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IN BETWEEN

A lot of theoretical language weighs down the announcement of Within between, the latest work from this consummate artist with a perpetual twinkle in his eye. John Jasperse claims to be working toward “a utopian ideal that exists in the ephemeral nature of doing,” by experimenting with four seasoned dancers and three musicians playing an original score by Jonathan Bepler. Jasperse seeks “to both embrace and resist the habits of his own history,” which, lucky for us, is a 30-year international journey through a broad cultural landscape, one that yields responses marked with wit and startling beauty. Join him on the ride; you’ll be glad you did.

Thu., May 29, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., May 30, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., May 31, 7:30 p.m., 2014

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

John Jasperse and Nicholas Leichter View Artifice Through Different Lenses

Theater has always trafficked in illusion. The flesh-and-blood performers may be within touching distance, but reality has been leeched out of them. They are—and are not—“themselves.” Those aren’t shots of real bourbon the actor is knocking back. Fictions, as in life and politics, masquerade as truth.

In Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies, John Jasperse and his four terrific performers offer a witty and provocative web of dancing, acts, and images that test in bewitchingly eccentric ways our ability to distinguish between truth and lies and between real acts and simulated ones. The choreographer as trickster.

The first half of the work is dark, full of fog and shadows, although the magical lighting by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur makes the black sequined shifts worn by Erin Cornell and Eleanor Hullihan glitter almost alarmingly (costumes by Jasperse and Deanna Berg MacLean). To one side is a little “room,” whose single rear wall and floor are wallpapered with a rose pattern. The same print is used on the bikinis that the women strip down to, so they can behave as if they’re on a beach (we can’t hear their muted chatter, but their buttocks quiver minutely to convey its rhythm. What’s wrong with this picture?).

In one of Jasperse’s cameo appearances, he attempts a single pirouette, each time over-explaining the reason he falls off-balance, even talking over the recorded voice of his patient teacher (Janet Panetta). Finally, he sort of masters this example of artifice and—unwilling to accept the fact that he’s a terrible turner—immediately decides he’s ready to attempt a double. Who’s he kidding? His magician act is equally lame, allowing us to grasp the desired illusion, even though we see where the balls appear from. (A genuine surprise comes later, when Neal Beasley ends a dance section by spitting out a ball we’d never have guessed he’s secreting.)

The piece layers the many variations of its theme. While Jasperse is pulling balls out of pockets, Hullihan and Kayvon Pourazar are immersed in a tango, to James Lo’s intriguing score (part recorded, part live, although we see no musicians at present). The tango’s elegant simulation of foreplay contrasts to what Pourazar then does with Cornell—a messier, more fumbly affair. The dancing throughout the piece is rich and juicy—its big, sweeping, slippery movements and canted spins sometimes veering almost out of control. But the performers’ apparent dizziness or laziness is as simulated as the invisible cigarettes they puff (just once) and the invisible drinks they not very convincingly sip. Jasperse even makes you wonder if the shifting flashes of unison dancing are carefully planned or accidental.

Inevitably, the piece skewers the fabricated sexy manners that are a crucial ingredient in show dancing. Tall, languorous Cornell and the shorter, spicier Hullihan—strutting in heels— are adept at conveying the style without overplaying it—as are Beasley with his whiplash body and Pourazar in his own softer way. “I want you to want me,” their prowling and hot stares proclaim. But, of course, they don’t. Not really.

One of the highlights of Truth is a mysterious sequence in which the two women, standing in place, execute in exacting synchrony a sequence of smooth balances on one leg or the other. All the time, Beasley and Pourazar, dressed from head to toe in black, with only part of their faces visible, crawl around and between them. They’re like the stagehands in Kabuki theater; we’re meant to pretend we don’t see them, even though we do. The men keep close, their moves echoing or accommodating to the shapes the women are creating, but no touching is involved. The effect is strangely erotic.

The post-intermission part of the piece is its “white act”: floor, back wall, costumes—all white. Now the four string players of the International Contemporary Ensemble are seated onstage (they’re wearing white clothes too). The centerpiece of this act is a fight between Cornell and Jasperse, which takes place on the floor, as if they’ve already knocked each other down. As in a slow-motion action sequence in a film, their every punch, jab, twist, push, and press happens smoothly and without apparent weight, although their silent howls and gritted teeth bespeak their rage and the illusory pain they’re inflicting and enduring. The climax to this highly artificed bout is a single real slap.

The visible and the invisible are queried in this half of Truth too. After the fight, dancers and musicians solemnly place large doilies over their heads for a while, like children who think that you can’t see them if they can’t see you.

The dancing that runs through both parts of this wonderful piece poses its own questions about reality and illusion. These performers are like us and not like us, like their own everyday selves and not. They’re also beautiful in the way their ease lies to us about the sweat and muscle work that attend it and the hours of rehearsal that brought it to life.

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Confession: I never saw the movie of The Wiz, only the decades-ago Broadway musical. But as soon as Nicholas Leichter’s The Whiz: Obamaland starts, I sense that I’m in the minority and that everyone else sitting in the historic Henry Street Theater at the Abrons Arts Center has seen the movie (Diana Ross! Michael Jackson! Nipsey Russell!) at least 10 times as well as being a Nicholas Leichter groupie and a Monstah Black fan.

