Both Sitting or Brecht Might Have Liked It

21 May 2007

I’ve written a short text for Humus 3, a book on the 30 years of the Kaaitheater, about the extraordinary duets by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion – Both Sitting Duet, Quiet Dance, and Speaking Dance. The complete text, titled Brecht might have liked it, is below (and continues after ‘read more’). An edited version of it will be in the book, which comes out in September.

Kind of similar-looking but for sure not identical, semi-bald blokes in identical or nearly identical clothes are sat on chairs right next to each other and doing things. Mainly it’s movement broken by stillness – a lot of hand and arm action, some of it recognisable as versions of everyday gestures, the rest of it more abstract or more dance-like. There also seems to be some interest in sound; the noise that comes when the slapping palm of a hand makes contact with a knee, or the sudden exhalation of breath when they both slump forward in a posture of exaggerated rest.

In the next piece they lose the chairs and move around instead, sometimes together, more often alone. They are pacing paths back and forth, walking circles repeatedly. With these paths and circles they make sounds; a long ‘aghhhhh’ or ‘aaaahhhhh’ for instance, which although done without noticeable emotion still invokes a notion of falling, dread or non-specific fear. Sometimes, moving down there on the black floor of the stage, they look like claymation – simple-figure-humans with a comically (or tragically) small vocabulary of action and sound. They are creatures living within a limit, two men caught in some skeletal scenario, an encounter whose pieces have been disordered, dislodged from continuity and causality.

In the final of the works they go back to the chairs and make yet more sounds – speak words and sing even. The words run simultaneously – going with and through each other, side by side, over and under, point and counterpoint. The words are mostly describing movement; movement that could possibly be dance or could possibly be something else. Run. Run. Run. Stop. Run. Run. Run. Stop is all I can immediately remember. It’s fast, vivid exhilarating.

All of it messes with your sense of what’s simple and what’s complicated. Mostly it starts at a place you’d call simple, very simple, but then they pattern it zealously; repeating, overlaying, looping the sequences, moving in and out of phase with each other and altering the time so that what maybe began as something you could teach to eight year olds, ends up more like Bach. A lot of maths, a lot of counting. Strangely virtuoso, for all its insistent aura of banality.

Very often there are scores (sheets of paper) on the floor there in front of them; maps, diagrams, annotations and lists, one imagines, although it’s impossible to see them. From time to time they look to these sheets of paper. And they watch each other too. And they watch us, also. This watching – the fact and switches of their attention – is somehow the heart of the work and why I had that thought that Brecht might have liked it. The meaning lies not so much in what they do – it’s how they do it.

They’re very here and very now. They are not immersed, not absent in any deep-state-like or emotional way. They’re here very here and now and if they ever do seem lost in something for a moment, it’s no mystery, no great otherness – more that they’re temporarily perplexed or preoccupied by the sheer complexity of their task. They look absent only in the way that a man working in a builder’s merchants might retreat briefly to his own mental space when you ask him how many three foot lengths you can get from so many metres of timber.

They are in any case pretty much always following the score, so that any sense of immersion which arises temporarily is soon dispelled by their glances to it, by their faces which show for one moment the screen-saver expression of ‘counting-in-the-background’, or by their page turnings at the end of a phrase.

They are doing things (movements, sequences, actions) and as they do so, they seem to be thinking about them. If this sounds unworthy of mention I have to remember how much dance isn’t like that; how often there’s no sense of this separation between action and do-er, no sense of a person present to be thinking, no sense of thinking at all. Here though the thinking, or the possibility of it, is with us from the start, from the moment they walk on and glance to us watching. As things proceed sometimes Jonathan and Matteo seem puzzled or perplexed by what they do and at other times they’re apparently amused, but whichever or whatever their attitude is we’re always aware of them as thinking subjects just behind and inside the action; trapped by it, framed by it, living through it. It is possibly strange that two grown men are here in public doing this complicated, very rehearsed and in certain sense quite stupid set of things, though neither the strangeness nor the apparent stupidity are things which the work seeks to hide in any way. There’s a constant background awareness that this is a public act, something shared. The performance is an ‘object’ brought to meet us in a particular place and time, whose proximity and distance from us is repeatedly underlined by their flickering glances in our direction.

From time to time, they also look to each other – so that through the task of the movement (within, around, above and somehow in it) they attend to each other constantly. At the end or the start of some phrase they sneak looks to see where the other one is, or take stock with each other and the ‘script’. At other moments they simply look and wait a second or two, as if to say ‘ok’, before pressing on. Sometimes these glances seem purely functional, unreadable almost, on other occasions they also appear to have an explicit content. There’s the look that says ‘OK, shall we?’ or the glance that says ‘So far so good.’ Or there’s the short look that says ‘Right. Here we go..’ At still other times a glance from one man to another will seem to pass judgement on the other or on the task itself.  These are the looks that often bring laughter, seeming to undermine the activity onstage with such delicate questions as  ‘Oh no, what’s he doing now?’ or ‘Are we really sure about this sequence, or that move?’

Raise arms. Slump forward. Sit back. Touch knees. Drag fingers back to torso. Wait. Lift hands and then take them back to knees. Drag fingers back to torso again, and wait again.

Kind of similar-looking but for sure not identical, semi-bald blokes in identical or nearly identical clothes are sat or stood right next to each other and doing things. It’s part game, part recited action, part choreography, part music, perhaps part moving sculptures. In another sense the work could be framed as a dialogue; response and reaction, moves, gestures and energy flowing back and forth as parallel statements from one body to another. It’s a strange almost-conversation, nearly a call and response; proposals, dead-ends and counter-proposals, all made inside a simple but shifting set of limits.

The movement slips in and out of the recognisable – something that starts as gesture evolves or leaps to be something else. You see yourself in it, you see other men you’ve known, a fragment of story/situation and then suddenly nothing. The system constantly trumps narrative, containing it, cutting it up at the same time as it summons it. What I love in fact is that the work is so abstract and at the same time so social, so human, so readable, so much based on the people, the warmth, play, discipline and inquiry you feel in their relationship. Its the strange and rather levelling paradox of dance perhaps, that however mathematical it gets, there are still people there in front of you, doing it and its this paradox that Jonathan and Matteo seem so very intent on exploring and embracing.

Wait. Raise arms and lower them. Duck down, sit back. Lift hands and then take them back to the knees.