed visual sequencing of words and binaries. Quotations make another sort of demand of me: I wish to read them whole, as if they are not, in themselves, extracts of something bigger. Meanwhile, images seize my attention instantly and it is a relief that they all last for a little while.

I think about how I used to be told to do English essays: the sandwich approach whereby one states an opinion, then provides an example or evidence to back up that position, then unpacks and expands on this, before reinforcing the original point. The points Burrows makes are rarely dry facts. Indeed, they can be a bit on the giddy side.

A big topic is scores. The subject is tackled thoroughly and humorously. The disclaimer that Burrows’ and Fargion’s creative process is nothing like the analytical, discursive workshop mode that they foster in educational environments is a very wholesome disclosure. We discover that their work on the work is typically devoid of conversation (practised intuition takes its place). They also confess to a recurring pattern of stealing form from other artists.

In Rebelling Against Limit, my experience listening to Fargion’s compositions collides with a visceral kind of thought-commotion provoked by Rapp’s drawings, which are projected as the music is played. They are curve balls, these cartoons; things transform across just a handful of drawings. We see objects, bodies and faces dissolving, metamorphosizing, becoming submerged. An angular snail morphing into a mushy detached one, a sinking piano being played in(to) the sea, a plinth collapsing and cascading on itself, a doorway arch cracking…

What is the glue?

Why is everything falling apart?

The post-show talk underlined Burrows’ and Fargion’s galvising interest: “Formalism collapsing under the weight of its own form”. This somehow shrinks the implications and alleviates the weight of the imagery for me, retrospectively. It is not all analogous of Doomsday. I note my rapture in this performance and reflect that I enjoy staging destruction, too. But from my perspective now, it feels tragic.

Rapp’s drawings depicting small instances of devastation were beautiful and compellingly modest in their form. I was reminded of a perturbed feeling that came over me watching an experimental animation at college where I found the anthropomorphic qualities of moving abstract objects so menacing that I nearly left the cinema. Animations can be so inimitably potent, the way they transform appearances in a trice in ways that live performance rarely can and live events and disasters often do (viewing ratings of natural disasters documentaries are surely great).

Another thing that arose in the post-show talk was how expressionism has ‘gone out of fashion’. Rationally, I feel this to be true; agreed, nowadays, it is all about the transformation, perceptual shifts, the audience teetering on the brink of meaning, to quote Burrows verbatim. But ascertaining the drive of the maker for making (John Cage’s statement: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” comes from a specific and motivated place) is still a major interest for me when I see things. Gratifyingly, the matter was redressed when an audience member took up the issue of expression again. Burrows suggested that, in fact, expressiveness has never left the realm of dance; what has changed is how that expression is contextualised. Gotcha. So the desire to express persists and the form expressiveness takes continually evolves and mutates in order to… work. Hummm. Does stuff that lasts and ages well go into a cannon that’s appreciated necessarily as ‘of its time’? How can it be that a lot of Pina Bausch’s old work still feels right on (call me an islander)? Perhaps because of its originality?


A short lecture concert by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion. The talk is accompanied by piano music played live by Matteo Fargion, with cartoon drawings by Peter Rapp.

Rebelling Against Limit was written for the Misery Of Form seminar during the German Tanzkongress in Dusseldorf earlier this year, and will be presented in public now for the first time in London.

This event is a collaboration with the Centre for Performance and Creative Exchange at the University of Roehampton and marks Jonathan Burrows’ continuing role as Honorary Visiting Professor in Roehampton’s Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance.

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion are supported by Kaaitheater Brussels, PACT Zollverein Essen, Sadler’s Wells Theatre London and BIT Teatergarasjen Bergen.

Burrows and Fargion are currently in-house artists at the Nightingale, Brighton.