I often laugh when others laugh and applaud when they applaud, but sometimes they laugh with a knowing delight that leaves me behind. And it bothers me a little that in conceiving this take on The Wizard of Oz, choreographer Leichter and his co-director and composer Black seem to have presumed on that knowledge. They’re not, like Doug Elkins and David Parker—with their clever re-imaginings of, respectively, The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun— trying to anchor the dancing to the actual plot or the numbers in it.

Instead, Leichter and Black’s 90-minute work riffs off the ambience, moods, and style of The Wiz (a musical notable back in the 1970s for reconfiguring L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz as an urban African American fable). Three of the songs in The Whiz are from the soundtrack of the 1978 film; some have been written or adapted by Black, and some are by other composers and artists. But as the show moves along, it drops little details for Wiz addicts to pick up. We all laugh when Black totters in on improbably constructed silver platform shoes (he’s a charming comedian as well as a wonderful singer), and the others join him in silver sneakers, but if you know that one evil witch was melted down to her silver footgear (did I Google that right?), you’ll laugh in a different way.

Color is a big deal in the kingdoms of Oz; its capital, The Emerald City, and satellite states form a rainbow coalition. Happy laughter greets Black’s remarking, as he rips off a green wig, that green is so over, and everyone had better go red. I can imagine that Stephanie Liapis, in her eloquent solo near the end (to Black’s adaptation of “Is this what feeling gets”), is channeling Dorothy in her loved-Oz-gotta-go moment. Except that the red shoes (sorry, ruby slippers) that then mysteriously appear on stage are donned by Leichter after his final solo to the song “Home.” Is he the one leaving the fantasy world? And is it Obamaland he’s glad to get back to? Or was he there all along? The only hint we get that our President is involved is part of his inaugural speech that, overwhelmed by music, functions as an overture.

The performers in this vivid, hyperactive revue, adrift in funk and jazz and club dancing, are wonderful, and the number of costume changes they have to make renders them practically heroic. Black’s many outrageous outfits seem to allude to several characters and/or landscapes at once (hairy epaulets = Lion?). He sings—with, without, and against his recorded score. So, occasionally, do Leichter and Aaron Draper, and in one of the piece’s rare quiet moments, Leichter plays Black’s lovely, gently resigned “Chasing Pavements” on a piano at the back, and the three of them sing the words.

The dancing is a blend of styles. In the opening number, Liapis, Lauren Basco, Keon Thoulouis, and Wendell Cooper cling together, lift one another, and swirl into evolving, groupings in a fluent postmodern-dance way. Duetting side by side, Leichter and Liapis begin what looks like the first ballet exercise that a dancer might do in class after leaving the barre. But they swing one leg up with a flexed foot and a rocking torso, and get hipper as they go. The first few group numbers hit the stage with panache. The dancers’ feet keep stepping, strutting skidding, hopping. Their hips and shoulders are mobile. Leichter’s choreography nicely blends crisp rhythms and sudden stops with a lazy, seductive ease. You think you could watch people doing this all night.

But after a few jolts of the heady stuff, I begin to wish for things that Leichter is forgoing. Almost all the group dances are executed in unison, with dancers neatly spaced out and facing front. A typical chorus-line formation. Leichter has skills beyond this. What’s the matter with dancers moving in counterpoint, facing different directions, and traveling more out of the spot they started in? The choreography could still have the in-your-face force of a routine. The costumes are imaginatively gaudy, Erik C. Bruce’s dazzling lighting makes colored beams spin around the stage floor and penetrate the audience, but long before the final and most imaginatively constructed group dance, I’m not as happy as I was initially about watching dancers I love, because they’re selling the same—or almost the same—number several times over.

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Solo acts, often mysterious ones, provide variety. Draper, wearing floppy red trunks, prizefights the air; Cooper enters the theater through a side door (as Black often does) and marches onstage disguised in a very short, tight print outfit, heels, and a black cap, and dances with remarkable dug-in volatility. Dawn Robinson, looking great in a sexy black gown, her hair afro-ed dramatically, plays the diva, while Draper cools her with variously sized electric fans. Oddest of all, singer-performance artist Yozmit makes a single appearance, swathed in black and carried on an invisible helper’s shoulders. As he/she sings in a powerful voice (Yozmit has studied Korean pansori singing), the black cloth is whisked away, a white skirt falls from above and ends up around her/his ankles, and the final attire is a corset, tights, and a gold belt. I doubt that this is Glinda the Good, but you never know.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

No Gaze for You!

I’m lying on a clear plastic inflatable mattress, staring up at a mirrored ceiling; there are 24 of us, lying in rows of four. We have surrendered our coats, our shoes, and our bags. This is not a kinky sex game, nor are we going to have our feet massaged. It’s the winter of 2005, and we’re attending a performance of John Jasperse’s trio Prone at the Kitchen; just now, we’re part of the show for the other 24 spectators sitting on chairs on two sides of the room (later, they’ll trade places with us). A dancer stands beside me and stretches a long leg over me; I gaze up at her footcalfthighcrotch and know—have to know—that she is not going to step on me.

