John Jasperse Company

'Giant Empty'

by Lyndsey Winship

October 21, 2003 -- The Place--Robin Howard Dance Theatre,


Plenty of people are baffled by contemporary dance. They think it’s abstruse and arty, all unfathomable statements, twisted bodies and the odd twisted mind. And sometimes they’re right.

The John Jasperse Company might seem a bit like that -- in this piece, "Giant Empty" at least. A ‘project’ for four dancers, which sets out to deal with the dichotomies of inside/outside, self/other, intimacy/distance, this is clearly a work that has been thought about intensely. Almost from the outset the soundtrack is made up of unnerving electronic grumblings, metallic screeching and scraping and ear piercing frequencies. It tells us we’re on ‘difficult’ territory.

The most memorable section of the work is when Jasperse and Steven Fetherhuff emerge naked on all fours to perform a silent pas de derriere -- that is, an explicit duet firmly focused on the boys’ bare behinds.

The audience can’t help but giggle. Granted, this is partly due to the traditionally adolescent attitudes of the British towards nudity, male nudity especially. But it’s also to do with the particularly British allergy to people taking themselves too seriously (just ask David Blaine). And it feels like this company is taking itself very seriously indeed.

The scene is faintly ridiculous. I suppose the idea is that we are all ultimately just flesh and bodily functions (and arseholes a lot of the time), but one naked bottom sliding down another man’s leg, then squashed up to his face, then tentatively brushing against the other’s butt cheeks is slightly reminiscent of dogs sniffing each other in the park.

However, you shouldn’t think that’s all this evening was about. Things start out fairly innocuously. The stage is set with wooden blocks resembling a city skyline and ropes hang from the ceiling. A female dancer uses the building blocks as stepping stones, testing her balance across the taut urban heights, then rearranging them – man in control of his domain.

Three more dancers enter, making splicing, circular strokes. In duos they nudge each other into lunges, rotate partners and generally do the things that dancers do.

But things soon change. Suddenly one woman appears shocked and stunned, frozen in awe or terror in reaction to some seismic shift. The whole pace changes, simple steps are acted out in an age, our men lock horns and one woman becomes entranced in a pattern of hand-washing gestures, her stylised ablutions copied by another dancer on the other side of the rope divide. One woman crashes to the floor rolling over the wooden skyline, which comes tumbling down. The piece was premiered in May 2001 but there’s plenty of room for a post-9/11 interpretation

From our initial orderly scene we now have one of confusion, chaos, despair and possibility. When the boundaries collapse, therein, according to Jasperse, lies the ‘giant empty’.

The dancers wrap themselves up in layers of clothes, creating bulbous bodies, then scramble across the floor before performing some kind of violent yoga postures. And there’s a nice moment when a man who has been standing stock-still in the middle of this chaos is revealed to be balancing on the one remaining building block. His teetering form demonstrates very much the precarious position of anyone attempting to be unorthodox in the pursuit of serious art. Is it madness? Is it genius? Is it profound? Is it pointless? In reality they’re pretty subjective questions.

This is a bold piece of dancemaking, but personally it left me cold. If you want to see nakedness and politics then Lia Rodriguez’ "Such Stuff As We Are Made Of" is a much more effective piece of work.

Edited by Jeff.

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