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At 35, John Jasperse may be the prodigal son of the American dance family. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and performing with Lisa Kraus for two years, he left for Brussels in 1988 to dance with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's Rosas, commuting home to work with Jennifer Monson. Now based in New York, he's a savvy international success. His meticulously detailed, intellectual dances haunt and mesmerize viewers. His newest production, Madison as I imagine it, premiered in Utrecht, the Netherlands, April 16; it opens at Dance Theater Workshop May 6, and plays Houston's Diverse Works in the fall.
"My work situates itself somewhere between American postmodern dance and a tradition of European dance theater," explains the lanky, soft-spoken artist. His 1995 Excessories, which exploits dancers' sexual attributes in a dainty, deadpan way, received international acclaim and financial support: $7768.89 at the 1996 Rencontres Internationales Chorégraphiques de la Seine-Saint-Denis (a/k/a the Bagnolet), the $9982.50 choreography prize at the 1997 Suzanne Dellal International Dance Competition in Tel Aviv, and the 1997 Mouson award from Frankfurt, worth $17,295. Even so, he says, "We were hoping to have a fall tour, but it fell apart; the dollar was high, which made us more expensive. We're not receiving large amounts of state subsidy, so we have to meet costs with performance fees in a way that many companies of our size in Europe don't."
In his impeccably decorated Westbeth studio, he converses frankly about the realities choreographers face when operating internationally. He's shown his work in Mexico and across Europe, has been invited to Japan, has a commission at the American Dance Festival this summer, and another from Israel's Batsheva. "There is a sense of people seeking the new look. 'Who is the hot young thing?' This natural mechanism is a functional part of the presenters' job. They try to identify artists emblematic of a particular movement. People in Europe have grabbed onto my work because it isn't as formal as others; it poses certain kinds of questions, and still has qualities familiar to Europe, so there's a doorway in."
Jasperse has mixed feelings about his decision to work in New York. Had he remained in Brussels after leaving Rosas in 1989, he'd have had an easier time financially, but, he says, "Other parts of life need focus and attention, and those parts of myself are more easily connected into a New York environment than, say, a small city in Germany."
The economic situation in Europespecifically Franceleans in Jasperse's favor now. "For midsized companies doing relatively experimental work, the economy is much more vibrant. Presenters who used to do large-scale projects can no longer afford to do that, and have switched to [less expensive troupes]."
In the U.S., box-office success is a primary concern. Producers attempt to develop audiences by focusing on community interaction and ethnic diversity; Jasperse is a white guy, "and in the climate where there are very limited resources, it is much more difficult for someone doing the work I'm doing." These decisions, he thinks, filter down through the funding structure.
French artists, he observes, wouldn't conceive of working without financial support. "They have never done that. I think they're having a really difficult time because the bottom layer has been decimated in the interest of maintaining the choreographic centers." Funds are diminished now in France, but in the U.S., "the economic situation is fucked up... Young choreographers work for essentially nothing." The motivation of young American artists, not the money, holds the dance community here together; in Europe, when the funding is ripped out from under them, choreographers are more likely to quit.
"I'm a very small piece of a very large picture," says Jasperse. "I can try to make work that has honesty and integrity and hopefully will be evocative to audiences. That's all I can do."
Madison as I imagine it attempts to shed light on circumstances that may otherwise seem impossible. Jasperse's choreographic scenario in the piece may reveal larger, real-life concerns. When two of his dancers find themselves entangled in a mess of string and buckets, he comes to their rescue with a pair of scissors and a pocketful of pennies.