THINGINESS AND TRANSMISSION IN THE WORK OF JOHN JASPERSE: CHOREOGRAPHY, ECOLOGY, CULTURE
by Ariel Osterweis
This is, in part, a solicited musing. Choreographer John Jasperse approached me to do some dramaturgy for (and writing toward) his current project (premiering in May, 2014 at NYLA), one whose title rests precariously between “From once between,” “[…],” and (our most current play with double entendre) “u s.” But first he wanted me to attach some words to a “Jasperse style” and a “post-Jasperse style” (coined not by us, but by critic Chris Dohse) to help him understand how—and if—there were some perceived differences between his older and newer work.
(This section was written in Fall 2013, before entering the rehearsal studio or seeing live showings.)
I feel a certain amount of intimidation embarking on this process because I get the sense that my visceral knowing of Jasperse’s work comes from a certain affective power generated by the work’s very resistance to the structuring and legibility of language. The time he and his collaborators (dancers, composers, musicians, lighting designers, and set designers) spend preparing—and subsequently living in—worlds is profoundly perceived by us witness-participants in the audience. Jasperse has stated that he still believes in skill, amidst a terrain of postdramatic choreographers such as Jerome Bel and Xavier Roy, who present a choreography of deskilling and nondance. As far as post- or postpostmodern/contemporary/nowish-but-not-just-born American and European choreographers go, William Forsythe comes to mind as a contemporary of Jasperse who also holds onto skill. Nevertheless, Forsythe’s is a choreography that embraces classicism and certainly a relationship to ballet (whether enlivened, dissected, distorted, or displaced). It would be amiss, however, to mistake Jasperse’s ever-footy articulations with something balletic. They are decisively not. (And herein might lie the crux of how my thinking on Jasperse’s work emerges.) The balletic foot is pointed; it is pointed by discipline (somewhere between the Foucaultian sense of the state’s disciplining of the body into subjectivity and a more aesthetic sense of ballet’s decoratively-inclined training regimes). The Jasperse foot is un-disciplining and re-disciplining, adhering to something more modern or postmodern. What I mean by this is that the Jasperse foot is bare, it is born after Judson, it collects dirt, it sweeps lightly while digging its roots into a ground it is at once questioning and repaving. It is also simultaneously idiosyncratic and communal. During early viewings of Jasperse’s performances over a decade ago, the relationship of foot to ground is what lent the choreography such a strong visceral pull for me: as someone trained in ballet and modern dance, my body’s kinesthetic response to the very unique ratio of foot-pointing, to sweep, to weightedness, to loftiness was challenged. Was this Cunningham? Not exactly. Moving up the body, the swing and momentum of the legs and arms was too circular and risky to be Cunningham. (It certainly wasn’t Graham; the spirals were more outwardly directed by limbs, as opposed to drill-like into the ground.) In sum, the Jasperse foot is both highly articulated and unapologetically pedestrian, gritty even—a great oxymoron in terms of concert dance. A seemingly minor issue, the foot indicates something more profound about Jasperse’s work.
What I’m getting at here is that Jasperse creates his own ecologies. (And here I refer to work before 2013.) These ecologies run according to their own logics, and we are not necessarily privy to them, at first. The knowing I speak of above is incomplete; perhaps sensing is a better word—sensing that a world is being created before you. The audience experiences the unfolding of this world in real time with the dancers. It is never fully apprehended, but it reveals itself element by element. I use the word “ecology” as opposed to “culture” because culture presupposes (or emphasizes) an anthropology, the recognition of certain sets of human practices. Jasperse, however, tends to strip his work of all but a few cultural markers, which he only ever deploys very pointedly. He also avoids culturally marked dance styles, for example. Although his movement style comes out of a generally western tradition of postmodern dance, it seems more personally explored than culturally derivative. This is a point to which we will need to return in relation to his current work (as in, is derivation—even mimesis—now embraced?). Most significantly, his ecology is one in which objects, sounds, and humans share equal weight, reorganizing what it means to be subject versus object, animate versus inanimate. Liveness for Jasperse does not necessarily entail some kind of emanation from the human. Rather, liveness in his work is actuated through the interaction all the disparate elements of his ecologies, and we are made to feel that objects are just as animated—and possess as much agency—as humans. Just as Jasperse highlights the animated quality of material items, the human herself is rendered an object, and duets between people become duets between objects. But I should clarify: by “object” I really mean “thing,” and this is an important distinction. In political theorist Jane Bennett’s theory of vital materialism, live objects are things. She calls this “thing-power.” For Bennett, Kafka’s Odradek functions as a kind of remnant of culture—neither subject nor object, animate or inanimate. Similarly, historian and race theorist Robin Bernstein says that performance is what differentiates objects from things. When we think of humans and material objects as live and animated—vital—we lend them a thingy quality, equalizing the terrain of their existence. Things are political. While vital materialism may seem dangerously blind to very real cultural factors of class, economics, or racial-gendered violence, I take it to be a way of perceiving, of imagining relationality differently, ultimately allowing us to think about what and how things do things in (and not outside of) very culturally and politically charged environments. In pieces such as CALIFORNIA (2003), Prone (2005), and Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), Jasperse’s practice of creating what I might call ecologies of things figures very prominently.
Although designations such as “post-”anything tend to be exclusionary and unhelpful, they help us think through how style changes over time—moreover, how our theoretical paradigms reframe and reshuffle, archive and forget. So, what would it mean to believe for a moment the provocation that there is a “post-Jasperse” style (and that this supposedly came into being over ten years ago)? I would be inclined to dismiss that befuddling claim, choosing instead to think about the shift that is occurring now with Jasperse’s From once between (working title), a deliberate project of what he refers to as “transmission” and “stylistic drift.” (He has rejected an earlier exploration of the “symbolic” order. I, however, cling to this word a bit, after initial resistance, as Baudrillard reminds us that symbols circulate differently than signs.) The shift I detect in Jasperse’s work (and this is before setting foot in rehearsal, where I’m sure I will revise my musings) is one from the unmediated to the mediated, from ecology to culture. As such, mimesis and transmission come into focus with this project. I don’t think the “post-” or “post-post-”Jasperse style can be thought wholly detached from issues of ecology and thinginess, however. What might be happening (and eventually process will tell us) is that a cultural/anthropological paradigm is entering into Jaspserse’s otherwise ecological/materialist landscape. As opposed to human things and material things (like jeans and water bottles and sculptures) interacting, what Jasperse currently privileges is interaction between human things and other human things. (The idea of the Other forms the basis of anthropological inquiry. I wonder how thinginess and “othering” relate.)