John Jasperse Company
American Dance Festival
"There's nothing pure in this world."
—Billy Idol, "White Wedding"
"You'll dance to anything."
—Dead Milkmen, "Instant Club Hit"
As phrases go, "pure dance" is one of the last stops for a critic who's run out of time, vocabulary or, just possibly, imagination. It's the kind of thing you write when you just can't come up with anything more descriptive or original.
Ironically (or, more likely, not, given the work being considered), critics have applied the term or its immediate kin to John Jasperse's work over the years. Usually—but not always—the expression has been employed in complimentary terms.
Not that that matters all that much. For Jasperse, an artist who qualifies as one of the most pensive choreographers working today, would remind us that the adjective "pure," the one-word title of his latest work, is clearly freighted with assumptions that demand close interrogation. Nor can we limit this discussion safely to the realm of aesthetics. The age of ethnic cleansing has given purity decidedly sinister overtones. Thus an impure world corrupts a term for virtue into its antithesis.
But in the realm of dance, what does the term "pure" mean—in terms of creative intent, artistic development, critical evaluation and audience response? What exactly is "pure" movement, "pure" dance? Is such a thing possible? And if so, is it actually desirable?
These are some of the questions John Jasperse addresses in his new work, which saw its world premiere Monday night at the American Dance Festival. If Pure kids us, it's to get us to stop kidding ourselves: What we think "pure" dance is, isn't—and if it were, we shouldn't trust it.
As in Jasperse's best work, Pure presents the audience with a cryptogram in four dimensions: wittily disjunctive audio, visual and movement cues that suggest and allude to, but rarely clearly state, his artistic objectives.
On a stage stripped of all other curtains, border cloths and backdrops, a wide strip of fabric forms a rectangle on the floor from mid-stage right to the back of the stage, where it climbs about 8 feet up the back wall. On the fabric: a kitschy, staid old pattern, apparently from the 1940s or '50s; an oversized pink and white flower repeating relentlessly across a background of unappetizing gray.
The fabric seems almost as schismatic—or irrelevant—to the hip-hop of the opening music, Rick Ross' Where My Money, as the sinuous, but muted and seemingly diffident, opening moves made by dancers Eleanor Hullihan, Kayvon Pourazar and Erin Cornell. Their fluid but contained piscine right hand oscillations never get too far away from the body before ending in small, nearly powerless filigree details made by limp fingers raised behind them.
A veneer of cool shades the opening movement and the stylish dance party costumes, but no real strength of passion informs the moments before the trio steps off the patterned fabric onto the empty stage. The subsequent infusion of energy is enough, at first, to keep the audience from realizing an important development: bodies covered in black form-fitting material have slowly crept on stage from the proscenium corners and the edge of the audience.
But their advent is interrupted by comedy. Jasperse comes out from offstage left and places a microphone inches away from the body that has crawled in from the front. As a spotlight shines from above, the choreographer attempts a pirouette and then analyzes and critiques his effort, speaking into the mic. After several failed iterations, an offstage voice (Brenda Daniels on opening night), gives conflicting, simultaneous critical feedback. No one talks about or looks at the anonymous, inert bodies at Jasperse's feet, leaned against the left proscenium wall or with legs sticking out in part from offstage right.
The audience (largely dance students on opening night) was similarly unconcerned, delighting in the representation of an unsuccessful rehearsal. They remained amused during a subsequent section where four showy, clearly faked magic tricks performed by Jasperse effectively distracted the audience from a tango-based duet midstage between Hullihan and Pourazar.
Other tricks of the eye informed the work. A performer dressed in all black moved unnoticed against the black back wall of the stage, before scuttling in front of the patterned fabric section. Lighting obscured other movements by the people in black through a section that qualified as perhaps the most pointed critique of the night.
After Hullihan and Cornell are revealed to be dressed in the same material as the patterned backdrop, they dance—Hullihan against the back wall, Cornell on the floor at midstage. As the 1960s protest anthem "Ohio," by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, plays, Hullihan struggles to separate herself from the patterned backdrop. Cornell repeats the same gestures, trying to lift herself from the decorated floor. The moves of the two are repeated by an obscured Jasperse, dressed entirely in black, who dances against the back wall in a darker portion of the stage, and Pourazar, whose body leans against the left proscenium, echoing the choreography again. The effect: something of a fugue parallelogram, and a dance of ineffectual resistance.
What does Jasperse's work leave us with as viable definitions for "pure" dance? The gauntlet of rehearsal? The at-times ludicrous interior monologues—sampled here—of what's going on in the dancer's mind during the act? Empty showmanship? Movement that is decorative and totally irrelevant to what is going on around it? An amusement that distracts us from the unaesthetic darkness, and from the events that may be taking place inside that darkness?
The word "pure" makes a claim that a work of art is somehow totally transcendent, effectively divorced from all external context or contingency. There is a longing in the term, a wish for something that lifts us wholly out of the common world.
Without doubt, we all buy a ticket, sooner or later, for such diversions. But Jasperse's emphasis on the not-so-magical tricks in this work leaves us with these questions: To what degree is that art—"pure" art, that is—just an exercise in misdirection? And the moment we embrace it, what are we missing?