by Ariel Osterweis

This is fast writing…returns will happen later…

This is my second post on the dramaturgical process with choreographer John Jasperse. These posts will appear intermittently, sometimes frequently. They will vary in terms of format. I suppose that, alongside Jasperse’s rehearsals, they function as a way to expose process itself. Just as Jasperse’s piece is refined over time, my own observations (and modes of interaction) will be subjected to some sort of alchemy. Because he had never before worked with a dramaturg, and because I can only claim that label with a sense of continual revision, naiveté, and curiosity (as Ralph Lemon’s dramaturg Katherine Profeta reminds us, the dance dramaturg’s role is as diverse as it is specific to the artist in question), I was surprised to learn that John was comfortable with the idea of these blog posts. If that changes at any time, I will respect any need for introversion on his part. For a few years now, I have been “dramaturg”/“theorist” for performance artist Narcissister. Sometimes that resembles lonely essay writing; other times it consists of pouring over texts on masks over tea and soaked almonds in Brooklyn together, interrupting task to discuss relationships and funding. While she comes from a dance place, she does not linger in a dance place. Dance betrayed Narcissister (as love can), and I try to keep that fragility in mind when I work with her. You see, she would rather keep her eyes closed and mask on. Jasperse, on the other hand, seems to maintain an unflinching commitment to the potential of dance, of form, of choreography.

This is where things get weird…

Jasperse says that the main thrust of this current project is to depart from dance vocabularies and modes familiar to him. Early on, he told me that he is trying to figure out what is “native” to his style and what is external. What would it mean to work with dance styles outside the cultural/experiential range of Jasperse and his dancer-collaborators (the exquisite Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson, and Stuart Singer)? To both of us, this sounded like it was about colonialism and colonizing, at first. But then Jasperse made mention of decidedly American traditions. For example, how might stepping (African American step-dancing) function in a Jasperse-oriented studio in which dancers are versed primarily in postmodern dance and ballet? What Jasperse was proposing was a theoretical and process-oriented exploration of such Africanist American forms—working with what emerged from discussions of, say, stepping with the dancers, as opposed to precisely trying to replicate or “capture” its style. “Capture” here points to my initial unease with what I perceived as a project that was not only going to explore appropriation, but had the potential to ignite appropriative violence itself. Paradoxically, having attended rehearsals and showings, I noticed that stepping was not fully “captured,” but merely indicated and played with: do we find that incomplete mimesis ultimately renders cultural “borrowing” more appropriative than exhibiting full command of a style? (Isn’t that what got Miley Cyrus into trouble?) Needless to say, without specific attention to the nuance of the choreography at hand, all this discourse of colonial and/or appropriative tendencies gets us tangled in over-rehearsed debates about cultural ownership. Thus, I now turn to the movement in the room.

Let’s dance…

When I sat down on the metal bleachers in a sweaty studio in Brooklyn’s Center for Performance Research (CPR) on December 19th, it all became eerily clear to me—not legible, no (I have a preference for the illegible anyway), but what came into focus was what the piece was NOT. It was not a piece that was casually and irresponsibly trying on “black dance.” What I saw before me—even in its infantile manifestation—was what I am inclined to call (for now) a fictocritical choreo-history. Bear with me here as I rationalize my italicized academic gibberish. Jasperse’s work does not strive for any universal interpretation, so what I perceive in the work betrays a certain idiosyncrasy; nevertheless, I presume a few others (perhaps even Jasperse at times) will come to similar observations. What I saw/heard/sensed/felt before me that day was a particular unfolding of American history through dance. By “history” I don’t mean anything strictly chronological, but the temporality and development of movement was far from nebulous or scattered.

1. The movement began with the kind of methodical tendus and por de bras you might find at the beginning of the “center” section of ballet class—fifth positions, croisé, etc. There was a creepy nonchalance to this sequence of movements, a restraint you wouldn’t find in a ballet class in a classical ballet academy, but the kind you might find in a “ballet-for-modern-dancers” class, like a rejection of epaulement’s reach, its aspiration.

