Article by Lieve Dierckx
on Cheap Lecture
The music is virtuosic
Lieve Dierckx, from the Flemish Theatre Institute, Corpus Art Criticism 2009
Vilain XIIII is a castle situated in the village of Leut, in the Belgian province of Limburg. It harbours a magnificently restored Nanette Streicher pianoforte from 1826 that, in the latest of its nine lives, appears to have prompted a three-day festival round the work of choreographer Jonathan Burrows and his associate, composer Matteo Fargion.
These two gentlemen have hatched their very own idiosyncratic language in the overlap between music and dance, a far cry from the idea of dance as ‘moving to music’. Rhythm, timing and ‘attitude’ are their common terrarium for creating a compelling vocabulary that all at the same time succeeds in enhancing a democratic relationship with the public.
Both the pianoforte and the duo share the keen interest of Hugo Haeghens, director of the local cultural centre of Maasmechelen. At some point in the past, during a residency at his centre, Burrows and Fargion had solemnly promised him to do ‘something’ with his cherished pianoforte.
Much more than ‘something’ it has indeed not become, because the old instrument, so lovingly restored to its original state, is not put to use for much more than five minutes throughout the festival.
All the while, the pianoforte does serve as a symbol of the duo’s working method in the sense that they tend to take as a starting point the reformulation of historic dance and music material. Burrows himself describes their interest in ‘scores’ and ‘translation’ as an answer to the post-modern dilemma on the impossibility of creating something new, but one might just as well find a niche for that idea in the hipper and more recent ecological recycling mood that seems to have expanded into a renewed interest for repertory and re-enactment in the arts of the stage.
A festival round one choreographer or one company is quite unusual in the Flanders contemporary dance scene. Organizer Hugo Haeghens is one of the few programmers who dares take that kind of risk and in the past he has shown excellent judgment on ‘smaller’ work of interest. Burrows and Fargion cannot be counted among young talent in any sense but their careers did take some quite unexpected turns.
The duo met in London, at the time that Burrows worked as a soloist for the venerable Royal Ballet which he was part of for the better part of thirteen years. In 1995 he asked composer Matteo Fargion to write the music to a small choreography ‘Hands’ that was in its turn to be used in a film. They worked together in a classical constellation of choreographer/composer until 2002 when their relationship took a radical turn with Both Sitting Duet in which they went on stage on completely equal footing.
At this point we return to Maasmechelen because Burrows and Fargion open the first night of their festival with Both Sitting Duet, a work that was later on to become the first part of their trilogy of duets. The other parts, The Quiet Dance and Speaking Dance, were performed on the second evening as a double bill. This intensive submersion engenders a clear image of the evolution in the duo’s language. Both Sitting Duet, executed on two chairs, is a movement transcription for four hands of a score that composer Morton Feldman dedicated to John Cage. But the only sound we hear is that of the hands dancing and the rustle of the score’s pages that Burrows and Fargion each keep in front of them on the floor.
In The Quiet Dance the sound of voices is introduced: while Burrows executes a repetitive movement phrase in which he walks forward from an erect posture to a low bow in eight counts, Fargion produces with his voice a sighing sound that rises higher on each of the same eight counts. The inspiration is a music scale, from high to low. In Speaking Dance, the last part of the trilogy, the movement has moved to paper altogether. Again, the two performers sit on two chairs next to each other and commence a game of word and sound rhythm that is based on dance instructions they have in front of them in a score. Once in a while Fargion erupts into old Italian songs or produces some old chimes on a mouth organ.
The trilogy might be seen as a shifting in focus from movement to music, but in the end the shift comes down to an extraction of its common denominators: musicality, rhythm and timing.
Only on the third day does the festival move from Maasmechelen’s cultural centre to Castle Vilain XIIII. In the late afternoon Burrows and Fargion start off with a lecture performance on their sources of inspiration that range from Nijinska’s Les Noces, over folkdance from Oxfordshire and South-Africa, to bottle music, chaos and order in the work of Tadeusz Kantor, Max Wall, the musical A Chorus Line, Samuel Becket, the music of Morton Feldman, Steve Reich and John Cage, dub reggae and shared autobiographical experiences. The key words in this amalgam are again rhythm and timing, next to dignity and the quality of contact with the public as well as with the performance itself.
The centre piece of the festival, the première of Cheap Lecture, is then performed later on the same evening in the former reception hall of the castle. Cheap Lecture proves to be a manifesto on the duo’s work and their relationship with the public, framed in a format of an incongruous, impossible, absurdly comical waterfall of rhythmicalized thoughts.
In the back of the stage the pianoforte is being discreetly beautiful. To the front, on the right, two microphones are waiting. The two gentlemen come on stage, each carrying their obligatory bunch of score papers. In one big step they are behind their microphones, and without the slightest nanomoment of introductory sauntering they launch on a sustained rhythmical drive of spoken phrases which they read from their papers: 'We apologize', and 'We have come with empty hands'. In the background we hear a sound-scape with a few simple Schubert chords that they have recorded earlier in the week on the fortepiano. Only at the end, in the last minutes of the performance, the pianoforte is allowed on leave from its imposed decorative role. Fargion installs himself in front of the keyboard and replays some of the Schubert-chords while Burrows reinforces the procedure with a rhythmically repeated ‘boum’, ‘boum’, ‘boum’.
