DANCE | A compelling John Jasperse piece at the Walker? Nope, “Wishful Thinking”

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At one point late in the John Jasperse Company’s Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat Out Lies, several performers are arrayed across the stage, posing frozen still, with large doilies covering their heads. I looked around at the audience and saw that one man was trying so hard not to laugh that he was almost in pain; he was covering his mouth and his face was turning red. Looking back at the dancers, I thought about the fact that we were sitting there watching grown men and women frozen in weird positions with doilies on their heads, and all of a sudden I had to struggle not to laugh myself. John Jasperse, I’m guessing, would have been okay with some laughing—and there could have been a lot more than some of it, because they hung out there wearing the doilies for a long time.

Truth, a new work commissioned from the NYC-based Jasperse by a coalition of presenters including the Walker Art Center, is a long (by contemporary dance standards) piece in which extended stretches of somber ensemble work are contrasted with and punctuated by—with unfortunately decreasing frequency—clownish vignettes. The opening movement, set to rapper Rick Ross’s “Where My Money (I Need That),” concludes with the four principal dancers (Neal Beasley, Erin Cornell, Eleanor Hullihan, Kayvon Pourazar) rapidly pursing and unpursing their sequined and spotlighted buttocks, sending sparkling reflections dancing across the floor. That sets an irreverent tone that the piece later veers wildly away from, but not in a manner that creates any sense of coherent progression.

truth, revised histories, wishful thinking, and flat out lies, presented through may 22 at the walker art center. for tickets ($25) and information, see walkerart.org.

There are points in the piece, particularly in the first half, when Jasperse and his dancers make the contrasts work: Jasperse (who personally joins the dancers at a number of points) performing sloppy sleight-of-hand tricks while dancers behind him perform an impassioned romantic duet; a moment near the opening when Jasperse plays the role of a hapless ballet dancer amist his butt-twitching troupe; and especially a scene in which a hauntingly beautiful tanning session on a pink floral-wallpaper beach transitions suddenly into a half-naked dance where the two women weave upright among the two tumbling men.

In the piece’s second half, though, the choreography drags both literally and figuratively to a halt. A striking change of scenery has the dancers joined by a string quartet—local musicians including the Orange Mighty Trio‘s Nicholas Gaudette, with composer Hahn Rowe performing offstage—and surrounded entirely by white walls, rather than the black curtains of the first half. Except for a slow-motion fight (as in punching, choking, and slapping), the second act trades the first act’s dynamic theatrics for fairly conventional contrapuntal ensemble work that fails to gain momentum. In that, it matches all too well Rowe’s moody, unexceptional music.

In his program notes, Jasperse explains that he created the piece to explore the titular themes of truth, deception, and illusion, with contrasting elements representing “bubbles of ‘realness,’ ‘fakery,’ and ‘beauty'” that are “built on the foundations of aesthetic manifetos which contradict one another.” It’s a fine idea, but crossing aesthetic boundaries is such a routine matter of course in contemporary choreography that to present theoretically incompatible styles in a single piece is not enough to make a piece interesting: there needs to be the kind of connective tissue that’s present only sporadically in the many sections of Truth.

In this piece, Jasperse’s M.O. regarding styles, aesthetics, and—by extension—versions of reality seems to be to kill ’em all and let God (meaning you) sort ’em out. In the notes, he asks regarding those ideas and realities: “Which are Real? Right? True? Beautiful? Can we tell? Do we care?” Well, since you ask…

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