A conversation with choreographer John Jasperse
John Jasperse has a knack for creating thought-provoking and process-oriented work. He has the unique ability to juxtapose hilarity with the profound, and he encourages audiences to shake up the way they view and experience dance. For his 2005 piece, Prone, Jasperse asked audience members to lie on mattresses onstage to view his work; in his 2007 piece, Misuse liable to prosecution, he used only found and recycled objects for costumes and props.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in 1985, he put down roots in New York City and began working with Lisa Kraus and Dancers and Jennifer Monson. In 1996, he formed John Jasperse Company. He received Bessie Awards two years in a row: in 2001, for his body of choreographic work; in 2002 for his company’s artistic achievement.
Jasperse is currently leading a choreographic workshop at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, as part of a two-month residency that also includes master classes, open rehearsals and performance of his piece Fort Blossom Revisited (2000/2012). Dance Teacher spoke to him about his process and inspiration.
DT: You often cite your dancers as collaborators. What’s your process for creating work?
JJ: In some regards, we work together, but most of the phrase material generates from my body. There’s more collaboration when we deal with improvisational structures. We’ll have an idea, and we’ll work with a focus, or I’ll give them conceptual directives and see what material can come from that. Then, there’s a lot of dialogue about the form of a piece, and even more discussion after we do early structures about what works or what makes sense. We also videotape improvisation and then learn some of the material. So in that way their movement becomes rendered in a piece, but I never ask them to make a phrase. That’s a different process.
DT: What do you find most challenging when directing dancers?JJ: Wondering if I lock a dancer into my vision in a certain way once I see her move. I experienced that as a dancer, and it was frustrating. It’s like slotting someone into the easiest version of herself—so then what does she do with the rest of the stuff that’s a part of her that isn’t given an agency to go anywhere? It’s not empowering to the dancer.
For example, I work with a dancer, Eleanor Hullihan, who has insane balance and an incredible relationship to her standing leg—she’s like a tree. But it’s important to me to make sure I use her in other ways, to make sure I open up different experiences for her and not just give her the same roles.
DT: Do you create work with the audience’s reaction in mind?
JJ: I take it into consideration with a grain of salt. I know that if someone comes seeking a passive experience, he will probably find my work frustrating. But I’ve come to a place where I’ve realized that maybe my work isn’t for everyone. It’s not something I can control.
However, I am interested in interacting with communities that some say my work should never go to. For example, we performed Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking and Flat Out Lies in Helena, MT. There’s a moment when men dance in jockstraps and the women are topless. It’s supposed to be kind of vulgar—like a hip-hop video. Then it flips. But I didn’t want people to get too attached to that image, or anxiety-ridden, so that they thought about nothing else for the rest of the show. My thought was, “I want it to be crass and offensive, but not that offensive.” So I’ve learned to recalibrate the meter in certain situations. But I do feel that audiences are smarter and more adventurous than many people give them credit.
DT: Who was your biggest influence?
JJ: I saw Trisha Brown’s work in 1983, and it was a totally transformative experience. I explored many ideas in my early work that were derivative of hers. What I saw in her work became a teacher to me. And then I had to kill the teacher—which I think is a natural part of the process.
There were many teachers I met through the years: Lisa Kraus was amazing to work with early on. And though I didn’t have lengthy interactions with Eva Karczag, all were very inspiring moments.
I think that the structures of aesthetic patriarchy or matriarchy in the dance world have changed. It’s no longer, “I’m a student of my master”—similar to the world of Graham and her disciples or Cunningham and his disciples—but it’s, “I have 20 masters who I interact with.” There’s much more interconnectedness. I’m definitely a product of cross-pollination. DT
Photo by Alex Escalante; courtesy John Jasperse Company