With “California,” John Jasperse looks apprehensively at a future less golden
By GUS SOLOMONS JR.
In his new “California,” which had its New York premiere at BAM Harvey Theater this December, John Jasperse delivers his usual depth of detail, powerful intention and intellectually rigorous choreographic process, and his recently reformed company performs with all the concentration and technical sure-footedness the measured movement demands.
Architect Ammar Eloueini has provided a stunning, translucent, hanging sculpture, made of trapezoidal plastic panels hooked together with metal rings and shaped into a three dimensional cloud, menacing the dancing floor below.
On four grand pianos that corner the stage, Anthony Coleman, Jenny Lin, Lisa Moore and Antony Widoff perform Jonathan Bepler’s sparse, atmospheric score. The composer and Willa Bepler, Matt Rocker and Daniel Teige from time to time tweak inside the pianos—the lids have been removed—while the pianists plunk the keys. Otherwise, stationed at low tables adjacent to the pianos, they create live sound effects—water dripping, fabric tearing, footsteps, creaks and crashes, like Foley artists in movies.
Jasperse paints searing images that the California Chamber of Commerce would not endorse—this is the California of natural and human disasters, not celebrities and sun. California as the cultural barometer. Onstage, the dancers, dressed like the musicians in dark green coveralls, tiptoe with measured insistence in linear paths. They move slowly, intensely, seemingly relaxed but using enormous control and risking calamity, like the duet for Eleanor Hullihan and Steven Fetherhuff, in which the two dancers maintain physical contact throughout, each trying to leverage the other into his route. This pairing, reprised at the climax, is by far the most vehement, kinetically exciting passage.
A lot of Jasperse’s characteristic movement is shaped into prone phrases, like his opening solo, where he inches his lanky body across the stage like a caterpillar, while the other dancers take turns zapping the cloud with blasts from electric leaf blowers, causing it to do its own lumbering choreography in midair. Harsh scoop lights, designed by Joe Levasseur and Jasperse, throw the moving shadow of the sculpture on the floor.
After Jasperse’s slithering solo early in the hour-long piece, he returns in a robotic one, like a mechanical predator with his hawk-like black eyes gawking and feet twisting on the ground, dowsing for grubs. He ends the solo by collapsing slowly to the floor, as the others dismember the sculpture by pulling strings, as if unlacing a corset, causing it to fall into three limp segments.
The subsequent trio of Fetherhuff, Katie Pyle and Rachel Poirier repeats the theme of individuals struggling to assert their own wills, while staying physically bound to others. After Fetherhuff breaks free, the two women unzip Jasperse’s jumpsuit into two halves and strip it off his inert body. Pyle in her coveralls supports Jasperse, now wearing delicate patchwork underwear, in a tenderly intimate duet. Their relationship is ambiguous—traditional male-female roles are first reversed with her supporting him, and then obliterated as either she gradually assumes his identity or he infects her with it. Their bodies entwine on the ground.
Later, the other dancers, in a glacial passage that takes them more than five minutes to rise from prone to standing, similarly disrobe, turning from pupae into adults of their species in variegated lingerie. Here, the choreography stalls slightly, giving us too little new information or intensity to sustain us. But in a work that’s not intended to be particularly audience-friendly, this is a minor glitch. Jasperse has the courage of his dark conviction and doesn’t pander.
In the final scene of catastrophe, the moribund bodies of the dancers and their cast-off outer skins lie strewn on the floor and the sculpture hangs defunct; the Foley musicians knock over their stands with thunderously amplified crashes, spilling golf, ping pong and baseballs into the space. It’s the aftermath of things gone awry. The slightly protracted final fade-out forces us to ponder: what now, what next?
“California” offers up a message not pretty but sharply reflective, perhaps, of the kettle of fish into which our culture has currently sunk—high art with a pungent political edge.