NOTES FOR JASPERSE ON A SYMBOLIC “AMERICA”

by Ariel Osterweis

Hi John,

A quickie…

I’m thinking about the different registers, stakes, and impacts of the symbolic and of appropriation in your current work. Early on, you said you were interested in the symbolic. And then in the NYLA showing, a lot of what I saw I was framing through appropriation. There’s an aspect of snatching or stealing to appropriation. A reductive example is Madonna “taking” voguing in the 90s from underground ballroom culture into the mainstream. Lots of people would agree that this is some kind of appropriation. But then, what I was loosely referring to as “appropriation” in your current piece didn’t contain the kind of violence (of ripping off from minoritarian culture) you find in Madonna’s voguing antics. The question of money and circulation adds a certain dual celebratory and violent patina to Madonna’s practices. Within the context of experimental concert dance, however, appropriation operates as a kind of meta-appropriation in the sense that the blackbox theater provides a reflexive space for you to comment on appropriation by engaging in small acts of appropriation…without disseminating these acts through mass media, music videos, and other such widely available commodity platforms. What I find in your stepping and cheerleading section is dependent on the symbolic: appropriation is only really possible in the symbolic realm of signifiers. I am reading the stepping/cheerleading section not as a lived-with habit of appropriation, but as a transitory glimpse of appropriation that functions through the logic of the symbolic. It stands in for something–black fraternities? College cheerleaders? African American “collective effervescence?” If we posit that appropriation is only possible in the symbolic realm, the “glimpses” I mention are moments of appropriation (in and of the symbolic order). If appropriation seems less apparent in other sections or movement passages, is this because you were purposely being less explicit or because appropriation is often inherently latent, hidden? Who hides it and how does it get hidden? I don’t want to get bogged down with Lacan right now, but he distinguishes the “symbolic order” from the “imaginary” and the “real”; the signifier and the Other are important aspects of the symbolic. The Other is, of course, at the crux of questions of subjectivity, identity, and belonging. The way we have toyed with titles such as “u   s” and “we” speak to this. (Later I think we should delve into Lacanian psychoanalysis even if we find it unhelpful in the end. I also want to bring in the writing of an art historian who reads the symbolic in relation to the museological production of death and decay.)

The “something” above is not insignificant, as we must ask, why stepping? Why the MLK speech excerpts (in Singer’s solo)? What I find symbolized in these sections—and I must specify that this is especially and only within the context of the 35+ minutes of other movement material we have been privy to while watching the piece—is a generic “America” (which is itself a symbolic way of actually referring to the U.S.). And the way I see these symbolic glimpses into “America” functioning is through an acceptance of the view that America is inherently Africanist, that black performance is already an aspect of America’s whitenesses, blacknesses, Asiannesses, hispanicnesses (I pluralize here to make a point about racial and ethnic plurality…of felt experience). Moreover, these symbolic moments that call upon collegiate marching band-derived dances and performances stage questions more than they provide definitive answers. After all, answering is not a Jasperse-ian gesture. We should also examine the components that contribute to the symbolic in this work: music, image, language, even (perhaps especially) movement. The more time I spend in rehearsal with you and the dancers, the less I feel that we can demarcate a true shift between a “Jasperse style” and a “post-Jasperse style.” Trying things on seems to be how you’ve arrived at your idiosyncratic and highly explored movement style, and no matter how “foreign” a trope might be–whether a collegiate dance form like stepping or a theoretical concept like perception—I’m inclined to say it functions as a symbolic instance along an otherwise self-knowing choreographic landscape. If we consider Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” (which refers to Kafka’s writing), we might ask ourselves if these symbolic moments in your new piece generate a minoritarian choreography…or, if they point to minoritarian culture within a choreography that is already (differently) minoritarian in its queerness, its careful embrace of a rigorous vulnerability. Would it be too crude to ask, how does choreography that emanates from a white gay masculine consciousness inform and ingest black performance (oration, music, dance)? Alternatively, the collective effervescence of university sports arenas (the occasion for marching bands and their accompanying cheers and dances) are hardly a comfortable context for the queer kid, the experimental choreographer, or the contemporary dancer. While I think it would be overwrought to claim a “post-Jasperse style,” I want to leave a question out in space (a queer space?): how is Jasperse’s new choreography racializing and gendering its “America?” Does a generic America exist? Or is the US only ever a personal, particular amalgamation of disparate cultural, historical, and symbolic images, experiences, and commodities?

-Ari