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Flash 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 Kansas.

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 contemplative dance.

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 predictable.

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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