Since choreographer Jonathan Burrows asked composer Matteo Fargion to create a piece of piano music based on six hand gestures for a televised dance piece almost twenty years ago, the pair have worked together on such gently comic minimalist masterpieces as Both Sitting Duet (2002) and 2005’s The Quiet Dance, as well as embarking on a parallel career as performance-lecturers. Rebelling Against Limit is a sequel of sorts to last year’s Show and Tell, likewise hosted by Roehampton University where Burrows is an Honorary Visiting Professor.
Fans of the pair will know that the lecture-as-performance is not new ground for Burrows; 2009’s Cheap Lecture cheerfully pinched the structure of John Cage’s Lecture On Nothing to talk, rhythmically and in unison, about composition and the relationship of audience and performer. Rebelling Against Limit recycles elements of this earlier presentation – the rhythmic speaking, this time by Burrows alone, and the perfectly-synchronised lecture slides that accompany it – and openly acknowledges the sheer quantity of cheerful pinching that goes on in the name of Burrows’ art. Compositional and metrical structures are lifted from the pair’s hero Cage; spatial structures from Trisha Brown.
Where Cheap Lecture seems content to dispense casual and unpretentious pearls of wisdom in rhythmic form (“things made with effort sometimes only show effort”), Rebelling Against Limits seems shot through with a minor angst that any of what Burrows says might be taken seriously. In the text, the choreographer declares his worry that anyone might imagine that this – the scores, the predetermined structures – is how the pair work, or how anyone can go to the studio and work. Can imposing a creative limit – a structure, like Cage’s phrases of 7-6-14-14-7 – necessitate invention? Can working with a score be useful? The answer, Burrows reveals, is both yes and no. A score can be an outline, a record, a manifesto; but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the work itself. The limits are placed there, we might say, so that they can be rebelled against creatively.
Then there’s what might be called the anxiety of delight – Burrows’ concern that, if he’s enjoying his studio process, then he might not be doing enough; but if he’s enjoying the act of performance, then he might be doing too much. Compared with the “”joy” and “double joy” Burrows tells us he experienced when nicking all those structures from his idols, Rebelling Against Limit describes a territory of fretful unease.
Fargion is here confined to supplying piano sketches demonstrating examples of structure and unstructuredness, until the very end of the lecture when he joins in with the jaunty spoken-word finish. Actual sketches are provided by illustrator Peter Rapp, and provide a Terry Gilliamesque insight into some of the concepts Burrows outlines over his 45 speaking minutes.
Burrows continues to be a thoughtful, witty, and inspiring lecturer, and, for those who haven’t seen the pair speak on their influences and creative process before, Rebelling Against Limit must certainly have been a worthwhile hour. Those of us who have, however, missed some of the manic energy and downright hilarity of Cheap Lecture and its companion, The Cow Piece; I have a minor but lingering feeling that this mode of lecture might have been mined to its limit.