In a tiny studio theatre above a pub, two men walk on to the cramped stage. They start to speak in stuttered sentences full of pauses and sudden speed changes. They talk about the nature of performance and creativity, with certain phrases projected on to a screen behind, not quite in sync with when they are spoken. It feels like a rather haphazard university presentation, with paper being thrown on the floor and the two men seeming to only just get through the script without tripping over the words.

Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece © Herman Sorgeloos
Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece
© Herman Sorgeloos

The two men are Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, a choreographer and a composer who have been performing together for over a decade. Coming from dance and music backgrounds, Burrows and Fargion create duets lying somewhere in between the two. The opening work is the first half of a double bill titled Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece. The piece may feel disorganised, but it has been planned and designed through the use of complex rules and patterns that structure all their performances.

Cheap Lecture is a re-imagining of John Cage's Lecture on Nothing. Cage's discussion of music and composition was a structured performance lecture, where the delivery of the words demonstrated the ideas he was exploring. Burrows and Fargion show the same transparency in their work, with the lecture explaining their personal rules for performance. They proclaim: “We don't know what we are doing and we are doing it”. This sentence seems to sum up their presence on stage, which is one of the most attractive things about watching these two perform. Perhaps an effect of reading the work from scores rather than it being fully memorised, they seem slightly surprised by what unfolds, as if this could be their first run-through. Watching from only a few feet away, I felt actively involved in their strange tasks. Every laugh from the audience seemed like an encouragement for the two performers, who responded by allowing this atmosphere to influence their actions.

Underneath the many rules and rhythms lie some beautiful insights and images, which were often swept away in the humour of their delivery. This was a little frustrating at times but also seemed fitting, echoing the fleeting nature of live performance. The words became a dance made up of syllables and the silences between words, and while the meaning of the lecture was important, I feel certain that even the most mundane of topics would become strangely fascinating if delivered by these two passionate and curious creators.

The second half arrived, without an interval, but with a lot of noise. In The Cow Piece, Burrows and Fargion arrange, rearrange and decide the fates of twelve plastic cows. Departing from the fairly sensible tone of Cheap Lecture, this second work feels like a chance to break all the rules they have just laid out. Burrows sings cockney songs and performs folk dances, and Fargion sings Italian songs translated into English, strumming a mandolin and finding himself with too many syllables to cram into the tune. The cows get sung to, thrown, directed in battles and strung by a noose. This piece is far from the abstract nature of some of the duo's previous work, and while it takes a few minutes to adjust to the abrupt change in pace, they have balanced the contrasting duets extremely well. Where Cheap Lecture was analytical, The Cow Piece is involved and surprisingly emotional. The many songs all share the common theme of life and death. Some provide comic moments, such as realisation that Burrows is speaking the words to I will survive, but also elements of real pathos. Fargion's quiet rendition of Dido's Lament by Purcell is a striking contrast to the chaos surrounding him, and slapstick comedy suddenly becomes a tragedy played out in plastic.

In Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece, Burrows and Fargion have shown their ability to create work that is both completely unpredictable and comfortingly familiar in tone. By letting their personalities shine through in even the most complicated concepts, they continue to perform work that is avant-garde and sometimes baffling, but always reassuringly human.