“It feels to me like the difficulty of the conversation is actually the difficulty of the piece.” Lauren Bakst talks with choreographer John Jasperse about his forthcoming work Canyon.
Choreographer John Jasperse is currently in the process of developing his latest piece, Canyon —a work that, to quote John, “involves disorientation as a fundamental experience.” I had a chance to see a showing of the work in process in late June and to be a part of a feedback discussion that followed. Needless to say, the fundamental disorientation of Canyon was abounding within the group’s conversation as we fumbled through the space between language and experience, trying our best to respond to what we had just seen. I spoke with John over the phone a couple of weeks later while he was teaching at The American Dance Festival in Durham, NC. Our conversation revolved in and around the paradox of attempting to articulate that which is meant to be inarticulate. Even now as I try to provide you, dear reader, with a bit of descriptive information to guide your understanding of the work and our conversation, I struggle.
The version of Canyon I saw in late June begins with six dancers, Jasperse included, jumping and gliding across the space to form a celebratory and virtuosic ensemble—one that is only somewhat disrupted and made absurd by a tall, orange construction flag waving erratically while strapped to the back of performer James McGinn. This beginning sequence cannot help but reference a particular formal and classical approach to modern dance. It bears a certain historical familiarity that conjures up an uncanny sentimentality—that feeling of having seen something before, but not quite being able to place its origin. The opening dance reaches its climax as each performer finds stillness in the space. With arms stretched towards the floor, palms open and searching, eyes shifting in and out of focus, they each inhabit and revel in the residual experience of all that has come before. Slowly, the traces transform and the solid ground that was so sturdily built by the collectivity of the ensemble begins to shift. The foundation is shaky, the earth is cracking, and new structures emerge from the spaces created by the rifts and the holes and the gaps. While Canyon may begin inside of a form that remains somewhat describable, it slips ever so quickly into an unrecognizable terrain, a space of the unknown.
Similarly to Canyon, my conversation with John traverses a vast terrain of subject matter, ranging from the paradoxes of visceral experience to the smallest detail in the architecture of a proscenium stage. Among other things, John articulates the difference between a detail and a defect, discusses his aging body, and questions the line between process and performance.
Lauren Bakst I wanted to start by referencing an idea from the written description of Canyon —“the transformative power of losing oneself in visceral experience.” It’s an idea I’ve heard you talk about before—the notion that if language restricts experience, then dance is potentially a place where the experiential can take over. I was wondering if that has been a point of research for you in this process, and if so, have you found moments of rapture or catharsis inside of that research? What have you found?
John Jasperse What have I found? (laughter) You know, it’s interesting. I will come clean in stating that, as you probably know, my relationship to dancing is really complicated. I’ve had moments in this field where I’ve really connected to those kinds of ideas and other times when I’ve really distanced myself from them and not trusted visceral experience so to speak. This piece comes from a desire to really trust that and to go deeper into my connection to why I’m dancing, to why I started dancing, to try and return to that. I think that there are moments . . . there are definitely moments that surprise me. I mean, here we are opening the piece with this jumping movement that feels very different to me. While it’s known in terms of the history of dance, it’s not a big part of my experience of it. So there was something really great about that and allowing myself that permission to not censor it because of a preconceived idea about what that was or my ability to invest in it. And I think that’s actually a really generative space.
LB I agree. That beginning is interesting to me because within the formality, and the jumping, and the verticality, there seems to be the potential for . . . I don’t know if I want to go as far as rapture . . . but a kind of heightened visceral experience that is different from when the work is in an embodied state of crumbling, or disintegration—a state that I might more readily associate with visceral experience. But I don’t know, I feel like those things have the potential to shift depending on how you’re relating to them.
JJ There’s a sense of ensemble in that beginning, and while that ensemble is complex, it’s also very grounded in orientation. Like you gotta know where you are and you gotta know what the organizational system of the group is in order to not collide and all of those kinds of things. And so, it represents a grounding in a particular kind of organizational system of the ensemble, and I think there are other places in the piece where that opens up, where those systems of how the group is organized together get released. There’s a release from them and in that, there’s maybe a space to . . . I mean, I sort of hesitate to use the language of crumbling because I feel like inside of that language is the idea that the thing is falling apart rather than the thing is opening up, and so disorder becomes a kind of a negative space rather than a space that allows for more possibility.
LB Because the title Canyon references an opening of space rather than a preexisting space, and because the structure of the piece begins with a cohesive ensemble that then opens out, there is the potential for those hierarchies to shift, where the former is not necessarily positive and the latter negative. Maybe those dichotomies of value don’t even apply.