The torrent of voiced phrases of Cheap Lecture does not involve any movement phrase. ‘Real’ music is reduced to some lost notes and ‘real’ dance never exceeds the one step forward. It is the words that dance, the mutual exchange of looks and glances between the two performers, between them and the public, it is the leaves from the bunch of papers in their hands as they throw them with a small sway to the floor after each spoken word or sentence, it is the humour that dances through the score. Likewise all of those elements are turned into music. The performers do not play with pitch or volume: everything is centered around the force of rhythm and timing.
It is this sense of timing that Cheap Lecture shares with the trilogy the previous two festival days. Burrows and Fargion command timing as few others do, they can stand the comparison with the world’s best clowns or comics. One critic called them the Laurel and Hardy of avant-garde dance - but that would do injustice to their added value as dance and music performers. Their work does have that comical aspect that is present in the perfect placing of a glance, a sigh or one of those typical movements of the head with which they conclude a voiced phrase or a movement phrase. Fargion especially is good at that, he also has the classical physiognomy of a clown, a somewhat melancholy expression that matches his short and sturdy build. All in all, the kind of physical appearance that discerning women swoon for.
On the other hand, Burrows and Fargion shrink back from an excess of humour because they want their public to keep in touch with the fact that their work is a serious proposal.
Their humour is indeed part of a broader range of significance in their work – work which for that matter is quite indescribable. When watching Burrows and Fargion on stage for the first time I was quite happy not to have to write about the event. My only attempt at putting into words what I had seen stopped at a comparison with watching a game you do not know the rules of, but that is clearly so much fun that you would absolutely love to be part of it. That description still goes in Maasmechelen. There is something in what these two performers do that entices one to keep on watching expectantly in order to see what they will be up next in their intricate game that one cannot, as yet, make head or tail of. And it is exactly that created sense of expectancy that is, according to musicologists, at the core of timing. Music scientist Henkjan Honing(1)
proposes that timing (the playing with time between two notes of music) is what keeps the attention of the listener going at a primitive cognitive level – and in a more fundamental way than what harmony or tone setting can bring about. Even more intriguing is the fact that Honing makes the link with the human body. Here is a citation from the scientist in a letter on his project for computer-generated music:
‘(...) I believe we have overlooked something very crucial. Timing of course not only has to do with the placing of notes, it is also about the musician himself, about what some refer to as “embodied music”.’
That certainly goes for Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion: it is the way in which they physically use timing that catches and holds attention. Their specific ‘attitude’ towards their movement material, their movement and musical score constitutes a significant added value in their work.
On the one hand the makers deliberately use movement and sound material that is impossibly intricate, nipping any attempt at perfect execution skilfully in the bud.
This self-imposed impossibility is then turned into the motor for their performance, which they execute with high concentration and sharp focus because, yes, the will to excel is there. 'The best we can' was one of the rhythmically spoken phrases from Cheap Lecture. On the other hand, within this format, they allow themselves mistakes. In their more movement-oriented performances the result is a laid-back way of moving, and even when they do not move, their relaxed self-relativism results in infectious fun that effortlessly generates the spectator’s direct involvement. One might describe this ‘attitude’ as a kind of work ethos with a highly hospitable tinge. In the hierarchy between the spectator and the performance it helps to pull down the glass wall of authoritative complexities. The distance with what is shown on stage is bridged, however abstract or incomprehensible the performance may be.
In the virtuosity of the movement material or in the lack of it, Burrows and Fargion again play with the element of ‘attitude’. Their technical skills are very different: Burrows’ incorporated ballet background gives him a physical control that is much more finely tuned than that of Fargion; Burrows tends to do more, to repeat movements more often or to execute them faster. Fargion is not a trained dancer and adds rest to the whole through a certain slowness. Within those differences their execution puts forward the dignity of their individual qualities. ‘The informal crashing into the formal’ – a music principle of John Cage they quote in Cheap Lecture is thus applicable at several levels – the virtuoso ballet alignment of Burrows versus the lack of it on the part of Fargion, their virtuoso scores that clash with the use of ‘everyday’ movements.
What they bring about on stage can be summarized from the phrases they keep on throwing at the spectators during Cheap Lecture: 'If we accept that our hands are empty then something usually turns up to fill them.' or also, 'Composition is about making a choice, including the choice to make no choice. Music is a negotiation with the patterns your fingers are thinking.'
Is it any surprise that the chief source of inspiration for Cheap Lecture is John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing?
After the festival in Maasmechelen the duo stated that Cheap Lecture was to be the first part of a new trilogy that they want to put on stage before the end of 2009. On top of that Jonathan Burrows is planning a theoretical publication that clarifies his work. Something to look forward to impatiently.
A new perspective
What Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion do is quite effective. They show a happy, open and intelligent mode of being on stage that has no need of intricate elucidation or big technical means.
Body language and sound do the trick. Their specific ‘attitude’ opens a space for resonance between the work, the performers and the spectators without having to make artistic concessions. That is impressive.
© Flemish Theatre Institute, Corpus Art Criticism 2009. Related Items
1) Henkjan Honing in: http://cf.hum.uva.nl/mmm/papers/honing-2004e.pdf