(Done to Debussy, was this some sort of already-not-classically-European distortion? This could be Balanchine! And Balanchine is SO AMERICAN.)

2. Then the eyeballs. The SIDE EYE. (Here is your Urban Dictionary definition of side eye: Mid-por de bras, the dancers started darting side eyes here and there. Were they disapproving of something? Being coy? Throwing shade? Becoming “other?” I asked Jasperse later about the creepy side eyes, and he said they emerged from an exercise he calls “Twisted Sister,” in which areas of the body spiral in isolation and/or opposition to other parts of the body. What I initially perceived as an active directionality of the eyes was actually the result of leaving the eyes behind and/or being led or left by another spiraling body part. In other words, the side eyes came from a strictly formal place, but left me with a culturally inflected response. (I asked myself, are they becoming “Asian?” Is this supposed to point to an Indonesian or Indian tradition?)

3. This is not Asian. Then wrists started breaking, elbows started bending, side eyes engaged throughout. Surely THIS was some sort of commentary on colonization in Indonesia? I gave myself license to go there with my affective speculation, but as phrases were presented in a sequence (which might not be the final sequence in May) and after talking to Jasperse, it became clear that what was occurring before me was a process of intentional distortion, seeming disfigurement that came about due to formal anatomical choices (for example, letting the outside of the foot spiral and drop such that the foot seems to supinate (this is a no-no in ballet).

Bye bye Balanchine…

A supinating foot is too much distortion for Balanchine. We were entering “contemporary”/“postmodern” Jasperse territory. (I will not enter the terminology debate on what constitutes “modern,” “postmodern,” etc. dance here.) Twisted Sister had led the dancers to a Jasperse style…masked as some kind of colonial dance encounter fantasy. What appeared to be wholly foreign was, in fact, one of the most “Jasperse-ian” passages I would view that day.

(Seemingly decorative at first, I wonder if the side eyes—even as lingering body parts—were enacting a judgmental gaze, reversing for a moment a more familiar dancer-audience relationship. Or, are they the result of a hailing, an interpellation: when one is called, one often reacts first with the eyes, to see what identity she has been subjected into. What would Frantz Fanon say?)

(Composer Jonathan Bepler is currently working with Matthew Barney and therefore unavailable to create music for Jasperse until a bit later. So, in rehearsal, we heard some Dolly Parton, some Go Go’s, some silence, some hip-hop, and some Debussy. In the NYLA APAP showing in January, the music choices differed, and I will elaborate on those in a subsequent post.)

4. Mimesis. A beautifully tender, private (if exposed) duet between Courchel and Singer, who give each other directions for movement, eyes closed, facing each other at first. Barely audible to the “audience,” these directions (things like, touch your left shoulder with your right hand) were meant to be performed in mirroring fashion. The doer would sometimes interpret the command/suggestion differently than the director/suggest-er. Those are the “aha” moments for the audience. So, what is the meaning of blind following? In such mimesis without visuality, is sight lost, or are other senses awakened? There is no music in this section. What is asymmetrical symmetry? Where does power lie in such mimetic exchanges, and how can choreography enliven (or distill) such questions?

5. Here it gets collegiate. We are learning and we are watching learning and we learn that histories are told in many ways. This is at once troubling and refreshing. After a general energetic accumulation, step dancing pops up with aerobic vigor and the sound of a college marching band. Even Cloud (the lone woman in the cast) smiles a bit; it is not so Japserse-ian to smile. So, where are we? What does this movement mean to Cloud (from Florida), on the one hand, and to Courchel (from France), on the other (they are both white)? How do they feel while stepping? Do they think they are stepping? In the January showing, this section is preceded by a limb-flinging (I had written “limb-joy” in my notes) duet by Cloud and Johnson (Baudrillard’s “extremities?”) and a solo by Singer done to juxtaposed speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Margaret Thatcher.

6. “Live and Let Die.” This is how it ended, after rap. What is living, what is dying, and who is doing the “letting?”

…I will share more in my next post…off to rehearsal tomorrow afternoon…