Choreographer John Jasperse’s interest in the human experience of getting lost in a visceral moment finds its expression through movement in a new dance piece, “Canyon.”
Jasperse will bring his new work-in-progress for a performance at Mass MoCA as he prepares for a debut at the Philly Fringe Festival in September. “Canyon” will be performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m.
One of Jasperse’s goals with the performance is to address the language of dance itself, and its ability to express what cannot be expressed in words, but in a legible fashion that even a casual, non-dancing obsessed audience member could follow.
“People often look at dance as this symbol set,” Jasperse said. “They’re like, ‘well, what does it mean?’ as if all the movements were some kind of encrypted script, yet somehow they’re at a disadvantage because nobody gave them the code. I think it creates an inherently frustrating relationship to dance for some people. I think that imparts a feeling where you have to go one way or another, you have say that the work isn’t interesting or that I’m stupid, somehow.”
Jasperse suggests that to view and appreciate dance is to access a capability that most of us have when newborn, an engagement in pure movement on its own terms. Think of a baby in a crib, watching a mobile. The action of the mobile translates into nothing further than what it is — the movement is the language.
“Babies get really engaged in the movement of forms and color,” said Jasperse, “and there’s a sensibility of viewing that’s so inherently human that comes very early on that babies have a real ease in engaging in. Somehow in the process of socializing and becoming linguistic and what not, we lose a connection to our capacity to be informed in that way. I think dance is one of the forms that reconnects you back to that or has the potential to.”
Jasperse sees this as the beginning of thought about what exactly intelligence is. Could it be that the way adult human beings consider intelligence is not the only way to engage in the world and by using analysis of language as the standard, actually cuts us off from some communication beyond our systems? Perhaps — and Jasperse sees dance as a way to reconnect with those more abstract forms of understanding and communication.
“I guess one of the things that happened over the years is understanding that one of the reasons that’s very challenging in dance is because dance is an inherently poetic form and it resists language in a certain kind of way,” he said. “That actually is part of its power rather than its problem. With this piece, I really wanted to take that aspect and say, ‘OK, well there’s something that can be very evocative and captivating and [a] visceral experience and you may not necessarily understand it in the traditional use of the word ‘understanding.’ ” Part of Jasperse’s challenge was to redefine what is most commonly thought of as a visceral experience — that is, solely as an intense one that, to Jasperse, seems a reaction to a physical disconnect from our own being.
“There’s a whole culture of extreme sports that is looking for this very, very, very high volume visceral experience, and I’m also really interested in the low-volume ones,” Jasperse said. “What’s ended up happening in our culture is that we’ve gotten so connected to things like information and visual experiences through projection of images that we’ve [lost] a kind of connection to our body. One of the reasons why extreme sports emerged was like a desperate plea to get back to feeling our body because we’ve lost all feeling of it.”
Jasperse and his dancers must take that inner reality, bring it out in movement and then offer it to others in such a way that it seeps back inside their psyche — a full experience come full circle. Getting that across to a theater audience begs a certain amount of empathy be injected into the performance that stems from witnessing the sensory overload in others — as reflected through the dance performance — rather than experiencing it themselves.
“We’re in a situation where we’re doing a piece where people are sitting down, it’s not an installation environment,” said Jasperse. “My capacity to overload the senses of the public is a little bit muted, so it requires setting up a paradigm where the public invests in how they’re looking more than being just totally passive. Kind of like overload my senses in a way that you would think about it in terms of you enter an Imax 3D movie.”
Jasperse addresses this by orchestrating various systems into a working whole that defines the experience — micro-organization in order to build a complete body.
“Choreography is the writing of organization over time, so you can think about it like a novel without narrative and without characters,” he said. “There’s still this sense of progression and how you’re organizing time and how you’re organizing events in time. A lot of the meat of it really, to me, has to do with how things unfold in that kind of a way.”
Jasperse doesn’t mean a clear linear progression, but an accumulation through time that builds connections in the viewers’ brains. “The experience of watching the piece accumulates so that something that is happening later in the dance reminds you back,” Jasperse said, “and so it brings back these recent memories of things that happened half an hour ago or fifteen minutes ago and there are possibilities of you creating co-relationships in that sort of way.”
Jasperse compares dance to math and literature, with the understanding that one plus one might clearly equal two, but the information that leads to the culmination of a dance program might be less clear and more in the realm of interpretation. It’s not a concrete conclusion, and it’s that language of the elusive that dance is designed to address.
“I think dance is cumulative in a way,” said Jasperse. “You may not understand it in the way you understand a novel, but you might experience it in the way that you experience being in a hurricane, that it has form, that it affects you, and that it changes you, but at the end there may not be anything to understand in that traditional sense, but it doesn’t make it any less reverent.”