John Jasperse and Nicholas Leichter View Artifice Through Different Lenses

Theater has always trafficked in illusion. The flesh-and-blood performers may be within touching distance, but reality has been leeched out of them. They are—and are not—“themselves.” Those aren’t shots of real bourbon the actor is knocking back. Fictions, as in life and politics, masquerade as truth.

In Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies, John Jasperse and his four terrific performers offer a witty and provocative web of dancing, acts, and images that test in bewitchingly eccentric ways our ability to distinguish between truth and lies and between real acts and simulated ones. The choreographer as trickster.

The first half of the work is dark, full of fog and shadows, although the magical lighting by Jasperse and Joe Levasseur makes the black sequined shifts worn by Erin Cornell and Eleanor Hullihan glitter almost alarmingly (costumes by Jasperse and Deanna Berg MacLean). To one side is a little “room,” whose single rear wall and floor are wallpapered with a rose pattern. The same print is used on the bikinis that the women strip down to, so they can behave as if they’re on a beach (we can’t hear their muted chatter, but their buttocks quiver minutely to convey its rhythm. What’s wrong with this picture?).

John Jasperse's "Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies"
Yi-Chun Wu
John Jasperse's "Truth, Revised Histories, Wishful Thinking, and Flat-Out Lies"
Monstah Black in Nicholas Leichter's "The Whiz: Obamaland"
Andrew Smrz
Monstah Black in Nicholas Leichter's "The Whiz: Obamaland"

Details

John Jasperse Company
Joyce Theater
June 16 through 19

Nicholas Leichter Dance
Abrons Arts Center
June 16 through 19

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In one of Jasperse’s cameo appearances, he attempts a single pirouette, each time over-explaining the reason he falls off-balance, even talking over the recorded voice of his patient teacher (Janet Panetta). Finally, he sort of masters this example of artifice and—unwilling to accept the fact that he’s a terrible turner—immediately decides he’s ready to attempt a double. Who’s he kidding? His magician act is equally lame, allowing us to grasp the desired illusion, even though we see where the balls appear from. (A genuine surprise comes later, when Neal Beasley ends a dance section by spitting out a ball we’d never have guessed he’s secreting.)

The piece layers the many variations of its theme. While Jasperse is pulling balls out of pockets, Hullihan and Kayvon Pourazar are immersed in a tango, to James Lo’s intriguing score (part recorded, part live, although we see no musicians at present). The tango’s elegant simulation of foreplay contrasts to what Pourazar then does with Cornell—a messier, more fumbly affair. The dancing throughout the piece is rich and juicy—its big, sweeping, slippery movements and canted spins sometimes veering almost out of control. But the performers’ apparent dizziness or laziness is as simulated as the invisible cigarettes they puff (just once) and the invisible drinks they not very convincingly sip. Jasperse even makes you wonder if the shifting flashes of unison dancing are carefully planned or accidental.

Inevitably, the piece skewers the fabricated sexy manners that are a crucial ingredient in show dancing. Tall, languorous Cornell and the shorter, spicier Hullihan—strutting in heels— are adept at conveying the style without overplaying it—as are Beasley with his whiplash body and Pourazar in his own softer way. “I want you to want me,” their prowling and hot stares proclaim. But, of course, they don’t. Not really.

One of the highlights of Truth is a mysterious sequence in which the two women, standing in place, execute in exacting synchrony a sequence of smooth balances on one leg or the other. All the time, Beasley and Pourazar, dressed from head to toe in black, with only part of their faces visible, crawl around and between them. They’re like the stagehands in Kabuki theater; we’re meant to pretend we don’t see them, even though we do. The men keep close, their moves echoing or accommodating to the shapes the women are creating, but no touching is involved. The effect is strangely erotic.

The post-intermission part of the piece is its “white act”: floor, back wall, costumes—all white. Now the four string players of the International Contemporary Ensemble are seated onstage (they’re wearing white clothes too). The centerpiece of this act is a fight between Cornell and Jasperse, which takes place on the floor, as if they’ve already knocked each other down. As in a slow-motion action sequence in a film, their every punch, jab, twist, push, and press happens smoothly and without apparent weight, although their silent howls and gritted teeth bespeak their rage and the illusory pain they’re inflicting and enduring. The climax to this highly artificed bout is a single real slap.

The visible and the invisible are queried in this half of Truthtoo. After the fight, dancers and musicians solemnly place large doilies over their heads for a while, like children who think that you can’t see them if they can’t see you.

The dancing that runs through both parts of this wonderful piece poses its own questions about reality and illusion. These performers are like us and not like us, like their own everyday selves and not. They’re also beautiful in the way their ease lies to us about the sweat and muscle work that attend it and the hours of rehearsal that brought it to life.

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