Prone, like several works I’ve seen recently, not only signified creative impatience with the status quo, it adroitly expanded postmodernism’s zest for deconstruction. Jasperse—along with Sarah Michelson, DD Dorvillier, Trajal Harrell, and others—is interested in exploring the whole issue of spectatorship, interfering with that imaginary fourth wall between audience and performers, and disrupting the usual avid passivity of our gaze.

For her 2008 The Sublime Is Us, Luciana Achugar seated a limited audience very close to a mirrored wall in one of Dance Theater Workshop’s studios. When the dancers were in front of us, their reflections doubled them; when they were behind us, we saw them in the mirror. And always, we watched ourselves watching (some spectators took the opportunity to do a little grooming). As with Prone, we saw the dancers’ sweat, felt them stir the air. But it was nothing like being in a reality show—no nasty surprises. These people would take care of us.

In such situations, we seem to erect our own fourth wall, and the performers set parameters. If you were one of the people (12 per show) who attended Nancy Bannon’s The Pod Project at Dance New Amsterdam in June, you soon discovered that each of the brief, carefully synchronized acts performed in a fabric enclosure for you alone brooked no interference; you could smile or shake your head or say things like, “That’s too bad.” But you sensed that you couldn’t change what had been planned or divert the speeches that some performers were delivering.

Last May, during David Dorfman’s Disavowal, which dealt in part with the fine line between arousing people’s social consciences and summoning up a mob, spectators were invited to get out of their seats in St. Mark’s Church and gather in small groups around a particular performer. At the center of my group stood one of the female dancers, sobbing. People looked concerned and awkward. What would one do if this were “real”? And would it be OK to do it now? Finally, I touched the woman reassuringly on the shoulder. Others followed suit. But that night, anyway, no one went so far as to embrace her and hold her tight.

Audiences primed for performances like this are anxious to please and, apparently, hard to shock. When a mostly naked woman inched somnolently along an immense dining table in a Williamsburg loft during Noémie Lafrance’s Home last April, we 20 people seated on either side of the table intuited what we had to do: We dipped black crayons in the water we’d been given and wrote on her body. That same week, Keith Hennessy invited the audience to cluster around him on DTW’s stage and watch as he drew a needle of red thread through several people’s clothes and then passed it through his skin. No one appeared to flinch.

Viewing such works may be novel for some people—both scary and titillating. In 2001, I watched a performance of Felix Ruckert’s Ring in Bratislava, which calls for 14 spectators to rise and sit in a circle of outward-facing chairs; each volunteer is assigned to one of the performers, all of whom have taken a preparatory five-day workshop with Ruckert. For 40 minutes, the seated people are whispered to, performed for, gently touched, and manipulated. Ring was done three times that evening. It took quite a while to secure the participants for the first set, but they’d barely returned to their seats in the audience when 14 others sprang up to take their places.

In some cases, dance events presented in unconventional locales—while not involving the spectators aggressively, like those described above—inadvertently make the audience a part of the performance. A site-specific work, in particular, forces us to take in the setting and all that is in it—and beyond it. Those who saw the third part of Meredith Monk’s 1971 Vessel still recall how a church across the street from the Soho parking lot where we sat was suddenly illuminated and the performers representing Joan of Arc’s three saints were seen standing in the portico. (The church was torn down long ago. And we say, “Remember? That’s where Meredith’s church used to be.”)

There may be chairs at the numerous free outdoor dance events that blossom in New York through most of August, but people come and go, eat and drink, text-message friends to join them, and dance in the aisles. Works intended for theaters adapt to platforms erected in public parks; others can be stumbled upon in unlikely places as you stroll by. If you’re in the South Coast Plaza at Battery Park City on selected evenings between August 3 and 12 at 6:30 p.m., you’ll discover Gabrielle Lansner’s Turning Heads, Frocks in Flight (part of the Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines ’09). Visit Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park Bandshell August 6 between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and you may get your first glimpse of hip-hop dance from South Korea (one of five Hip Hop Generation Next shows), co-presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Dancing in the Streets. If you miss, say, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company’s world premiere on Central Park’s Summerstage August 14 or 15 at 8 p.m., you can cross the FDR Drive at Delancey Street the following day at 4 p.m., and catch it in East River Park.

