Lie back and think of politics

Both audience and dancers are on their backs and using their wits in John Jasperse’s Prone

23rd April 2006





The choreographer John Jasperse refuses to take world affairs lying down, but that is exactly what he asks his audience to do in his new dance, Prone. Commissioned by the International Dance Festival Ireland, the Kitchen in New York and TanzQuartier Wien in Vienna, Prone defies viewers with its unprecedented perspective.

In it, 56 audience members lie on inflatable mattresses in the middle of the floor, alternating between experiencing dancing above them and taking seats at the edge of the room while performers leap, dodge and spin around them.

Jasperse wanted viewers to think about how they see things, and the effect is dizzying, even for him. In creating it he was forced to acquire a new perspective, since he had no way of seeing it as a whole, the way he normally would. At Prone’s New York premiere last December, audiences received scented masks to wear before they took up positions on their mattresses, causing a sense of disorientation, sometimes comedy — and often a combination of both.

“When I was creating it I started to think a lot about ‘What does it mean that I’m in the middle of this thing that I can feel, smell and experience moving around me?’” says Jasperse. “It’s moving in all these different ways that I can’t actually really ever see. It brought to mind this idea of perception, experience of events and ways in which we understand something.”

Having dancers jump over the audience and then wiggle, peek and pry at them may sound odd for a dance performance, but there’s more to Jasperse’s dances than unusual moves. He doesn’t try to make his dances overtly political, but for Jasperse politics and art are entwined.

Influenced by New York’s postmodernist choreographers of the 1970s and 1980s who created dances in silence, on rooftops and by following mathematical equations, Jasperse absorbed their methods and continuously develops his own. He constructs his dances using large architectural sets, implementing multiple performance spaces in one theatre.

“I feel deeply about the fact that I’m spending my life creating something that doesn’t actually exist,” he says. “There is no product, nobody can own it. That alone makes a statement.

“I’m dedicating my life to creating an experience for myself and other people that is something I cannot hang on a wall, buy or put in a safe. In our current world, that to me is already fundamentally a radical political action.”

His education helped inform his art — he graduated from Sarah Lawrence College, where the modern dance pioneer Martha Graham once taught. Its rigorous, progressive academic methods were firmly entrenched by the time the campus became coeducational in 1969 and Jasperse graduated in 1985. He became one of several Sarah Lawrence alumni prominent in America, including Meredith Monk, the choreographer known for the way she mixes movement with meditative chanting.

Rigorous academic study contributed to Jasperse’s way of thinking, and by the time he graduated, Sarah Lawrence’s dance department was influenced by Bessie Schonberg, a choreographer who insisted on educating people as artists and not merely as performers. Armed with an intellect and a desire to move, Jasperse headed to Europe just as Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris and others had done before him.

Jasperse sought ideas from choreographers overseas and spent time studying in Brussels with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. There he learnt about the differences between American dance makers and those working in Europe. He was drawn to the way artists receive government support in Europe and the level of experimentation European audiences were willing to embrace. He planned to return to France, but first launched the John Jasperse Company in New York, which quickly gained a reputation for its unusual style and its use of architectural elements in its work.

In Giant Empty, for example, performers stack and move wooden blocks within a set where ropes hang from three sides. His earlier Waving to You from Here incorporates a staircase and a grid that lowers from the ceiling. Philosophy, socioeconomics and history battle for attention. If viewers perceive any of them, he is pleased.

When creating, his biggest influence is the world at large, which he says influences him more heavily than any other artist or discipline.

“I think it’s a very scary and troubling time in the world,” Jasperse explains. “That takes a lot more energy in my mind than other things. I’m trying to figure out: ‘Okay, what’s my role in this scheme of things?’” In a current project called Some United States, three performances happen simultaneously so that audiences in the least expensive seats will see everything happening around them, while those in the most expensive seats will only see what is in front of them.

“Even though I’m dealing in a poetic and abstract medium, which I think dance is, there is a way to incite a connection between how you exist as a person in the world and how you exist as an artist and a dance maker,” says Jasperse. “I think those kinds of connections can be elucidated for people to experience in ways that perhaps are deeper and more subtle.”

Although European audiences appreciated Jasperse’s choreography long before it received attention in New York, the dance community there helped propel his company forward. Like most choreographers in America, he began with little budget or government support, renting rehearsal space where he could, presenting his work in small venues and asking his dancers to rehearse free of charge.

That contrasted sharply with what he knew could happen in France, where artists could almost always count on having an audience, a place to present their work, money to pay their dancers and the promise of having their funding renewed. Jasperse forged ahead with his company anyway and gained attention from American audiences and critics. In 1998 he received a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship and his company began appearing regularly in New York. The American Dance Festival soon began to commission his work.

“One of the really rich things about working in New York is that people there know how to do something with almost no money,” he says. “I have a lot to say about what’s wrong with the economics of it, but there’s an enormous energy that can fuel a kind of grass-roots experimentation.”

Like other successful mid-career American choreographers, Jasperse seeks the time and space to create. Managing his company demands significant resources, though he has gained support from public and private-funding entities.

In order to keep creating work he feels is important, he balances commissions from institutions, such as the ones he has received from Lyon Opera Ballet and the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation’s White Oak Dance Project, with smaller projects such as his 2002 work for Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT). He collaborates with artists who can embrace his kind of physical investigation and risk taking, and who have similar artistic sensibilities. IMDT director John Scott and Rex Levitate’s Jenny and Liz Roche top Jasperse’s list of European collaborators.

He hopes to work with them in Dublin or New York, as funding from France, which has fuelled his work over the past couple of years has dried up. Jasperse is sanguine about the financial perils that attend a specialised market niche such as his: artistic excellence remains the goal, not financial security.

“When you look at the development of a form, it has often been influenced by people who are respected, perhaps, and able to continue their work at a certain level,” he says. “But they are not necessarily the people who have the biggest box-office receipts.”

Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.