JJ I will admit that there’s been some kind of feeling in the development of the work that when things open up, there’s immediately this tendency to feel the crumbling. To me, that relates to this residue, to the difficulty of really letting go. Because the moment that it becomes disordered or unformed, there’s this implicit judgment of: oh things are falling apart, and that is pretty deep in us. So I continue to ask myself: is it necessary that it go to that kind of a value? Is there something about what we’re doing that’s causing it to do that? And I’m not sure that I necessarily know the answer to it yet. I mean, we’ll see, we’ll see.
LB I was curious about something you mentioned in the showing which touched on the fact that there’s not necessarily a lot of physical contact among the dancers within the work. I noticed that when there is, it feels like a kind of curiosity about touch and an instinct to touch. I was wondering if that references back to some of the work you were doing at the American Dance Festival last summer with squeezing and creating material from that kind of sensation.
JJ Yeah, I think so. There is one place in the piece where the squeezing has kind of remained. To me, it’s a place where not only from the inside but also the outside, there’s a loss of orientation. It’s like, Well what exactly am I squeezing? And whose arm or whose leg is this? And how does the formation of the group delineate into bodies of this person versus that person versus that person? It becomes like a mass that’s engaged in this sensorial task. And without it being specifically sexual, I do think that there’s something a bit orgiastic about it, in that the sensation is very much about something I’m giving and something I’m getting but it’s not delineated into: oh I’m giving it to Lauren versus somebody else. And where I’m receiving it from is also not necessarily fully identified. So it’s like both the giving of the sensation and the getting of it exist independent of the individual exchange. And there’s something interesting to me about that. It becomes separated out because of its lack of connectivity to a larger thing. It becomes, pure is the wrong word, separated out maybe is the better word, because it becomes dislocated and independent.
LB It’s like because you’re unable to be aware of who is who, there is the potential for the losing of oneself that is perhaps different from the more formal, ensemble work where one has to constantly be aware of their location in relation to a particular other person in space.
JJ There have been funny things that have come up in this process. Complexity is like a double edged journey, or a bidirectional journey. One way of losing oneself is by going deeper into the complexity, so that I’m having to add on more and more and more awareness of where I am so that at some moment, the process of going into the complexity allows me to lose myself in the form.
LB There’s such specificity to how you craft movement material in relationship to conceptual ideas that you’re working with. What was the process of generating the material for this work? Has it been different from other projects in the past?
JJ I will say that intuition has played a role in this piece. These ideas have really pushed this piece into dancing, and then sometimes now, even talking about them is actually more challenging. There has been a process where what brought me to making decisions has manifested a performance, or a piece, and sometimes I wonder, Well what is this piece as separate from the process that brought me here? Maybe there are some aspects of the piece that I don’t fully necessarily understand yet, because they have qualitative aspects that aren’t necessarily about the process that brought me to making them. In a way, it was like, I want to commit to dance as a possibility of shaping experience. So that’s a viewpoint of how I’m going to go about making something and I trust that. But through that process something emerges, and my question is: is the primary experience one of understanding some aspect of what led me to this? Or, is there something that has emerged that I actually am not so aware of that is more the primary quality of the piece at this point? And I don’t know the answer to that yet, so it feels really different in that regard. Here we are talking about these language ideas and I think back to the actual piece and I’m like, Are we actually doing that? Or are we doing something else? And if we’re doing something else, what is it that we’re doing? And so, I’m in that process of trying to really understand what it was that got us to where we are, but also trying to understand where it is we are.
LB For many projects you’ve been both inside your work as a performer and on the outside of it as the director. If there comes a point where you’re able to let go of the directing and be inside of the work itself, it seems like that could be a place where those unknown aspects emerge and become experience.
JJ Right, yeah, but I mean I’m still very much the director in this one, so that’s a fight. It’s also a fight that’s confusing in relationship to my body, because there is material in this project—like many other ones—that’s not so appropriate for my body anymore, and that’s really interesting and confusing for me. Here I am talking about visceral experience, but at the same time, I’ve created material that my body can’t necessarily do. (laughter) Or that it can do in small segments but not necessarily for an hour. That places me not only outside of the experience as a director but physiologically outside of the experience in some kind of a way. I wonder whether that actually forces the piece into something else, something different than what I originally thought we were talking about, I don’t know. But I was just thinking about that, you know, I am a figure that is not a central figure in this piece, you know, my body, so to speak.
LB But I feel like even in the beginning, with James wearing the long, orange, construction-like flag while dancing, whereas the rest of you are not, he also exists in a different way. And even though he is in the same age range as the other performers, he moves very differently. So I feel like there are varying levels of difference that exist throughout the ensemble.