These works don’t challenge your status as an audience, as do the works described earlier, but when the sky is the backdrop and the same wind that ruffles the trees and your hair makes the dancers’ costumes billow, that fourth wall becomes just a little bit more porous.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

John Jasperse Pulls a Treasure From the Trash

John Jasperse speaks softly and smiles at us, but he’s clearly worried. In the statistics-filled speech that opens his wonderful new work, Misuse liable to prosecution, he obliquely links the relative poverty of established dancers and choreographers (his annual salary from his company is $26,000 a year), wasteful excess, and the detritus with which we flood the planet. Misuse, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 25th Next Wave Festival, is titled after a sign on a milk crate, and to make the piece, Jasperse became a recycling maniac. Sets, props, and costumes are the products of creative scavenging. The immense, gleaming hangings are made of wire and plastic hangers. The lighting design (by Joe Levasseur and Jasperse) incorporates fluorescent rings that flicker like fireflies. Composer Zeena Parkins plays her electronic harp, backed by her pre-recorded score and the interventions of two live bagpipers (David Watson and Matthew Welch) stationed in the top balcony, but at one point she’s blowing through plastic hosing to animate a melodica. The dancer-collaborators (Michelle Boulé, Levi Gonzalez, Eleanor Hullihan, Kayvon Pourazar, and Jasperse) wear odd assortments of garments backward, upside down, and on parts of the body they weren’t meant for. Brooms and mops become headdresses, tools, even elements of a sculpture. When Jasperse delivers his introduction, he’s sitting on the floor, speaking into an orange highway cone propped on a broom.

Improbable tasks and bizarre actions abound. While the audience is assembling, Jasperse is lying onstage on his back, feet in the air, beneath a hanging made of orange electrical cord. He’s knitting with his legs. Knitting (or crocheting) must also be the source of a smooth leg-phrase that Gonzalez and Hullihan execute while seated against the back wall and that Hullihan later repeats leaning against a mattress braced by others from behind. When Boulé and Hullihan crash into the mattress and hurl each other violently against it, the last of the plastic bottles they’ve stuffed under their T-shirts fall out. Amid such sights as the three men tumbling in zany, possibly dangerous configurations onto a semi-deflated beanbag chair (and then Jasperse wandering around blindly with the thing on his head), there’s plenty of dancing.

What’s definitely not left over or discarded are the terrific performers and the movements that Jasperse, with their help, has devised. Still, when two or four of them tangle, I can imagine I’m seeing the initial knitting ingeniously recycled. One person may keep kicking another lightly to turn him or her to a more accommodating angle, and their limbs and torsos loop around and over those of their partners with a kind of dogged, harum-scarum slipperiness—as if they’re making something together but don’t know what it is.

Once Hullihan enters with a carton, upends it to disgorge the beanbag, and puts the carton over Jasperse’s head. He stands a moment, then bends over to slip the carton off. In sync, the two of them shove the objects forward a bit. After the men have had their game with the squishy chair, Jasperse stuffs it back in the carton and briefly plunges his head in after it. There’s something forlorn about the often futile efforts they all make throughout the piece to use what they find and tidy up after themselves. Parkins embeds sounds of plastic crunching, glass breaking, and knitting needles clacking together into her score, and its occasional deep roars, screeches, and melancholy tootlings conjure up a wasteland.

I didn’t know that “It takes twice as much water to manufacture a plastic water bottle as can be contained in that same bottle.” The gap that Jasperse mentions between celebrities’ inflated earnings and what dancers make may surprise some, but we know all too well the disparity between what our government spends on making war and what it spends on preserving the environment and enabling art like this.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Next, the Toy Truck Will Plié

Early on in Becky, Jodi, and John, the terrific piece that John Jasperse has concocted in collaboration with Becky Hilton and Jodi Melnick, Melnick sits in a wheeled chair and reads a message from Jasperse. The e-mail quotes a European presenter (channeled by Melnick with the appropriate accent) telling Jasperse that his work is “so formal,” as if this were a disease that could relegate him to the postmodern dust heap. Jasperse comments that telling him he shouldn’t be so formal is like telling him he shouldn’t be so thin. Or so old.

This information sets up the structure of the evening: an ironically meticulous interplay between formality and informality. Melnick reads the message off a laptop delivered by a remote-controlled toy truck, while Jasperse, naked, carefully stacks cardboard bricks into an irregularly cantilevered tower. The distancing, pre-planned effect of television is subverted when Chrysa Parkinson, via a video of a Skype Internet call, talks (probably with Jasperse, but we hear only her voice) about the progress of the piece, which she’d have danced in had she not moved to Belgium. The truncated remarks, pauses, and embarrassed laughter are what you’d expect from an impromptu chat with a longtime colleague—but funnier.

A section of the floor has been removed to create a long trough across the back of the stage, its horizontal design echoing the shape of the band of black-and-white floral wallpaper that stretches across the rear wall. The three performers enter from this cavity. As they execute precise and beguiling movement-patterns in unison, various body parts disappear into it. But the trench is also a site of disorder. Hilton topples in at one point, and so does the little truck that delivers the laptop on cue. (The truck also brings in jockey shorts for Jasperse, when a careful duet between a naked man and a clothed woman begins to seem a little too, well, informal.)

