(all photos by Julieta Cervantes).
Last night I went to see experimental choreographer John Jasperse‘s new work “Misuse Liable to Prosecution” at BAM’s Harvey theater in Brooklyn. Fun night! I went with Tony Schultz from the Winger, and we met up with some of his friends, one of whom is Ashley Byler, an up and coming choreographer who also contributes to the Winger and just landed a coveted residency at experimental dance venue Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea. (Her first show will be in May.) We all went out for drinks and little foodie things afterward at nearby Scopello, which I loved. Very good food, spacious comfy area and very decent prices. I guess this is why people live in the outer boroughs… Everyone was so smart and it was a great time hanging out and talking about dance and art and Jasperse and Chuck Close and Labannotation, and all kinds of compelling stuff! I didn’t get home until early this morning, which is why I’m late with my review…
Anyway, Jasperse. Ashley and Tony loved it, I liked but didn’t love it, but thought certain parts were brilliant. According to the program notes, Jasperse began with the idea, “What is it like to exist in a capitalist society with little or no capital?” Sets and props are comprised of other people’s discarded items — clothes hangers, brooms, milk crates, bottles, etc., which Jasperse and his group of four dancers seek to re-invent, finding new, poetic meaning in society’s refuse. So, I guess by finding new uses and meaning in what society deems trash, while starting with the initial capitalist question, he is in a roundabout way perhaps questioning what a capitalist society finds meaningful (work that produces money) and what it doesn’t (experimental art / art in general).
I felt that the most brilliant reinvention of trash was the set. As I walked into the theater, my eye was immediately drawn to the stage, which looked ablaze with gleaming white holiday lights weaved into some kind of intricate snowflake formation. It was really breathtaking. Once I sat down and looked more closely though, I realized the Christmas lights were actually about 1,000 ordinary clear plastic clothes hangers. The way the plastic was lit by stage lights produced the glowing effect. It reminded of a sculpture I once saw in an American exhibit in the then newly-opened Kiasma Museum of contemporary art in Helsinki. From afar this striking piece hanging from the ceiling looked like a gorgeous chandelier. But on closer inspection I realized it was made entirely of chicken bones, which made me momentarily disgusted. I had to walk away, but I then kept returning to that piece, it was so jarringly mesmerizing. When I first saw the coat hanger sculpture, part of which hung quite close to the stage, forcing the dancers to interact with pieces of it, I thought it was brilliant. I felt that the movement, though, just didn’t rise to that same level.
As four dancers walked slowly around the stage carefully balancing several tied-together broomsticks on their heads, Jasperse came up front, sat on a milk crate (the name of the work, by the way, comes from a warning on a milk crate, which is really rather funny when you think about it — what possible wrongful, prosecution-inducing uses are there for a milk crate?), propped an orange traffic cone on top of a broomstick, and used the cone as a bullhorn reading various economic statistics through it: Judge Judy’s salary is something like $26 million more than that of all of the United States Supreme Court justices combined (which enrages me), employees of small arthouse BAM make half of what those of Manhattan’s posh Lincoln Center do, how much our government spends on the Iraq war as compared to funding for the arts (don’t even ask), how much money Jasperse makes ($26,000), and his various expenses, including those involved in transporting props to the studio, rehearsal space fees, food, and, most audience-wowing, his apartment — $500 a month, in the Village! Well, that’s certainly a thing of value, Mr. Jasperse! (For non-New Yorkers, the average teensy one-bedroom in the Village is currently going for $3350, says my friend who is looking.)
Anyway, after these stats are read, Mr. Jasperse joins the other dancers interacting with various props. Music is played by a woman (musician Zeena Parkins) standing off to the side wearing a mini-dress made of FedEx envelopes who plays a homemade industrial-looking harp. Bagpipes occasionally sound from above, from musicians standing on the balcony sides.
Some of my favorite moments: a dancer brings Mr. Jasperse a large box containing an item he seems to have purchased. He opens the box, finds a bean bag chair. He takes the chair out and looks quizzically at it, as the dancer throws the open box over his head. He takes the box off and begins playing with the bean bag chair, eventually with others, who throw it at each other like a giant hacky sack. Eventually, when the players tire of the game, Jasperse winds up with the bean bag chair over his head, walking around stage completely unable to see or breathe, stumbling into the clothes hanger sculpture. So, it’s like he’s been consumed by his own consumption.
Another favorite moment: four dancers take off their jeans. They then sit down on the ground and meticulously begin to fold the pants, like you see Banana Republic and Gap employees often doing. As soon as they’ve smoothed them all out, ready to be presented to the customer on the display table, the dancers lie down on them, use them as bed and blanket, wend their feet through the pants legs, eventually getting all tangled up. They then rise, untangle themselves, take the pants in one hand, grab the bottom of a leg, and begin whirling them around over head like a lasso. They whip the pants at the floor, each other, and eventually into the back wall. I saw in this well-founded anger at all those horrendous chain stores that have completely taken over and all but ruined parts of the city like SoHo, which, for non-New Yorkers, used to be the gallery district and is now basically a mall.
At another point, a male and female dancer take a clothes line on which several garments are hung, lie down, and, using only their feet, somehow weave the clothes all into the woman’s top. She ends up a Humpty-Dumpty-esque literal “stuffed shirt.”
A part the audience found amazing, judging by the ooohs and aaaahs: two women roll out a sheet as if they’re about to have a picnic. They disappear into the wings and return with several water bottles, which they put onto their picnic cloth. They disappear again, making me think they were going to get their baskets filled with food. But instead they return with more bottles, then more and more, until it’s not they who are having a picnic at all but the water bottles themselves. They then lie on the sheets amongst the bottles, and, using only their feet and legs, scrunch up the sheet so that eventually they have several water bottles lined up between their legs. They lift their legs in the air, rotate them, the bottles still held tightly between legs, then one by one deposit each bottle into the sheet, still using only their legs. I guess it is a difficult feat, but what was this supposed to mean? At another point, one which takes up a large part of the whole, a mattress is brought out and dancers thrash themselves at it, the mattress eventually enveloping a dancer as had the bean bag chair earlier. But the bean bag chair had arrived in a box, so it was like a purchase; the mattress was just lugged out onstage. A lot of these kinds of uses of the props were comical and interesting and involved difficult feats using entwined limbs, but some of them I couldn’t figure any meaning into, and none had the poetry of the clothes hanger set.
At the end, Jasperse returns to his traffic-cone megaphone and tells the audience that he couldn’t really figure out how to end the piece. He thought of lining the theater’s edges with explosives and setting them off like firecrackers so that the walls would fall like dominoes and the ceiling would open up so we could see the sky. The audience cracked up at this. Realizing that wouldn’t do, he asked us all to take a deep breath and open our imaginations instead. He gave us a moment to do so, then told us all he hoped we enjoyed the rest of our evenings. It felt like the end of a yoga class.
I guess it’s kind of one of those things where everyone takes away something different. Here’s Counter Critic’s review, and here’s Jennifer Dunning’s in the Times. It’s showing tonight and tomorrow, go here for tix.