Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion: Cheap Lecture & The Cow Piece

Image credit: Herman SorgeloosImage credit: Herman Sorgeloos


Cheap Lecture & The Cow Piece (2009) were forever, until yesterday, those pieces that I hadn’t seen, that I should’ve seen, that I felt like I’d already seen. Marching into the room, Burrows and Fargion are aware of this, somehow; of the rep-ness of it. Old chestnutty.

Both pieces set off at a canter. I wonder how old those notebooks are. Particularly as The Cow Piece descends into (presumably) ordered chaos and Burrows attacks the table with it. But more on that later.

This notebook thing – in Cheap Lecture, a script – I love how it’s not a cop out, it’s not easy. They have so much to do, to get through! ‘We don’t know what we’re doing and we’re doing it’, they cry flatly, chucking that page on the floor.

I feel like part of this slight separation between themselves and the piece – that ‘here we go again’ kind of thing – is built in somehow. They are always like that, they must be, or that’s what I like imagining. These conductor-doers. They are cool. They are thorough. They know their own work.

Watching The Cow Piece is like discovering you like twiglets dipped in sour cream, covered in fairy dust and… oh, I don’t know. Realising you like the piece is not a realisation at all, really. There is no time to decide you like it, you just do. I was thinking before I watched it, ‘How is it about cows?’ (I felt like being ridiculous with it) and was so pleasantly surprised, when suddenly Cheap Lecture was over and all along there had been 2 rows of plastic cows on tables behind them and now OF COURSE they’re going to do a dance, or a music (what is it?) with, on, about those poor, wonderful cows. I was elated all the way through, and quite a bit afterwards.

Anyway, I wanted to say that even though there’s that separation, that this-is-the-piece-ness – Burrows and Fargion do sweat – they are involved. I enjoy pinpointing these small differences and letting the rest, the words, the sounds and, my favourite, the dancing, wash over me.



“Rules.” “Concentration.” “Fear.” “Patterns.” “Melodies.” “Very uplifting and all stolen.”

There is so much equipment on the stage that I look forward to what on earth these masters of scores do with it all.

In attempting to establish patterns and break them just in time so that the rate of change keeps changing, the work of this publicly embraced duo ties their dance scores in dense knots. What we see unfold is mostly them attempting to complete them – with all their expert grip and openly smiled at slip ups.

In the face of such a grasp on their choreographed complexity, the frequent moments of self-effacement within Cheap Lecture become problematic. Somehow I don’t fully believe that this duo would want to ever make a Pina Bausch piece and so I resign this moment to cheap, in-dance-joke laughs. They inform us that it is “not necessary to understand” and this, coupled with the pace of some of the words which are delivered in a slow but upbeat, musical manner, unfortunately patronises the audience (or at least me) in the way they hope not to.

While “We don’t know what we are doing and we are doing it” is a fantastic take on Cage’s “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”, I can’t help but take it as an instant falsehood because the pair do in their immediate performance circumstance know what they are doing – reams of scores on paper tell us so. Of course, Cage also had a lot to say and I do believe that Burrows and Fargion’s statement is an apt reflection on a creative process which is not only refreshingly open but also politically charged in terms of a lecture during which the knowledge of the speakers isn’t the be all and end all. The slide with the word ‘sorry’ lingering on the screen behind them is a moment in which this possibility for upending traditional authoritative speaker and there-to-learn audience relations is delightfully fulfilled.

To further their critique on the assumed knowledge of the lecture figure, it is fitting that they at times expose how their lecture is sequenced (without fear of copyright infringement) and within these moments, pure, believable joy and humbleness is detected. The closing reduction of their whole lecture into the statement “Boom, boom, boom, boom, yeah!” produces a poignant self-reflective acknowledgement that all the words in the world perhaps can’t quite get there. That the making of a piece can’t quite get there. “Almost, almost”.

It is difficult not the treat Cheap Lecture as a warm up for The Cow Piece. It gives us information about their performances in which scores become so full with things and their minds so fully occupied, that they can themselves become visible. Visibility of the performers, beyond being seen as the makers of the scores, while less fruitful in Cheap Lecture, hits like an explosion to the face in The Cow Piece.

The Cow Piece is so full, fast, and packed tight with the patterns with which it is made. The creative freedom appears to be in the fact that anything and everything they could have ever wanted to do is acceptable and done. The work’s dense layers leave me entranced in their construction of a performance that is somehow a cow folk dance. Their storytelling and fables, non-sensical anecdotes and single syllable reductions are fantastically relentless and surreal. Here are two performers enjoying the freedom that comes precisely from knowing what they are doing just enough to throw their ideas up in the air and see where they land. I have the sense that each change is motivated by trying to make each other laugh and simultaneously practice their own deadpan. It is altogether masterful.