THINGINESS AND TRANSMISSION IN THE WORK OF JOHN JASPERSE: CHOREOGRAPHY, ECOLOGY, CULTURE
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.)
SECOND POST ON JOHN JASPERSE: SOME REHEARSAL NOTES
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.
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: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=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…
NOTES FOR JASPERSE ON A SYMBOLIC “AMERICA”
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?