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Flash Review, 5-29: Without Dance, They'd Just be Thinkers
Reflections in a Post-modern Eye from John Jasperse

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2003 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- The new work by John Jasperse, "just two dancers," which opened at Dance Theater Workshop on May 22 and runs though June 6, is a strange exercise in post-modern didacticism, performed by the choreographer and Juliette Mapp, who bursts out of the work like a chorus girl out of a cake. The choreography combines elements of Judson Church era reductionism and task-orientation, some sort of Eastern martial arts practice, a louche Euro-balletic splayed display of the female body, some hot-sex-baby-tonight girly dancing, a motif of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker-style use of the arms as propellers, a gamut of emotions expressed though facial expression, an obsessional duet, and a major gimmick -- namely, the construction of some 14 white platforms dispersed throughout the audience section of the theater. These are occupied in such a way as to make it at times impossible to see the two performers at once without using the little mirrors that are handed to each person at the door. (Unless, I'm told, you're seated at the back of the house, in which case you see it all.) You may find a performer a couple of inches in front of you, or behind you, or off to the side somewhere. At the same time, or alternatively, you can use your mirror to see Jasperse or Mapp, or someone watching Jasperse and Mapp. You may see yourself watching yourself. Or you may see someone watching you.

Jasperse is an intelligent choreographer. He is a serious choreographer. He is an idea-driven choreographer. He uses movement to support concepts. If these concepts are new to you, Jasperse might seem fairly fabulous. If you have considered them before, he might seem a little lecture-y, a little thesis-driven, and perhaps a little condescending.

Maybe you already knew that dance is experienced differently by each person looking at it, and that even in a communal and conventional setting, such as in a proscenium theater watching a work made to be seen from the front, we each see from our own vantage points, both physical and psychic. Maybe you already knew that when you choose to focus on something, you are, de facto, choosing to not focus on something else. Maybe you already knew that a dance could be spread out in an unconventional space where you would have to make choices about which part of it to watch, and where you would also see other people watching the dance, and would have to factor them into your experience. Maybe you knew that the viewer was always, in some sense, an auteur, more so in some circumstances, less so in others. Maybe you knew that a work can be tightly structured yet episodic; that it can have a beginning, a middle, and an end without having a story. Maybe you knew that audiences are in their essence collectives of voyeurs, watching without being watched. ( You might know these things, and many more, from David Gordon, from Deborah Hay, and from Trisha Brown, among others; you might know all of them from Merce Cunningham.) As J.R. Tolkien wrote, "Applicability lies in the mind of the reader."

The dance, which is without intermission, is set to original music by Chris Peck, which involves electronic processors and a violin at the opening and the end. (It is reminiscent of the work of David Tudor, and Gordon Mumma.) In the middle, Jasperse uses a boom box. As "just two dancers" opens, Jasperse and Mapp enter to occupy a platform low in the center of the raked house. (They will use the stage, which is decorated with some taut banners of lace that filter the light, seldom, and minimally, as if to defy its architecture, its purpose, its very stage-ness. In essence, they turn their back on it, although at the end, Jasperse will sit there with his back to us.) The action begins when Jasperse, seated on a stool, and Mapp, seated on a chair, begin a game of mirroring,. They are setting out their thesis.

They separate to occupy opposing platforms, from which they continue their game, swinging and spiraling their arms and standing one-legged, except now they do not mirror each other unless you look at one of them in a mirror. This feels a little bit like driving while adjusting a rear view mirror. Soon enough, unless you are sincerely dedicated to the task, you will become aware that with the fracturing of the visual plane, you become weirdly liberated. Free to look at anything, you can choose to look at nothing. It's a temptation. (One viewer reported afterwards that she happily spent the entire evening looking at other people in the audience.)

But if you do watch, you'll see that far from being mirror images of each other, Jasperse and Mapp are opposites. I am not speaking here of gender, but of affect. Jasperse, a tall, rabbitish personage with pale skin, pale hair, and an unassertive chin, is an introvert, his ruffly shirt and Euro-fitting pants notwithstanding. Mapp is, in contrast, beyond extroverted -- she's an exhibitionist, ideally suited to performance, with an expressive, pre-Raphaelite visage and malleable body. She can do tragic; she can do serious; she can do dishy. She can yield to impulse. I don't recall ever seeing a more uninhibited performer. This is a good thing, since she is called upon to collapse upon a platform mid-audience, her tight skirt pushed up, her legs akimbo. (The gentleman seated at her knee level modestly averted his eyes.) When Jasperse has his turn to lie at one's feet the effect is more clinical. (You aren't sure if you are supposed to check his moles, or dissect him.) It's my impression that all this closeness is supposed to be transgressive, charged, perhaps thrilling. Yet it is merely intrusive, bordering at moments -- such as when a seated Jasperse places his feet just above the shoulders of the spectator in the row beneath him -- on the presumptuous. I can only hope this work doesn't launch a vogue for audience invasion, which I have long since gotten over, thanks to Douglas Dunn. But what's the future to some is inevitably back to the future for others.

My favorite part of the dance was the simplest. Standing side by side on the platform where they started, the choreographer and Mapp -- she by no means seems to be his muse; on that count, I'd venture he's his own muse, from whom she breaks loose -- jump, just simple little sautes, over and over. For the first 100, he's grinning. She's not. Then he stops grinning, and, at 150, she starts. At 200, they add sound, and little hand thrusts. This is simple, and pleasing. But shortly thereafter, affairs take a drastic turn. There's yellow light, and screaming -- seated next to me, Gus Solomons jr screamed back -- and demented swatting at invisible tormentors. Then Jasperse and Mapp go on stage and do something Oriental.

By now we have seen transference, obsession, exhibitionism, delusion, and, arguably, transcendence -- or at any rate, we have seen their portrayal. We will shortly see solipsism, seduction -- Solomons again, treated by the loose-limbed Mapp to a private almost-in-his-lap dance -- and self-involvement, with the dancers performing for their own reflections as caught in one or another of the little mirrors. (Mapp eagerly reaches out and grasps one, covering it with kisses.) It's shortly after this that she takes down her hair and mounts an isolated platform to do an exotic dancer routine, rubbing her hands all over her torso and gyrating in a spotlight. The rubbing motif continues in a dead-end duet, all trembling, agony, palsy and frenzy, as Jasperse practically washes himself with parts of Mapp. In the face of such desperate attention, she collapses, apparently not in sweet surrender, but depletion. When she is utterly limp, he leaves her for his concluding solo.

In low light, Jasperse turns his back on you and sits down, semaphoring with his arms. He's on stage, where everyone can see him. This tells you that even though his dance has been in your face -- and even has put your own face in your face -- it isn't about you. It is about him, and what he thinks you ought to be thinking about while you watch him. Mirror, mirror.

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