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Review 1, 12-16: Buzzkill Bleakitude
Checking out of John Jasperse's Hotel 'California'
By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004 Chris Dohse
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NEW YORK -- John Jasperse's
collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler and architect Ammar
Eloueini, "CALIFORNIA" (seen December 8 at the Brooklyn Academy
of Music), looks promising at first, but dwindles, eventually revealing
itself as an empty theatrical frame for sparse content. The shouting
implied by the use of all capital letters in the title must be sarcastic,
for the physical presence of the work is as flat as a drive through
Yeah, the constituent
elements are awe-inspiring. BAM's Harvey Theater looks beautiful
in relation to the scale of Eloueini's sculpture, which dwarfs the
space like the world's largest dangling albino Cheeto or crumpled
cigarette butt. Rather than descending gradually over the course
of the performance like the ceiling in Jasperse's 1997 "Waving to
You From Here," this mass of what looks like polystyrene is already
almost dragging the floor, suggesting that, instead of the impending
dread of the earlier work, something awful has already happened.
Four Foley artists (Foley
art is the creation of sound effects for film) are stationed at
amplified benches on the periphery, next to four grand pianos (with
pianists). Bepler, who composed the scores for Matthew Barney's
"Cremaster" films, is one of them, and his conducting of the others,
and their cuing off each other, is a magnificent choreography, the
most robust of the evening. It would make enjoyable watching as
a separate event.
Meanwhile, the dancers
mostly recline, stand and shift position as impassively as Simone
Forti holograms. They are as blank as artists' models, allowing
themselves to be viewed but not engaging the viewer. They rarely
look at each other either. Their gender is incidental and is especially
shrouded by unisex flight suits. Phrasework has a most casual acquaintance
with unison or mirroring but splays through the space chaotically
when it does erupt, occasionally playing with the edges of perception
as in last year's "just two dancers."
Jasperse wisely positions
his own performance as a sidebar to the group of four other bodies.
In his first solo, he scoots across the space, a recumbent thumbsucker
curled upon himself like a day-old flower petal. His is a sad-sack
Buster Keaton-esque presence; he easily outglooms his cast, all
of whom are new to dancing his work.
The physical movement
Jasperse has created for the newbies (Steven Fetherhuff, Eleanor
Hullihan, Rachel Poirier and Katy Pyle) is perhaps more lush, more
rococo, than some of his previous material, its intentions and impulses
more complex. The awkward positions of the body that Jasperse has
lingered over throughout his career are caught in flagrante delicto:
his girly use of the pelvis, the languid upturned ass that might
be a flamingo's pose or a dog scratching for fleas. The squeaks
of their feet on the Marley floor participate in the Foley zipper
sounds and crinkling with inadvertent Cage-ian humor. Sometimes
the absorption of the bodies in stillness suggests Barbara Dilley's
But the dancers' dispassion
becomes monotonous. There is variety of effort in the material,
as a Labanotator might notice, but even when they sweat, the dancers'
anhedonia never wavers. They barnacle the floor too much, poleaxed
by ennui or inertia. The synchrony of lighting and musical changes
to the beginnings and endings of sections of choreography also becomes
The set is manipulated
by leaf blowers before being partially dismantled. The dancers unzip
their costumes to reveal unraveling underwear underneath. This theme
of physical and metaphorical entropy and decay has become Jasperse's
beat. His corralling of debris has become pathological. I mean,
I think I'm reading the work's syntactical, semiotic meaning and
its symbology. And I am rooting for him. But this level of indulgence
in ho-hum is simply boring. Previously, I've wondered if his buzzkill
bleakitude might be aimed at the hopelessness of forming successful
interpersonal relationships; this project seems scaled for the hopelessness
of authentic identity in society.
Maybe I've sadly become
what my friend Elizabeth used to call with disdain a "brownhair"
(hers was grass green at the time). But here's the deal: Our experience
of experience really is either half full or half empty. Me, I'm
leaning toward being more interested in the enduring quality of
things than in the erosion of their surfaces. The suffocating posture
of hopelessness as a theatrical construct, clever but unwelcoming,
reeks of hubris. It is cool, but doesn't edify.
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