To call a performance instructive is often to imply pedantry, or at least a kind of inoffensive tedium. But Jonathan Burrows’ and Matteo Fargion’s Cheap Lecture is instructive in the best sense of the word: like all good art, it teaches its audience how to receive it; in so doing, it educates about the form.
Because it is a lecture, much of that education is explicit – it is full of very good aphorisms about meaning-making, time and composition. But the lecture’s form does the real heavy-lifting. Ripped from John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”, Cheap Lecture is a 40-minute dance for the voice. Though Burrows is a classically trained dancer, the two men hardly move as they stand at microphones and deliver the piece; the only real movement comes from the pages of the lecture as they drop to the floor. Instead the dance is a tightly choreographed verbal score, a series of rhythmically patterned phrases that operate by the very rules of composition they describe: they are doing the dance they are teaching you how to make.
It sounds heady, and it is, but the heavy formalism is balanced by Burrows’ and Fargion’s particularly winning affect. They’re nerdy, they’re funny, they’re euphoric; they carry out their score with the unpretentious, effortful efficiency of Dad getting the canoe to stay on top of the car. It seems a particularly English humor – small, quick, self-deprecating, though essentially unembarrassed – and it is a welcome companion to the seriousness of formal investigation. It is rare to find a post-modern sensibility as effervescent and as homely as Burrows’ and Fargion’s.
Cheap Lecture is followed by, and so acts as a sort of road map for, The Cow Piece. It is a frustrating, though perhaps necessary curatorial choice; Cheap Lecture would do better without further demonstration and The Cow Piece would do better without introduction. It’s a nonsense piece, which is not to say that it eschews logic, just that the logic is delightfully askew. Burrows and Fargion move through a series of behaviours – play-acting with 12 plastic cow figurines, incanting the lyrics to “Dancing cheek to cheek,” warding off skeletons, singing a Neapolitan love song and an English ditty, hanging the cows with tiny nooses – with a kind of casual, ritualized efficiency that calls to mind the rote daily ministrations of an Orthodox priest or a rabbi. They also suggest hawkers, peddlers, foley artists, music hall duos, but the religious comparison may be better; for all of their silliness, there is something moving about two grown men playing very seriously with toys, and singing about death, as if it’s all simply part of the day’s work.
To be clear, Burrows’ and Fargion’s aesthetic turf is not the realm of great feeling. Great feeling isn’t out of the question, and the two certainly seem capable of and well-acquainted with it – but their project here is more circumspect. Too many nights of this and one would start to get hungry. But Burrows and Fargion know what they are about. They’re making, as they call it, imitating their world-weary audience in Cheap Lecture, “that kind of thing”. But at that kind of thing, they are simply the best.