Baffling REMAINS: John Jasperse at ADF

I’ve seen John Jasperse‘s work a number of times now. I’ve seen him perform, and I’ve seen his company–now called John Jasperse Projects–perform his choreography. I’ve read numerous reviews of his work by a variety of critics. I’ve noted that he is stepping into to the directorship of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence, from which he received his dance degree in 1985, and that he has won a large number of high-level grants and awards. The American Dance Festival has been a staunch supporter, and this season is presenting John Jasperse Projects in an ADF co-commission, Remains. However, after watching the premiere of Remains last night in Reynolds Theater, I am more baffled than ever about John Jasperse.


From the premiere of John Jasperse’s Remains at the American Dance Festival, 7/5/16.  Photo: Grant Halverson.


This 60-minute performance opened with a dazzling bit of lighting magic. An inert female body lies downstage, apparently in a black shroud. Yet when she rises (and stretches into a classic fashion-0n-the-beach pose) her dress is pale. Amazing! But it is all downhill from there, with the lighting effects remaining the most interesting aspect of the production.

Remains struck me not as a whole, but as a collection of a dozen or so sketches, loosely connected by hieratic poses vaguely Egyptian in style; by fashion model and pop star posturing, and by the smarmy self-involvement I associate with this choreographer. The occasional bursts of dancing were not inventive. When there was music at all, it was mostly ugly–both the original music by John King (minimal is too large a word) and contributions by Javier Peral (who specializes in fashion show soundtracks) and the band Die Antwoord. The costumes seemed to be designed (Baille Younkman) to emphasize the human body’s less attractive qualities, except for those that blurred the bodies by their sequined reflectivity. Throughout, the lighting design, by Lenore Doxsee, remained the element that kept me in my seat.


Lenore Doxsee’s lighting on the male dancers of John Jasperse Projects, in the premiere of Jasperse’s Remains at ADF, 7/5/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


But, you know, sometimes the things you hate make you understand your own values better. I value wholeness, a harmony of the parts. The parts may themselves be ugly; the subject may be difficult or repellent, but I want the artwork to feel whole–even if it is about brokenness. My inclination is towards the idealizing, the emotionally or spiritually elevating. I want there to be a point to it all, even if in daily life I must submit to random chaos and pointlessness. One reason I love dance is that it can so directly communicate life force. So I’m probably never going to be a good audience for John Jasperse, who seems to have a joyless take on life and whose movement language expresses a boring nihilism clad in oh-so-stylish wrappings.

When it rises to the level of infuriating the viewer, rather than boring her, though, the work is better. The last time Jasperse was at the ADF, he presented Within Between (which went on to win a 2014 Bessie Award). It was beautiful! It was exciting! It was clever without being cruel! It had amazing dancing and a mind-blowing sequence in which a dancer extends a long pole over the proscenium and traces the curves of a viewer’s head! It appeared to be a dance about making a dance–the efforts, the repetitions and variations, the failures, the soaring successes. The lighting and stage design (Lenore Doxsee) were gorgeous, and the costumes very smart. But near the end, it all turned dreary and quotidian. The magic-making artists, without the magic-making lighting, are seen as mere drudges, the studio just a factory. I felt hoodwinked, the rug pulled out, my candy stolen. I was so mad I could not even write a word.

But I’ve kept a photo from that show on my desktop, and I’ve thought about that dance every single day for two years. So–I can’t really say it was a failure. Not sure, though, that there will be anything to exhume from Remains.


From Within Between by John Jasperse, at ADF 2014.


Remains repeats July 6 and 7, 8 pm, in Reynolds Theater. Tickets here.


John Jasperse’s Remains will repeat July 6 and 7 at ADF. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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