John Jasperse on dance, gender and time at Harvard

by Jihyun Ro

John Jasperse is an acclaimed contemporary choreographer and the artist-in-residence for the OFA dance program this fall. He has been working with both student choreographers and dancers for the Harvard Dance Program Winter Performances 2012, which will run from November 29t to December 1 at the Harvard Dance Center. I spoke with Jasperse about his dance background, his views on issues in his field and his work with Harvard dancers.

Could you give me a quick debriefing of your residency here and the projects you’re working on?

Basically I’m doing two different things—I’m working with two emerging choreographers as a mentor, and they’ve been involved in the process of creating a short work. It’s a really interesting process because it requires you to step out of your own aesthetic biases and try and get into the headspace of somebody else who is at a very different point in the trajectory of their development as an artist. That’s been a nice process, especially here at Harvard, because it’s not a conservatory situation, so you have a lot of different people coming from different backgrounds, who are not the typical sort of person I would be working with.

And then I’ve been making a work with students—I’m used to doing that as well, but I’m used to working in a very concentrated framework, which is quite challenging for the schedule of people at Harvard. So we’ve come up with an experimental structure that I’ve never worked with before, where I’ve subdivided the group into six autonomous groups. Out of that structure has come individual subgroupings that have their own material sets and identity, and we’ve created a kind of conceptual parade structure—it doesn’t have the flavor of a parade, but rather deals with this passage through the fixed space of the spectator, and there’s hopefully a little bit of an awareness that we’re trying to draw from people as a parade into the expanded space. We’re trying to draw the attention to the expanded performance arena that includes spaces that people are not actually able to see.

How has the process been working with students who aren’t completely involved in dance but are still very interested in the field?

I’ve done a lot of work in liberal arts situations where you see more of an active practice in dance as a part of the curriculum, but still an awareness of the fact that the majority of people will not end up becoming professional dancers. I was interested in thinking of dance as an art-making practice first and foremost, and to me all of these issues that are about ideas about how you sit in the world, those are really interconnected issues in dance but also extend towards the greater art community and how you want to make a responsible citizen. Harvard has that tradition of the extracurricular, well-rounded individual, and many of the students I’m working with do have a dance background and history. So much of that has been in a classical form, which is western classical ballet more often than not. There are very few people who have extended practice in contemporary dance. So even with the people who have more physical experience, there’s something that I bring that’s specific to my own research, which for them can be very new. That’s also very interesting, even on a kind of experience of "what could dancing be?" "What could dance making be?" It’s definitely about literacy in contemporary dance culture.

How would you characterize your dance style and the way that you approach your specific form of dance?

I’d like to differentiate between making and physical practice. I’ve always tried to acknowledge that I’ve had certain tools in terms of how I understand the body to function, and how I can think about helpful movement. I’m also really interested in the idea that style is a tool as well, so I don’t want to be particularly constrained within one style of making movement, although it’s true that it’s difficult to escape that. When I’m talking about physical practice, I’ve studied classical ballet, traditional modern dance techniques, but most of the work that I’ve done since has been in these forms that have emerged largely in downtown New York.

So I think that oftentimes dance is stereotyped as a female practice. As a professional male practitioner working in this field, how has your experience been?

There are various threads that go through the trajectory of my work, one of which has to do with sexuality and gender and embodiment. The irony of being in dance is that when you go to a dance class, 95 percent of the people are women, and then you move into a professional dance company and 50 percent are women. You look at the professional choreographers touring or directors of programs, and you see an even higher ratio of men. That’s not just by chance. It’s always been unfathomable to me the degree to which sexism has been embedded in this field. The quest for a more egalitarian space, where we’re not somehow constrained in the ways that sexism has constrained us, has been a big part of my work. The only thing I can do is to act as a man in the world in a particular way, and so in that sense hopefully those kinds of concerns and ideologies are there in my work.

How did your personal journey to become the choreographer you are now take place?

I had a liberal arts education at Sarah Lawrence University, and I moved to New York and began making my own work. I was extremely influenced by the work of Trisha Brown in the mid-‘80s, and wanted to be a part of that company but never got in. I think that was very fortuitous in the end because it forced me to figure out how to process my own ideas through my own voice. And then I had a lot of involvement in an international community, where ideas from American postmodernism in the ‘60s was reinvented in the ‘90s in different kinds of forms of dance that touched on value systems that were much more to do with the visual arts. I’ve been very lucky because I’ve been at key moments in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing. I’ve thought about that as a personal growth strategy, and sometimes what I need to do for my personal growth has had an uncanny symbiosis with what the world wants to see at that given moment.

Have you enjoyed your time spent here working with students at Harvard?

Absolutely. I think the challenge for me has been the fracturedness of this experience, and I have a desire for it to be much more holistic, I won’t deny that. Also I firmly believe that you gain a lot of strength from responding to circumstance. There’s something really interesting about going into a situation and seeing the window of opportunity, and responding to that, and seeing what I can do here. Hopefully I’ve made some good choices in relationship to that, and I guess only time will tell.

[Caption: Harvard students performing John Jasperse's choreography. PHOTO: Liza Voll]

[Caption: John Jasperse. PHOTO: Chris Taggart]