Another issue raised by the presenter’s words is that of age. These seasoned dancers aren’t kids but very smart adults; coincidentally, all of them, including Parkinson, are 43. Hilton reads from the laptop a group e-mail fired off by Melnick. It itemizes all her “don’ts,” including “I don’t jump,” and follows the dauntingly long list with an equally daunting one of her current injuries and weaknesses. But, just as a great actor is said to be able to hold listeners spellbound while reading the telephone book, performers like these can thrill you just by rolling imaginary lint off their fingertips. Few of their admirers would miss a high leap (there are one or two) when they can watch Melnick delicately, fluidly, and attentively rearrange her joints. Athletic lifts can’t compare to the way these performers cluster to sag against one another and slide gently into amazingly beautiful and unusual sculptural formations, while Hahn Rowe—manning a laptop, violin, psaltery, electronic aids, and pre-recorded material—embeds subtle allusions to gamelan music in his elegant and witty score. As the three venture out into space, slipping in and out of synchrony, Parkinson returns to the monitor to tell them, “That’s brilliant!”

After this burst of dancing, they haul out a motley trio of chairs and announce that they’ll take questions from the audience. Here informality speaks with a forked tongue. The thoughtfully delivered (and hilarious) answers have absolutely nothing to do with the questions posed, even when
Hilton prefaces her response with the familiar trope, “That’s a very good question.” A query about rhythm prompts Melnick to mention her background as a gymnast and muse about her on-again,
off-again vegetarianism.

Just before the end, Jasperse appears, smiling shyly; suddenly, smoke begins to curl out from the seams of his black jacket. Formalism (often misleadingly defined) has become a dirty word, both in relation to art and art criticism. Jasperse and his irresistibly charming colleagues have lit a fire under that trend, and I, for one, would relish seeing it go up in smoke.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Dancing in the Dark

I’m not heavily into trend-spotting, but I do keep my eyes open and ear to the ground. So a few seconds after I enter the Kitchen to see DD Dorvillier’s Nottthing Is Importanttt (except maybe subversive orthography), I realize that the basic black box theater look is out—so yesterday in its non invasive versatility. In recent years, Dorvillier, like Sarah Michelson, John Jasperse, Trajal Harrell, Luciana Achugar, and others, has become interested in reconfiguring a given theater space and making the borders between performers and spectators more porous.

The altered perspective can be as simple as arranging the seating in a different formation, as Dorvillier did in her 2002 Dressed for Floating at Danspace, or as elaborate as the construction that transforms the Kitchen for Nottthing. Dorvillier, who in the past snipped apart, scrambled, and recombined various narratives in her pieces, wants to transform—at any rate, subvert—our ways of apprehending form and motion.

Dorvillier is the second choreographer in the past few months (Koosil-ja is the other) who has mentioned the influence of postructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari on her ideas. At www.nyfa.org, she proposes that “[t]heir nomadic thinking perceptively challenges traditional notions of order, proposing a synthesis of practice, perception, and information in its place.”

We spectators are jolted from our habitual role from the outset, when we’re told to hand over our coats and bags to attendants just inside the door. Then there’s the theater, looking not at all like itself. The risers don’t look the way they usually do, and there are no chairs. Only 56 people can be accommodated. And we face a squarish white platform that, although below us, is elevated maybe five feet above the usual floor. It’s backed by a white screen just its size. In curious contrast to this pristine space are the red velvet curtains to the side and behind us and the chandelier hanging above us. We’re on a grand stage, while before us lies what might be a photographer’s studio, which Thomas Dunn lights accordingly.

It’s treated like a studio too. After we’ve watched the empty space and listened to Zeena Parkins’s initially quiet, spare score for a while, performers in shabby gray work clothes appear on the platform and strike various poses. Each one is baring a body part— forearm, calf, neck. . . . After a while they move into other posess and reveal something else—lifting a sweater to show ribs, taking off a sock, pushing up a sleeve, pulling down pants. The pace quickens a little. They slide into pedestrian unison or near unison movement—crawling, sitting, bending over. Parkins sounds increase in volume. Mooings, buzzings. I think the back wall is miked.

When everyone (Danielle Goldman, Martin Lanz Landazari, Alejandra Martorell, Andrea Baurer, Paul Neuninger, Mina Nishimura, Peter Sciscioli, Otto Ramstad, and Elizabeth Ward) begins to reach out for and reel in imaginary lengths of wire or rope, I think back to the mysterious black snake of maybe electric wire that was tossed across the stage as a prelude to the action. Eventually they hurl at the back wall—and at us—whatever they’ve grabbed. This ends the first part of Nottthing (subtitled a suite of three conditions).

Taking stock: Bright light. Almost no motion. Rearrangements of bodies in a given space. Selective revealing of those bodies.

Part 2: a confusingly wacky movie, Hamma Schwein G’Habt (We Got Lucky). The visual field flattens. There are two actors: Dorvillier as Santa Claus and Jon Jernquist as a Paul Bunyanesque woodman. Santa wields a sledgehammer to destroy chairs and a lamp in this very theater. The din is terrific. The not so jolly old elf ends up in the woods, frantically burrowing head first into the ground, legs kicking. The lumberjack swings an axe to split wood and fell trees. Creation versus destruction. Parkins’s music is here too—sour-sweet horns, rasping noises.

