At the end of John Jasperse’s new Giant Empty, he moves smallish wooden blocks—square and rectangular—toward the BAM Harvey audience. Is it only coincidence that the blocks appear to take on the shape of the lower tip of Manhattan? Jasperse’s dancers frequently inhabit dangerous and unforeseeably altering environments.
Giant Empty‘s set, designed by Matthias Bringmann, surrounds Jasperse, Parker Lutz, Juliette Mapp, and Miguel Gutierrez on three sides with walls of hanging ropes. Briefly, other ropes descend whirling, and then retract. At the end of the piece, the black floor begins to puff up; the four dance stoically amid the billows. Michael Floyd’s sound mix buffets them, now with a distant aria, now with thunderous eruptions. Stan Pressner’s lighting is equally unpredictable.
The curious activities and the performers’ almost numb demeanor suggest a dogged existence lived between unforeseen disasters. Everything these people try gets undone or abandoned. Mapp carefully advances along a diagonal path of blocks. When she comes to the end, she starts reaching behind herself to move blocks ahead. Soon she can’t retreat, but neither does she continue; she just steps onto a floor we’ve come to imagine is dangerous and walks away. Mapp ties garment after garment to her body until her torso resembles a lumpy bundle; the others appear similarly dressed, then go away and come back in their usual patterned clothes (by Trosman-Churba). Jasperse and Gutierrez crawl under a loose piece of flooring and emerge naked; their dance (an expanded version of the duet in the earlier Fort Blossom) is like a mating ritual that never accelerates or reaches a climax; the men meditatively present their buttocks to each other, Gutierrez sliding down Jasperse’s proffered arm, or Jasperse rocking on Gutierrez’s upraised feet.
You’re almost surprised when these people dance in unison or follow one another in a canon, so fragile is their ability to adhere to anything. After a long session of arm swinging, they begin to cluster, but because their arms are almost always straight, they intersect without embracing or entwining. That they are very strong dancers makes their precise, yet loose and diffident movements seem ineffably sad.
Gutierrez and Lutz also graced Sarah Michelson’s crazy-smart Group Experience last month. No chairs on the bleachers in P.S. 122’s intimate downstairs theater. It feels as if we’re parked on a hill watching a highly eccentric bunch of picnickers going about their business on a turf of white carpet. On our level, Nancy Alfaro sits knitting a scarf that trails about 10 feet.
The curious actions in this cannily organized sprawl of a show could be off-kilter equivalents of events in our society. There’s the task or exam. Clumped and facing us, the performers stand on tiptoe. Forever. We come to know who has excellent balance (Gutierrez for one) and who wobbles rather a lot (Mike Iveson, who also made or found the music). Consider this analogy for a shrink-patient session: Glen Rumsey, his torso temporarily encased in a tube, careers expertly around, obsessively patting his head. “What do you like?” asks Michelson’s offstage voice. “I just like this,” he replies, picking up Michelson’s slight Manchester accent. She persists, but gets no further. We’ve all sometimes felt hampered in our jobs, prevented from doing really well; Lutz has to work with her peers—sidestepping on tiptoe, joining a repetitive kick line, whatever—while tethered to a long blue cord. (At the other end, Tony Stinkmetal gives her slack when she needs it.)
People disappear and reenter with different or no clothing. Tanya Uhlmann tries a G-string. Someone occasionally worms into a piece of carpet or duct-tapes it on as a corselet. Fashion statements? These people show that they can dance excellently in a controlled, if askew way. But they’re liable to do it with little fake birds attached to their bosoms. The wings flap when they leap. Mayhem is just around the corner. Perhaps the reels of blue or orange cord are there to tie folks up when things get too wild.
As a choreographer, Michelson also veers between structural niceties and letting things get out of hand. Still, Group Experience is terrifically entertaining. Off to one side, a little clump of those head-nodding dashboard animals says yes, yes.