JJ One of the things I have felt pretty committed to in this project was that we can be different. We don’t have to be the same. It felt really important to me that visceral experience is not limited to the young. There’s a way in which I can go into experience, and while it may not be the same experience, the set of experiences might be different and the way in which I can engage in it might change, it doesn’t exclude me. It’s not like somehow I get to a certain place in life and I am no longer able to have a connection to my body. For me, I feel like that has been something of my trajectory to dance. I feel like, ironically, one of the things that made me interested in this project was the feeling that that exact phenomenon was beginning to occur to me, where I had basically felt like: as my body is changing, instead of it feeling like it’s growing, it feeling like it’s moving away from me. So in this process, I was really hoping to try and find a way for that to be just a shift into a different location, rather than a sense of loss. And at the same time, opening space for all of these things that somebody who is twenty-three years old can have as well. It was about trying to create an inclusive space, rather than an exclusive one.
LB I think it’s the wide range of bodily experience, whether it’s the highly choreographed jumping or the kind of mobius, amoeba-like group of bodies, that allows for such a range of entry points into the experience of the work.
JJ Uh huh.
LB Watching the work in process, it feels like the ground is consistently shifting within the piece, almost out from under your feet. Is there a particular notion of landscape inside of the work, both in the making or in the performing? How does that relate to the landscape of the visual design that you’re working with?
JJ One of the things that we have been grappling with all along in that regard, with myself and with Tony Orrico, who is working on the visual design, is the sense of the proscenium, at least in the two venues where we’re premiering the piece and where we’ll perform it in New York—they’re very much proscenium venues. They’re architectures that ground you in a very particular way. There’s a focal point that’s reaffirmed by the entire architecture that is not democratic. It’s very hierarchical. It pushes your vision into a particular direction into a point in space. There’s a sense of the center of the space. There’s symmetrically built into it. So in a way, there were two different things that we were trying to do, and one of them in terms of the design was to push away from an idea of center, or push away from an idea of front. I don’t know where we’re exactly going to land in relationship to that. Another thing I feel really clear about is this aspect of capitalizing on incidental details that are built into the architecture of the space, and treating them as much more prominent or important. We’re trying to pull out details, like a defect of a seam that is just part of how the floor is laid out, a detail that is supposed to somehow be invisible to you. We’re trying to use aspects of the design to highlight something that you’re being encouraged by the architecture to ignore. The drawing that Tony’s doing is really capitalizing on those kinds of things, taking an aspect that’s preexisting and riffing on a structure out from that, but without focusing on the prominent, hierarchical aspects of the structure.
LB That seems to relate very directly to the choreography of the work, and the way it allows for the audience to zoom in to these embodied details that feel like they’re always already there, but perhaps usually go unnoticed.
JJ It’s also about asking, What’s the difference between a detail and a defect? You know, in a way, a defect takes a hierarchical system, there’s this piece that somehow doesn’t fit in. So normally in our perception we either try to mask that or we ignore it. The idea is to say that there’s no such thing as a defect. To try and move us from a space where there’s a potential for defect to a space where it’s impossible to say that anything is a defect, because there’s no one prominent organizational system which would allow you the ability to say that. So then that becomes the organizational system—the organizational system is one of inclusivity rather than exclusivity.
JJ Something that’s been really interesting and curious to me in talking about this is the whole space of confusion around making a work that involves disorientation as a fundamental experience, and then thinking about how you’re crafting or organizing that, and then the act of actually having to speak about that. It’s very interesting, like how does one move forward productively? Like one would say, Well how do you clarify that confusion? How do you deepen what it is? And so it’s very interesting to me, it feels kind of circular. A circular place where you get into a feedback loop that is very difficult. It’s very difficult to talk about it without it beginning to feel like a judgment around it. That’s interesting to me.
LB That reminds of being in your class and the experience of moving through your phrase material that is so highly specific and choreographed in terms of the architecture of the body, but then once you’re able to let go of thinking about it, it yields an experience of disorientation, of not knowing where one is inside of a very particular form. I feel like that is apparent to me in having seen Canyon in process. It’s interesting to see how that kind of confusion emerges from something that is very specific.
JJ I feel like it’s kind of a journey between these two things. That’s not a very articulate way of describing it. I guess one of the things I’m struggling with in this conversation is a question of how do you become articulate about something that is intrinsically not about articulated-ness. It’s about experiential totality.
LB Right, how do you talk about something that is actually designed to resist language?
JJ Well, because talking is in a way about parsing a concept out into language, and if the concept itself is about not parsing something out, not delineating it into all these different facets and organizing them hierarchically but instead it’s sort of like the swimming of a protozoa in the primordial soup. (laughter) It feels to me like the difficulty of the conversation is actually the difficulty of the piece.
Lauren Bakst is a dance artist and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.