Part 3. Now we understand why the white stage seems to fill only half the depth of the usual Kitchen performance area. Behind it are four rows of benches, two on either side of a wide aisle. We don’t see this, however. We’re led, one or two at a time, into an almost pitch-black place and guided to a seat. You’ve perhaps guessed what happens next. From a bright space with very little movement, we’ve moved to a dark one with a lot of movement. Dancers race and thud around between us and behind us. Then they’re quiet for a while, so that when they start up again it’s a small shock. Just as I think I’m beginning to make out shapes in the gloom, it gets darker. Velvet black. I tell myself I’m not scared.

At some point, the blackness turns dark gray, and we can make out the dancers, lined up, holding one of their number overhead like pallbearers. Then it’s dark again. Noise, the wind of running bodies. When the piece ends, and a small amount of light allows up to get up and make our way out, I notice rows of what look like little hanging lamps overhead. They never go on.

Taking stock 2. I remember past experiments that played on audience expectation. In 1966, in the last part of Twyla Tharp’s Re-Moves at Judson Church, the audience was seated around three sides of an immense white box; as the dancers traveled around the box, no one could see them the entire time, and at the end they went inside the box and rehearsed their next dance, and no one could see them at all. I seem to remember Dan Wagoner’s company in the 1970s, also at Judson, performing the brief last movement of a piece in the dark. Those choreographers were fairly playful about the games they played with our heads.

Dorvillier’s very smart and very interesting, and I’m glad she’s pondering issues of space, form, and perception. Nottthing is Importanttt might be quite important in the development of her work. But at times I did feel strangely like a lab rat in a shiny maze, realizing that a bit of comforting cheese might not be in the cards.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Brave Bodies

In 1965, Anna (then Ann) Halprin brought her Parades and Changes to New York. The dancers began the work by this San Francisco choreographer teacher (a foremother of such vanguardists as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti) by slowly removing their clothes and piling them neatly. Halprin allowed us a few moments to take in their nakedness; then they re-dressed, then undressed again, and so on. Nudity was not an accepted costume on the New York stage back then, and Parades became a cause celebre, but Halprin’s presentation was both innocent and lovely. “We’ve all got bodies,” she seemed to be saying, “Forget prudishness, forget shame.” As I remember, after the dancers had ripped up brown paper covering the stage, they gathered huge armloads of it, turning themselves into warm-hued, ambulatory sculpture.

French choreographer Alain Buffard acknowledges having been influenced by American dance—first by Alwin Nikolais, then by Viola Farber during their respective tenures running the Centre Nationale de Danse Contemporaine, but more particularly by Halprin, with whom he studied in the U.S. (A film Buffard made, My Lunch with Anna, was shown once during his Danspace season.) Buffard’s provocative and beguiling Mauvais Genre (2003) is a development of a solo, Good Boy, that he made in 1998, but it could be considered an homage to Parades and Changes. Buffard’s tone is darker, despite its wit.

Halprin wanted to acknowledge the human body as healthy and handsome and worth looking at, whether or not it conformed to some ideal image; Buffard wants also to affirm its fragility and vulnerability in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic and the inevitable onslaughts of age. We first see the performers naked, walking one at a time into a lineup. Except for Buffard and Matthieu Doze, they’re well known on New York’s downtown dance scene: Cedric Andrieux, Erin Cornell, DD Dorvillier, Neil Greenberg, Miguel Gutierrez, Trajal Harrell, John Jasperse, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Heather Kravas, Jennifer Lacey, Lucy Sexton, and Jeremy Wade. But when each reaches his or her place, three vertically hanging fluorescent tubes light up, partially effacing identity, while the harsh, egalitarian light that molds them all spares no sagging flesh or postural irregularities. I suddenly remember Jill Johnston’s memorable 1968 review of Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover, celebrating the assortment of people who simply walked across the performing area: “. . .that’s you and me in all our ordinary everyday who cares postural splendor.”

Buffard’s ambience colors our perception of his individuals. They might be in a hospital examining room (or a prison lineup), as, at various times, they turn 90 degrees to show us side views, a back view. The image of possibly compromised health is furthered by the long, wide adhesive strips with which they censor or protect their genitals. The garments they take from individual black plastic bags in front of them are men’s white jockey shorts. One pair, two, three—some performers layer eight or more until they resemble babes in diapers (your basic whole-butt condom).

There is very little music. Most of the sounds are those made by bodies. When the performers first spread out into the space, kneel, and start collapsing in various ways like downed cows, you hear the thunk of an elbow or a shoulder or a flank as it hits the floor. They also create some of the lighting, arranging small columnar lamps in neat formations.

Buffard sets up stations in particular areas of the church where shifting groups of performers can improvise on given themes. In one spot, they shake and gently pat themselves and others. In another, they devise ways to blow on one another. Off to one side, up the carpeted steps, the directive seems to be to bang against colleagues; in the center of the floor, rubbing might be the key word. Since these are very intrepid folks, their solutions are clever and often funny; five people rhythmically smacking various body parts against those of others can look like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Nevertheless, the thought does come to mind that these activities involving intimate contact can be viewed as abstractions of the sexual activities by which the virus spreads.

