Fully Wholly

An Interview with John Jasperse

by Donald Hutera

June, 2003

New Yorker John Jasperse’s 'Giant Empty' is full of indelible stage pictures. The stage is partly defined by two lines of thin white rope, hung at a right angle to each other. At the start these pristine ropes mysteriously uncoil, as the bars from which they’re suspended majestically rise.Wooden blocks, resembling an urban skyline, cut across the space on a diagonal. A female dancer walks on them like a giantess gingerly treading on stepping stones. The soundtrack veers from opera to sawn-off industrial sound to the whirr of a helicopter. She and three others – another woman and two men, including Miguel Gutierrez [in the original cast] and Jasperse himself – use this as a cue to wield blade-like arms. Legs soon enter the choreographic equation. Limbs hook, slice and swoop as the sound intensifies. There are intense, angular solos and a quirky balancing act for the women that is marked by alternately alarmist, vigilant and succouring poses. Everyone sits gesturally rubbing their own hands and arms. Suddenly a dancer is rolling like a juggernaut, knocking the blocks over. All disperse. One dancer returns and thoughtfully, protectively wraps herself in multiple articles of clothing, distorting her body shape. Others enter, having done likewise. Thus diapered and stuffed they fling the blocks upstage as Gutierrez balances on a lone block. He exits. Five ropes spin like lassoes of their own mechanical accord. Gutierrez reappears, bundled up as the others were. He and Jasperse unexpectedly dive beneath a section of the floor, as if brushing themselves under a carpet. They emerge at the other end, naked, and begin the dance’s central duet.

With bare behinds the men sidle near and sit on, slide down or gently bounce against each other’s arm, hip, knee, calf, shoulder, foot. Could this be the first analconscious dance? Performed in silence or with hissing accompaniment, it touches parts other dances don’t reach. The pace is deliberate, unhurried and hardly erotic, but because of the choreographer’s physical focus the atmosphere is charged.We watch attentively as Jasperse bends over, exposing his backside.When Gutierrez balances his bottom on Jasperse’s face, the pair lend new meaning to the idea of dancing cheek to cheek. They only literally face each other towards the end. Before exiting, Jasperse peers out into the auditorium in an open yet challenging way. Gradually everyone returns, clothed again, and rubs the floor in sober, obsessive manner. It begins to fill with air and bubble up. The four roll on it to the sound of falling rubble. At the finish Jasperse heads to the island of blocks and, shades of 9/11, begins rebuilding a metaphorical city. Meanwhile one of the women rubs her hands and arms, signalling… Giant Empty is anything but. You might choose to find desolation at the core of this cool, detached ninety-minute work, but it would be hard to be indifferent to it, or to deny its strengths as a dance that sparks debate.

Donald Hutera:You collaborate closely with your dancers, finding movement material through their improvisations. ['Giant Empty' is credited as having been choreographed in collaboration with its original cast, long-time Jasperse dancers Gutierrez, Parker Lutz and Juliette Mapp.] What exactly do you expect of them?

John Jasperse: I’m looking for people to be engaged in the process on many different levels, and not just for someone who does the steps.We discuss a lot – perhaps too much at times – during the making, trying to figure out what we are ‘really doing’ both in terms of the object of the dance and the process in which we’re creating it.

DH:Where did the set, particularly the wooden blocks, come from?

JJ: A lot of it comes directly from interaction with the dance.We were concerned with ideas of border and division that were fluid and porous. Borders that changed, that seemed solid but were not, that were destroyed and reconstructed in new ways during the performance. Ideas in my work often stem form trying to solve problems that present themselves during the process. In terms of sets and props, these solutions are often found within the hazards of the junk that we have around us. In the California studio where we were creating part of Giant Empty there was a wood-burning stove, which was the only source of heat. So we had lots of wood. I wondered if we could do something with it.We began experimenting with balancing on upended logs.When we came back to New York there was no wood around, so we decided to try lumber instead. The blocks seemed appealing since they were a simple form onto which you could project a lot of different meanings.

DH:What is its origin of the naked male duet and has it upset people?

JJ: In dance there’s a long tradition of the aesthetic human body. There’s also a tradition of the sexually objectified body. Often people, myself included, are uncomfortable when these boundaries are unclear – when you are watching high art and suddenly you aren’t sure if it’s go-go dance or not. I didn’t choose to be a go-go dancer, and so at times in the past I have been frustrated to feel like I was being evaluated in similar terms. The boundary between art and porn has as times seemed frustratingly thin. On top of that there is the medical body which gets sick, shits, pisses, bleeds, etc. I was interested in presenting this confusion, the anarchy of these various readings of the body which are out of my control and in fact depend as much upon the perceptions of the viewer as anything else. In the ‘butt duet,’ as we call it, I was looking to present the mess of the naked body. I wanted it to be simple, ‘just my body’ and at the same time complex. Certainly the focus on the ass and the asshole has a lot to do with the implications of sexuality and shame that are associated with it. I can’t pretend to be free of that, but it seems curious due to the fact that everyone has one.

DH: Last year you received a commission from Lyon Opera Ballet, and later this year you’ll create a piece [tentatively entitled Tethered to Wind] with dancers from America and France. Have these experiences somehow made you a more ‘global’ dance-maker?

JJ: I am a bit of a fusion, I suppose, due most probably to the fact that I have spent substantial amounts of time both in Europe and in the US. [In the late 1980s he worked in Belgium with Rosas, the company of Umbrella artist Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker; read about her in the autumn edition of Dance Umbrella News.] Both communities of artists can learn from each other. I’m most interested in people who are interested in this dialogue.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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