Kay Larson Reflects on The Quiet Circus

Kay Larson (third from right), Mary Jane Jacob (third from left) and others during Island Score.

Kay Larson (third from right), Mary Jane Jacob (third from left) and others during Island Score.


I was beside myself when Mary Jane Jacob invited Kay Larson to The Quiet Circus to present at one of our Reflection Events. Kay wrote Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, a moving and beautiful book in its intricate eloquence about struggle, transformation, and the deep coherence of Cage’s perspective on the inseparable nature of art and the world as it is.

Kay shared some recent thinking and research with us by way of a lecture she called “The Generosity of John Cage,” and we shared The Quiet Circus with her, as audience and participant. I love these thoughts she shared with us in her lecture:

If I tell you right now: “You are free to be yourself.” Then what? These are just words. If I talk to you in this way, you are likely to ignore me or misunderstand me or think of this advice as hot air. Cage didn’t tell you to be yourself. Cage invented a form to embody this instruction. Cage created a form that opened a space for people to be themselves.

After Kay’s visit, she wrote a letter about her experience that I am sharing below. We feel very fortunate to have such eloquence shared on our behalf….  Thank you Kay.


Dear David,

In thinking back on my time with Quiet Circus, October 6 and 7, and our talk on October 8, I have a rich collection of memories about what you’re doing and thoughts about what it was like to participate in this quiet and reflective practice.

First, I am most impressed by – in fact – the quiet that is extended to all participants, including bystanders and people outside the practice circle. You have chosen the path that I spoke about in relation to John Cage, but of course you have devised this path by being mindful of the obligations and opportunities that arise within your own life experience. Quiet Circus has created a structure that doesn’t rely on narratives or ideas imposed on participants. Rather, the structure arises from each person’s immersion in a series of moments in living space-time, which are always changing, and fluidly adapting to the energetic identities of all the participants. I first noticed this intriguing malleability of space when I played the Landscape game on Friday afternoon. Each decision made by one person changed the dynamic in the entire situation, and the next decision by the next participant necessarily acknowledged what had gone before. As an analogy to how we humans negotiate our social world, this experience seemed both simple and profound.

As the Quiet Circus continued on Saturday, there were more concentrated nuggets of group experience, and more of an implicit narrative, even when we bystanders weren’t sure what it was. I freely confess to having missed a couple of the introductory explanations by being slow to get to the Washington pier. So please take that into account. In the future you might want to be more explicit in some way. Even so, I was amazed at my sense of an evolving if amorphous interaction with people who seemed to know where they were going. In the performance that afternoon, I just let go. I dropped my usual “Well this is lovely but I have to get somewhere” attitude, and I noticed the generosity that was being offered to me and the other bystanders. I felt no need to go anywhere. I drifted as the moment called to me. I noticed some surprises – the person in the kayak with the cat’s head, for instance – and I accepted whatever happened, in recognition that there was nothing I was obliged to know or do.

It seems to me that you have done some quietly radical things. You have scrapped the usual reliance in late-modern art performance on some kind of embedded interpretation. As we discussed on Sunday, you have also removed the dancer’s-anxiety-syndrome of forcing an artist to worry about whether she’s “good enough” or whether his body is “well tuned enough.” You accept everyone who wants to join. You’ve dismantled the mind’s judgment-making processes wherever you find them. You’ve removed the brutalism of watching the clock. You’ve partially erased the boundaries between participants, observers, and casual passersby. Where those boundaries still exist, you have dulled their edges by making the dancers’ instructions vague enough and personal enough that each participant imagines an inner scenario as well as a group ebb and flow of movement and story. I wonder if the ‘innerness” has something to do with growing up in a family where outward silence is a biological necessity and inner narrative is automatically credible because no one is able to challenge it.

The generosity of inviting others into the ongoing story is only possible because you have dropped the usual judgments that we all make about everything we do. Only then are ordinary people free to join or not join, watch or move, and choose a moment to step over whatever boundaries they have historically created for themselves.

I had an odd sense of weightlessness during the performances. Perhaps it’s like being an astronaut. In everyday life we are so tethered to earth that we forget it’s there. It’s just ordinary reality, to have your feet on the ground. But there is no obligation to have your feet on the ground, if you are suddenly in a place where gravity no longer exists. All the assumptions we usually take for granted about art experiences are set free by the quiet in the mind and heart when the mind of silence is nurtured. It’s fascinating and unprecedented (in my experience) in the arts realm. I’ve been around sculptures and earthworks and so on where this happens. This is the first time I’ve encountered silence of this sort in a performance piece.

Often I’ve entered a performance elsewhere and enjoyed it and left, feeling unchanged. Quiet Circus is different. It’s unsettling in a good way. It’s thoughtful and it asks me to respond with thoughtfulness. I’m asking myself what silence is. How it can be a quiet force for good. I’ll be thinking about Quiet Circus for some time. In conjunction with James Turrell’s Skyspace it was a quietly joyful experience. Bravo.

Kay Larson

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