Determined glamour melds with uncertain physicality when the dancers tape little white knobs under their feet and strut around on these shaky high heels, carrying stacked empty boxes of Retrovir and offering them in the manner of cigarette girls beset by shyness. Before long, the floor is littered with dropped boxes and unstuck white tape. A male voice sings sardonically approving words. “Good boy!” “Well done!” “You did the right thing.” For their big “dance,” all return to the black bags and don more underpants in highly creative ways. Harrell turns his head into a huge white ball, Lacey hampers her arms and legs so severely that she can hardly do the ballet-class steps they’re all dredging out of their memories. Again echoing Halprin, Buffard turns bodies into oddly sculptured objects, but the implications here are of gallantry in adversity.

The ending is upbeat. Shedding and laying out their shorts, people progress along a diagonal path to the exit. As they go, they also help strip some of the encumbering garments from Gutierrez and Jasperse, dark angels who’ve layered black underpants all the way down their legs and mince along, continuing to belt out Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York” (“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. . .”). They disappear out the door, leaving a trail of white garments and small, bright lights.

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Three Perspectives

I’m lying on a clear plastic inflatable mattress, gazing up at a ceiling of Mylar panels that waveringly reflect the scene below: six rows of four beds just like mine. We pod people are one of three groups that populate John Jasperse’s stunningly provocative Prone. More than 24 spectators sit on chairs facing one another across the Kitchen. In the aisles between the mattresses, Luciana Achugar, Levi Gonzalez, and Eleanor Hullihan dance, making bridges over us occupants. We don’t reach up to touch the foot passing six inches from our face, or flinch when one of the three lies close to us. We know our role. The others are either performers or spectators; we are spectator- performers, sedate but kinesthetically aroused, crucial to the picture observed by the sitters. Midway through the event, those on mattresses will be gently escorted to chairs, and vice versa.

In his 2003 just two dancers, a duet with Juliette Mapp, Jasperse set several small performance platforms among the Dance Theater Workshop audience, handing out mirrors that enabled us to choose our perspective. Prone goes even further—not just giving those lying on the floor the option of watching the action live or reflected in the overhead mirrors, but inviting the audience to consider issues of distance and proximity and to ponder the performer-spectator relationship.

Not even those sitting on chairs are exempt from moments that breach the “fourth wall.” Occasionally a dancer leans very close to a spectator, his or her face inches away, as if probing a puzzling life form. But those in the gleaming dormitory (beautifully lit by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur) have more choices and sensations than other viewers. When the dancers lie down in an aisle and execute a clever twist-and-drop sequence with their raised hands, the live action, from my perspective, resembles a kooky dance of animated flowers; if I look up, I see the three sardined together with something going on in the vicinity of their chests. I watch them fall and slide into a pile, but only by looking up can I see exactly how the pile disassembles. At the beginning of Prone, when the performers bat clear air-filled plastic bags from aisle to aisle and into a heap against a wall, I’m enraptured by the objects’ resemblance to glowing tumbleweeds, air-dwelling jellyfish; then one lands on my face. When in an adagio passage Hullihan stretches a long curved leg close to me, I can both admire the leg as leg and wonder where exactly she plans to put it down. After I become a seated watcher, I laugh with those around me when plastic protuberances inflate between the legs of the folks lying down (more like a crop to be harvested than like penises); the mattress people possibly focus more on the curious sensation.

Jasperse’s choreography is often arduous; Zeena Parkins, playing her composition live and on tape through a surround of speakers, reflects this and goads it on. She’s a visual delight herself, especially when she stands—a sorceress weaver—on the Kitchen’s bleachers drawing a thin string across her electric harp, or makes the instrument scream like a woman in pain. The dancers build complicated structures, climbing on each other, morphing one achievement into another, repeating these in different locations. When lying in their zone, we’re privy to their sweat, their hard breathing. As they lunge across our bodies or come very close, gazing at us, we can wonder what they’re thinking (“Almost kicked that guy” or “This one smells good”?).

The interplay between comfort and risk is heady—most vivid in those few minutes when we inhale the soothing fragrance of lavender from black pads pressed over our eyes but hear racing, stomping feet moving among us, making the floor shake. The sensation of watching—or being—an alien form of life is intensified by the performers’ focus. Intermittently, they appear to wonder about us, but much of the time we’re objects; they’re careful of us the way you’d try not to scratch good furniture. That in itself induces musings about the apparent passivity of the spectator’s role.

I left the theater refreshed and stimulated. How often does that happen?

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Behind Bars

At the beginning of John Jasperse’s brilliant and chilling California, three women (Eleanor Hullihan, Rachel Poirier, and Katy Pyle) enter on cautious tiptoe, while Jasperse writhes on the floor as if he’s having a serious case of insomnia or a nightmare. Hanging low above Jasperse and partially blocking the women from our view is a huge, compelling thing—Ammar Eloueini’s sculpture of white, sutured-together polycarbonate panels. You imagine that these people bought it without thinking how it would look in their home, or—given the dark-blue coveralls they’re wearing—that they worked on it in some factory without understanding what they were making.

