The Golden Ass

Spooning and standing at the same time? Must be modern dance: 'Giant Empty'
Agns Noltenius & Sparkasse

John Jasperse has learned a lesson. After years of honing a reputation as a choreographer who articulates movement and meaning with a rigorous clarity, the 38-year-old now considers his dancemaking in an entirely different light. "You can't tell people what to think," he says over the telephone from his apartment in downtown Manhattan. "They'll think whatever they want to. Once an idea is out in the world, I can't control it."

Today Jasperse continues to commit to his aesthetic goals while embracing the inherent ambiguity of his chosen form of expression. The choreographer, who entered the downtown New York dance scene during the mid-1980s, has always had a laser focus, which explains, in no small part, his steady rise to the top of his profession. Though he never joined with the company of postmodern dance legend Trisha Brown--his original dream as a dancer--the Bessie Award-winning Jasperse did embrace the active contact improvisation and alternative-bodywork community centered below 14th Street. Out of these influences arose a unique vocabulary, one that is by turns awkward, architectural, repetitive--and, yes, exquisitely precise. Since 1996 his talents have been in great demand, leading to prizes and commissions from the Ballett Frankfurt, the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation for the White Oak Dance Project, and, this year, the Lyon Opera Ballet.

With Giant Empty, Jasperse has expanded his artistic vision to the physical and aural environment of the stage. His dancers inhabit a space framed by dangling, sometimes twirling ropes, and small blocks--all designed by Ballett Frankfurt's Matthias Bringmann. "It's an exterior and interior space where things...can be redefined because everything can be moved," explains Jasperse. Michael Floyd's score, which blends the sounds of whirring household appliances with an occasional snippet of opera, completes an experience that seems random but is actually calculated to explore the shifting relationship between the dancers and their surroundings.

The most dramatic example of boundary crossing in Giant Empty is the unabashed display of the human body. As Jasperse explains it, layers of clothing on the dancers at first "become very exaggerated, like a huge casing. Then it all gets removed, and there's just a body. It's the implication that the naked body is a whole other kind of shell."

The choreographer's use of nudity also is meant as a commentary on the essence of voyeurism. "A lot of people still go to dance because they want to see taut, firm bodies and physical prowess. This is one of the main things that keeps this form from moving forward. It objectifies the person in front of you," says Jasperse, with a bit of exasperation. Rather than fight this fact, however, he has assumed ownership, acknowledging that there is an audience watching, and then manipulating how they experience the human form. At the same time, he confronts his own "moral high ground" about putting the body on a pedestal.

"There are many different notions of the body," he continues. "There's the aestheticized body, the body of art and sculpture. Then there's the sexual body, divided into the erotic and sensual. Then there's this sort of medical body that eats and goes to the bathroom and gets sick and bleeds."

All of these ideas "sort of collapse," as Jasperse puts it, in a nude duet Jasperse performs with company member Miguel Gutierrez. The focus is on the dancers' rear ends, which Jasperse perceives as an emotionally and politically complicated part of the body. "I want the audience to experience radical shifts," says Jasperse. "At first they say, 'Okay, I feel safe because I'm appreciating this naked body. Then suddenly the next image in the sequence makes me uncomfortable. That's too close to porn, that's kind of gross.' The butt is this charged place that reunites all of that"--a message that may be clear even if the viewer gets some things ass backward.

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