Cheap Lecture
De Morgen, September 2nd 2010
A daring exercise in watching and listening

A lot of people were surprised by the choice of Cheap Lecture, a piece by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, for the 2009 Theatre Festival. Burrows is a London choreographer who moved to Brussels only recently, but who has been highly acclaimed in the Belgian dance world for some time. Fargion is a musician from London. But what were they doing at the Theatre Festival?

It certainly wasn’t because there is so little actual ‘dance’ in this piece, but rather because they have a special way with words and meaning.

Burrows is a special case for two reasons. Firstly, few people have successfully moved from a career as a soloist with the Royal Ballet to one as an avant-garde choreographer. Secondly, it is equally remarkable that in each successive work he does more with less. Yet this does not mean he pursues a highly-distilled, austere style. This work has nothing to do with the ‘less is more’ principle espoused by Mies van der Rohe, but more with the stillness in the work of John Cage. Take Cheap Lecture. The title is a salute to Cage’s Cheap Imitation, which in its turn is a loose interpretation of music by Erik Satie. Two men stand at a microphone with a pile of paper in their hands and read aloud, sometimes alone and sometimes together. Each time they finish a page, they let it flutter to the floor where an untidy heap of paper soon accumulates. Their words are not easy to follow because they speak them in a highly rhythmical fashion. Cage was also the source of this rhythm, specifically his Lecture on Nothing. Here too, the coherence of the sentences is often broken apart by rhythm. The same words also appear on a screen behind Burrows and Fargion, but with a different beat, and therefore not always in sync. This too makes it difficult to
follow their arguments. You nevertheless realise that Burrows and Fargion are saying meaningful things about what a performance does, and what makes watching a performance worthwhile. They talk about simple but essential ideas, such as the tension between the structure of a piece and the content you put into it, and how you might make it absorbing to watch. They also bring up such fundamental questions as the relationship between performer and audience. But it is also about the way these two performers approach performance: ‘best we can, maximum strength’ is a slogan that constantly recurs, like a mantra they use to buck themselves up for their seemingly pointless undertaking.

We hear the sound of a piano from a couple of loudspeakers, and if you listen carefully you will hear an overfamiliar piece of Schubert. So there’s not much dance to be seen, except when Burrows occasionally sticks up his arm with a laugh, as a sort of concession to anyone who was expecting more movement.

So what is the significance of all this? Cheap Lecture is an exercise in watching and listening without immediately making a judgement. It's all about the power of the moment, about the breath and the rhythm of the performance, of which you as the spectator become a part, whether you like it or not. With their sometimes amusing, but intense performance, Burrows and Fargion help you considerably in this respect. In the end your head starts dancing of its own accord, which is marvellous. It is theatre, but not what could be expected or foreseen.

Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion have made a piece that dances inside your head.

Pieter T’Jonck