Jonathan Bepler’s fascinating score for California augments the impression that this world (like the state) is one in which grandiose dreams disintegrate or fly apart. Four pianists—Anthony Coleman, Jenny Lin, Lisa Moore, and Antony Widoff—hold down the corners of the stage, attended by Foley artists (the composer plus musicians Willa Bepler, Matt Rocker, and Daniel Teige). The latter create sounds by dropping objects on a mic’d board, pouring water, rubbing sand, preparing the pianos, and so on, in intricate relationships with the spare piano notes. Pitted with stillness and long silences, both music and dancing are elusive, repressed, and as stark as the lighting by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur. Training leaf blowers at the set, as the dancers do a couple of times, seems pointless.

Relationships are fittingly elusive. The cast performs the same uncomfortable movements at the same time, or in follow-the-leader fashion. They sit companionably close. In shadowy light at the back, Hullihan and Steven Fetherhuff wrestle each other into—what? Acceptance, maybe. No matter how violent, they’re always stuck together in some way.

Even when the five performers haul on ropes and pull the sculpture apart, it still looms over them—if possible more threateningly. They too crack open symbolically when Pyle unzips Jasperse’s coverall and peels him down to his raggy underwear in order to feel his throat, his belly; but it’s no surprise that the pair begin their duet bracing against each other. Before long, the others have shed their “skins” also and are taking big, slow steps, like grazing animals.

But no easy solutions appear; coiling the leaf blowers’ endlessly long electric cords emphasizes only broken connections, and the sound of pouring water is no panacea. In the end, as darkness gets even darker, beneath the dismantled sculpture Jasperse and Pyle are still trying to accomplish a duet.


“When a group of red deer stands up, they are not simply stretching their legs; they are voting on whether to move to greener pastures.” That’s the first sentence on one of the cards passed out by dancers partway through Guta Hedewig’s Menagerie. I receive an equally interesting one about bees.

We already know that animal behavior shaped the piece, what with the polar bear waving its legs—looking uncannily like a furry human infant—as it swims through a blue-green video (by Anja Hitzenberger) projected on one of the irregular-shaped screens in Illya Azaroff’s installation. The four musicians who play Edward Ratcliff’s lovely score for string trio plus trumpet or accordion sit up in the church balcony backed by a screen of woven branches that, in Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting, cast shadows on the ceiling. We note subtle allusions to varicolored pelts in the sleek costumes Reiko Kawa-shima (with Reiko Tomita) has designed for Hedewig, Theresa Duhon, Rachel Lynch-John, and Kristi Spessard. And we see more piercing allusions in the dancing.

What impressed me about Hedewig’s 2003 Stabat Mater was how her witty contemporary choreography hinted at the imagery of Pergolesi’s great religious com- position in ways so oblique as to be almost hidden. In Menagerie, her references are more forthright but even more elegant. The patterns and rhythms of the dancing suggest herding, tracking, competition, and repose, while the arresting choreography offers nonliteral glimpses of claws and tails and antlers. No four-legged animal walks on four small stacks of books, but Lynch-John, carefully doing that, suggests a beast’s cautious plodding.

Hedewig begins her opening solo by squiggling in on her back, her fingers fluidly clawing upward, while the music turns liquid and melodic. As the others come and go, a limply swinging limb suddenly looks like a tail; in the trembling of a lifted leg, you might glimpse a squirrel’s twitching. Three women dance; their arms, held up in wide curves, snag on one another’s arms the way mating bucks lock antlers. Sometimes they try something and wander off, just as the image of a cat invades and passes through the projected view. When they gather to move as a squad, you remember the elephants that strolled across one of the screens.

The women’s grave attention to what they’re doing and to one another is beautiful to see, even in the simplest moments, like one in which Spessard and Lynch-John tangle on the floor while, off to one side, Duhon waits motionless in a deep lunge. Watchful stillness is as important as the music’s silences. The piece ends with the bear again. Captive in a zoo pool, he plays with a can, looking in his lonely dance more than ever like a human child.

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Dance

In California, which marks John Jasperse’s second appearance at the Next Wave Festival, four emotionless workers in industrial coveralls carefully step into a high-tech staging area. Architect Ammar Eloueini’s cold, gray grid of polycarbonate looms above them. The laborers manipulate—but never touch—the fragile, folding stage-wide object, their pauses erratically punctuated by rapid, interconnecting arm and leg moves. But in Jasperse’s pointed critique of technocracy and an industrial culture that invades all of life, the workers never truly leave the workplace. Joe Levasseur’s industrial lighting and Jonathan Bepler’s unsettling mix of electronic, organic, and mechanical sounds convey a worker’s nightmare. As in Jasperse’s earlier works, bodies need and seek—but rarely find—lasting support on any surface, or rest beneath a shell that gives no shelter. A revealing duet between Jasperse and Katy Pyle follows an ostensibly extreme—and yet dispassionate—gesture in the middle of the hour-long piece. But all that follows in California seems to ask: Can emotional neutrality effect radical change? Is there such a thing as a passionless revolt? When human feelings are all but eradicated, does the capacity to rebel remain?