One Flute Note
writingaboutdance.com, London, October 8th 2012
‘There is nothing to say, and I am saying it.’ This is the opening statement of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing and in Jonathan Burrows’ and Matteo Fargion’s One Flute Note presented by Dance Umbrella last night at the suitably pared-down Studio Theatre in Central Saint Martin’s there is an echo: there is nothing to do, and I am doing it.
I recently was introduced to John Cage’s ideas after hearing Richard Bernas’s radio program, Beyond Silence, celebrating the centenary of Cage’s birth. I hadn’t realised the vigour and humanity of Cage’s discourse on music, sound and life. I feel Burrows is a similar voice in dance, and in Fargion he has found a co-creator to give form to their ideas. As Burrows writes in his book, A Choreographer’s Handbook, ‘Collaboration is about choosing the right people to work with, and then trusting them. You don’t, however, have to agree about everything. Collaboration is sometimes about finding the right way to disagree.’ Anyone who knows the book will recognise the balanced form of his axiomatic advice, and Burrows’ fruitful collaboration with Fargion since they met in 1989 is proof of the validity of this particular axiom. They have been creating duets together since 2002: Both Sitting Duet (2002), The Quiet Dance (2005), Speaking Dance (2006), Cheap Lecture (2009), The Cow Piece (2009) and Counting to One Hundred (2011). Dance Umbrella is presenting a mini-retrospective of five of them.
This is the first performance of One Flute Note, and evidently there are some (permitted) errors that one can sense only from the occasional lapses into self-conscious smiles. Burrows and Fargion are so comfortable with each other on stage; seeing them in the bar afterwards, it is as if drinking a cold beer is as natural as the performance on stage: no makeup to remove, no costumes to change out of, no barrier between performer and audience. This naturalness is encapsulated in one of the maxims for ‘beginnings’ in the Handbook: ‘we walk on as though we were walking into Matteo’s kitchen.’ Another is that ‘we walk on in a formal way that is unexpectedly informal.’ The simplicity of these two statements belies the complexity of what we have been watching for the past thirty minutes. Burrows and Fargion play predictability against unpredictability, the expected against the unexpected, action against stillness, silence against non-silence, narrative against abstract, and absurdity against a sense of normal. In the intersection between these opposing ideas they find the space for both tension and its release in laughter.
The program notes underline the importance to Burrows and Fargion of the structure of Lecture on Nothing, proposing that One Flute Note is ‘at once a homage to and questioning of a way of thinking that has underpinned so much dance and performance in the last 30 years.’ Presumably this is the continuing decoupling of dance from the classical form and the corresponding embrace of everyday movement in dance vocabulary. It is also the liberation of thinking about dance that allows endless permutations. There is certainly a sense of freedom in One Flute Note, somewhere between a Peter Cook sketch and a rigorously intellectual approach to dance performance. It involves amongst other elements a surreal array of sound inputs that vary from the one flute note to the sound of 45 choirs, two versions of a chair dance (one without and one with the chairs), and a constant disequilibrium that is kept in play within an absurdly rational structure.
That structure is a paradox of Cage’s lecture: his ‘way of thinking’ liberates, while the form in which it is delivered is carefully constructed. ‘This is a composed talk for I am making it just as I make a piece of music. It is like a glass of milk. We need the glass and we need the milk.’ It is the first time I am seeing a duet by Burrows and Fargion, and I find it liberating. At the same time it is clear that One Flute Note is highly organised and heavily cued; the sound engineer is in effect a third performer. There is no room for improvisation or chance occurrences, nor is there any notion of dissociating the movement from the score, which is one of the central ideas of Cage’s partnership with Merce Cunningham. Burrows and Fargion are forging their own path of questioning and coming up with their own ‘handmade and human-scale’ answers. One Flute Note owes something to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, something to Lee Scratch Perry’s Bucky Skank (it’s in the Handbook if you want to know why) and a lot to the intellectual rigour and integrity that Burrows and Fargion bring to their work.
At the end of his radio program, Richard Bernas says that after a performance by Cage his mind and ears are ‘refreshed, more at ease, more balanced, more alert to the world than when it started.’ I feel the same after watching One Flute Note. It is as if Burrows and Fargion have fashioned a way of performing that is a metaphor for living with more freedom within the conflicted confines of our daily lives.