Note: James McGinn is a WCCB alumni and dancer of the NYC-based John Jasperse Company
The New York Times – November 11, 2011 – “Body and Brain Both Stretched To Their Limits” by GIA KOURLAS - IN 1991 John Jasperse presented his first evening-length show, “Eyes Half-Closed,” at Performance Space 122 with no expectation of where it would take him. Now, as he sits in a Midtown cafe 20 years later, his eyes are wide open as he contemplates the longevity of his career in contemporary dance. “That’s a while,” Mr. Jasperse said, not without a little awe, before letting loose a peel of his trademark laughter. “A document of tenacity.”
Talent is one thing, but in dance longevity is the real prize. The only way to keep making work is if people want to see it, and Mr. Jasperse has proven that he is worth watching time and time again. Beginning Wednesday he’s back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with “Canyon,” his fourth dance to be shown there since “Giant Empty” in 2001. Certainly that is worthy of a little awe; in recent years only a handful of New York choreographers have been given shots at presenting work at the Brooklyn Academy. But the persevering Mr. Jasperse has risen to the top of his field by choreographing works that test the limits of both brain and body, and live inside austere yet arresting theatrical landscapes.
Despite his success Mr. Jasperse has long spoken about his ambivalence toward dance. “I think people understand that word as being very flippant, but with me it’s very much like I’m simultaneously really committed to it and have a deep problem with it,” he said. “That tension has existed in my work for years.” In other words, movement, in a work by Mr. Jasperse, is created in the service of the piece — whether purposefully awkward or task based — and not for its own sake. The impulse behind “Canyon,” then, is something of a surprise: It’s a return to dancing. And it begins in an unexpected way.
“Well,” Mr. Jasperse said, with a slight moment of hesitation, “we’re jumping. I don’t really jump.”
In experimental dance, classical or virtuosic movement is hardly de rigueur, though it is slowly creeping back. (The most important example is Sarah Michelson, whose recent works “Dover Beach” and “Devotion” were full of meticulous dancing that didn’t give short shrift to the purity of steps.) With “Canyon,” a work for six dancers including the choreographer, a score by Hahn Rowe and visual design by Tony Orrico, Mr. Jasperse said, he is making the kind of work that he needs to make. With a title like “Canyon” he is questioning states of wonderment.
“I’m not particularly interested in Southwest desert, blah, blah, blah,” Mr. Jasperse said. “None of that feels a part of this, but something about majesty and space is. I’m not, you know, into crystals and color therapy, but I do feel like there’s a way in which I can be connected to something bigger.”
And with that, the jumping section, which the dancer Kennis Hawkins likens to “being shot out of a cannon,” is intended to be both unapologetic and bereft of irony. “I know this is going to sound just cheesy, but joy is something that is superproblematic,” Mr. Jasperse said. “I felt interested in: What if we tried some things that feel dangerous?”
It has resulted, at least for Ms. Hawkins, in some of the hardest dancing she’s ever had to do in this, her first appearance with the John Jasperse Company. “In John’s choreography the body kind of trails behind the movement,” Ms. Hawkins said. “In a nutshell it’s a combination of being supertechnical and then also really releasing into the flow of movement — following your way through it.”
In many ways “Canyon” picks up where Mr. Jasperse’s previous work, “Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies” left off: with a passage of unapologetic dancing. But, as the title suggests, there are some open sections as well, where stillness and spaciousness — like that found at the bottom of a canyon — take over. Mr. Jasperse is exploring disorientation and fractured states that occur after an outpouring of extreme energy. As the dance continues, he said, “it becomes less and less tangible what the glue is that’s somehow holding us together.”
That also relates to the unusual set design, by Mr. Orrico, the artist and dancer. It is something of a work within a work. Fittingly, his durational drawings are also performances. In 2010 at the former Dance Theater Workshop he presented a series of live drawing as part of “Penwald Drawings.” While standing with his back to the crowd, he drew directly onto the gallery wall with expansive arms to create an intricate labyrinth of black lines.
Mr. Jasperse got to know Mr. Orrico, who has performed with Trisha Brown and Shen Wei, when he replaced a cast member during a tour of “Truth.”
“I love his dancing,” Mr. Jasperse said. “And then when looking at his visual work, I had a really strong feeling about its strength, not only as performative drawings, but the actual work.”
In “Canyon” Mr. Orrico will appear in a disguise of sorts, creating the visual design from inside a white box as it — or he — rolls across the stage on wheels as the others dance. He sees it as confined endurance drawing-taping; he constructs lines using masking tape. “There is this sort of beautiful residual movement from my having to navigate somewhat blindly inside of a box, and so the direction is unclear at times,” he said. “I can backpedal and bounce off of objects. You definitely see that I’m in a predicament. But then there are moments of fluidity when the box gains speed in a wide open space, so it develops this sort of personality and mystery.”
It is, Mr. Orrico said, an uncomfortable fit. (He estimates the box to be about 30 by 40 inches.) Wearing only underwear — it gets hot — he uses a compass, a pocket mirror and a wristwatch as navigational tools. “I don’t know if it’s years of inversions in yoga, but I like disorientation, and I like trying to find comfort in that,” he said. “I think John is thinking about the same thing with the dancers and the idea that the piece sort of disintegrates and becomes completely disoriented at times.”
It does build back up in the end. For Mr. Jasperse dance may be a complex animal, but there’s a reason he’s returning, 20 years later, to a more visceral side of his art form. “I understand the complexity of why sitting in a theater watching people do fancy things on a stage is a complicated paradigm in terms of contemporary work,” he said. “But I’ve never been at a place where I’m ready to just throw it away.”