CONTEXT NOTES FOR JOHN JASPERSE’S WITHIN BETWEEN
by Ariel Osterweis
I wrote these context notes for John Jasperse’s Within between. Premiere: May 28th, 2014 at New York Live Arts.
As far as I can tell, John Jasperse doesn’t do small talk. Yet, he isn’t afraid to make himself small, vulnerable, always one to cite failure in his own work and to let out an anxiously knowing laugh in response to the absurdity of millennial life. In contrast to his aversion to discursive drivel, Jasperse immerses himself (and his dancers) in small movements. But such kinetic minutiae couldn’t be further from empty gossip; instead, it is the choreographic equivalent of the refinement and experimentation of the American postmodern poets. Jasperse possesses an uncompromising commitment to detailed investigation of micro-movements, down to the directional gaze of a single eyeball.
What had stood out to me from his previous work was a consistent engagement with objects that moved—things with agency. Recalling players such as jeans, leaf blowers, sculptures, penises, mattresses, emptied water bottles, and inflated pool rafts, I was continually struck by the way Jasperse was able to create choreographically political ecologies. Without disregarding the formal precision of a nuanced tilt of the head or the spiraling energetics of a connected trio moving across stage at 20mph, he maintained an undertone of socio-cultural critique. In Misuse liable to prosecution (2007), Jasperse brought to our attention the desperate financial mechanics of putting together a dance performance, commenting on the scarcity of resources for artists working within a commodity culture of waste, investigating capitalist materiality through corporeal materiality (money through the body).
Working with Jasperse in a dramaturgical capacity, I have had the opportunity to talk with him, watch videos, and attend rehearsals and showings over the course of this year. Where did the objects go? No rafts, hangers, orange cones, or boxes! I noted a shift from the ecological to the cultural. What do I mean by this? Whereas Jasperse’s stages were once littered with animated things, they had been stripped down to bodies—people! Just people. He told me he wanted to try on culturally foreign movement styles. (This worried me; did he mean appropriation?) As opposed to mimicking a new dance style, he wanted to translate dialogue about such styles into movement, which is a type of abstracted praxis, a “doing” of theory. Such abstraction skirts around embodiment. Rather, it means to embody an idea about a dance form instead of embodying a dance form itself, privileging the affect of translation over the integrity of precise replication.
But when Jasperse’s dancers play with an abstracted version of, for example, stepping, what are the stakes, culturally, racially, and economically? How do we as audience members perceive movement passages that allude to such cultural experiments (if we perceive them at all)? Jasperse could be commenting on Eurocentric classicism, race, modernist abstraction, “high” and “low” culture, or the idea of “America.” At the level of choreography, what qualifies as “American?” We encounter stepping in black colleges; both entertainment and competition, it is a performance of aspiration. Jasperse contrasts and integrates culturally disparate dance techniques and evacuates them of their aspirational qualities. For example, in one section, the four dancers (the exquisite Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson, and Stuart Singer) execute methodical tendus and port de bras you might find at the beginning of the “center” section of ballet class—fifth position, croisé, etc. There is 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 épaulement’s reach, its aspiration. Then we come into a collegiate section with allusions to cheerleading, and the dancers barely crack a smile, a far cry from the plastered, patriotic glee of televised cheerleaders or effervescent frat boys. Is this Jasperse’s way of rejecting America or of refiguring its commoditized affects and rendering them banal? Who owns these images? How are they felt in our bodies?
Recently, a thing has reentered the studio. Within between now features a pole dance. Instead of the transparent, light-catching attributes of clear plastic bottles and blow-up pillows, this piece begins with a nudge. A pole threatens to penetrate the audience. Contact? A probe? A rifle taking aim? Initially weaponized by a dancer, the pole becomes a structure of support, and two dancers lean on it while somehow keeping it suspended atop their toes and shoulders. Ultimately, Jasperse has reintroduced his penchant for the ecological to the otherwise cultural landscape of Within between, creating a meeting point between political things and social people. We might ask, then, where does identity reside in this work—in the dancers, in Jasperse, in the pole, in the idea of “America,” or in the choreography itself? It has been said that movement is fleeting, but what, then, of the way we attach ourselves to a dance? It’s mine, isn’t it?