Q&A: John Jasperse talks about his new dance

John Jasperse lets go of his choreographic habits in his latest work at New York Live Arts

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John Jasperse Company

John Jasperse Company Photo: Lauren Burke -  photo courtesy of American Dance Institute (ADI)


In a The Dance Insider review of a Levi Gonzalez-Luciana Achugar duet, Chris Dohse referred to the choreographers as working in a "post-Jasperse time." Years later, the thoughtful John Jasperse returned to the article to question influence and habit in regard to his work and dance in general. His new piece Within between plays at New York Live Arts May 28–31.

How do you rid yourself of habits? Is it even possible? For choreographer John Jasperse, one of the goals for his new Within between is to find a way to both accept and resist his artistic impulses. For the first time, he’s working with a dramaturg, Ariel Osterweis. “I thought it could be interesting to reach out to different kinds of sensibilities that feel outside of what I normally do,” says Jasperse. “How does one extend without appropriating?” In the quartet—for Maggie Cloud, Simon Courchel, Burr Johnson and Stuart Singer—the masterful Jasperse, armed with his usual formalism and a bit of whimsy, resists classification.

What are your ideas for this piece?
It’s easier to talk a little bit about where they emerged from. When I went back to Fort Blossom for Fort Blossom revisited, one of the things I was excited about and that we were able to do was flesh out this space where these very separate things come together, but retain something of their original identity. So when I look at the last section of that dance, I feel like you see the difference from what exists at the beginning of the show. And it becomes context, rather than something that defines the ability for those four people to be together. I was thinking a lot about the utopian idea of that and a lot about the world right now. It made me think about the culture of individuality and the difficulty that we have in somehow picturing ourselves as part of anything larger than ourselves. I’ve even experienced that when people talk to me about different kinds of projects, like, “Why are you doing CPR [Center for Performance Research, the Brooklyn space cofounded by Jasperse and Jonah Bokaer]?” If you look at it solely from the perspective of how it’s beneficial to me, I don’t win. [Laughs] You can’t figure out why I would do it. That idea of connecting to something broader has become really challenging. You think about how we live in a capitalist society, and it’s extended individual identity into all this stuff that surrounds us. I also thought about artistic process. Why did people start making work in the first place? A lot of us have an idea that we have something special to say. That’s probably very important in relationship to sustaining new work. But there’s a funny thing that happens [with that idea]: You separate yourself psychologically from the public on some level. I wonder whether that inhibits some level of real creativity. Then I started reading about emergence theory.

What is that?
The long and short of it is catalytic reactions that form other results, which are very different from the origin points. You could talk about it in relation to chemistry: A and B come together and something about how they interact forms some result that doesn’t seem like either of the things that started them. I was thinking about that in relation to authorship. Maybe there’s some way to think about authorship that isn’t just about what I have to say, but that I’m feeding information or influences into something, and something else comes out. When people talk about this person and that person and the history of the work, I have always felt that it’s never really just those people. If you were to say who those people really are, it’s the confluence of all of the community that surrounded them at a given moment.

Do you have an example?
I was thinking about that in relation to Beth Gill and this idea of referring back to Trisha Brown’s Newark [in Gill’s New Work for the Desert]. Trisha was referring to all of these other things. So it’s a question of acknowledging that and also trying to heighten that process. I thought it could be interesting to reach out to different kinds of sensibilities that feel outside of what I normally do. I was hyperconscious of: How does one extend without appropriating? Or how do you use influence, while being respectful of the origin and knowing there’s no way that you can touch upon those things that you don’t have a direct relationship to? On the other hand, maybe there are ways that you can. It became interesting to me not to try to bring those things in, but to look at: What is this community, or what is this set of practices? What’s going on there?

How have you done that?
I re–looked up a quote from when Levi Gonzalez and Luciana Achugar were making duet work 13 or 14 years ago. Chris Dohse from The Dance Insider wrote something about how they were working in a “post-Jasperse time.” He described it as being “the deliberate uglification of the body.” [Laughs] And something about “obsession with a gravity-laden, earthbound quality.” Number one, we’re all in one community; to identify them as post-me feels a bit weird. At the time, I was like, Oh, now I’ve become a style, even though, in my own ways, I’ve struggled to keep doing things that are quite different than what I’ve done before. Nobody can escape themselves. I don’t think it’s about that; I think it’s more about trying to say maybe there are ways in which I’m more expansive than I realize. So we started trying to identify these aspects that felt like, This is here and that’s out there—mostly looking at the appearance of solidity in the way that Chris Dohse referred to as post-Jasperse style. I thought, Okay, if I’m dealing with that—something that’s emerged inside of my own history—I need to be looking outside for things that have some kind of appearance of solidity.

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