Theater archives

Next, the Toy Truck Will Plié


Early on in Becky, Jodi, and John, the terrific piece that John Jasperse has concocted in collaboration with Becky Hilton and Jodi Melnick, Melnick sits in a wheeled chair and reads a message from Jasperse. The e-mail quotes a European presenter (channeled by Melnick with the appropriate accent) telling Jasperse that his work is “so formal,” as if this were a disease that could relegate him to the postmodern dust heap. Jasperse comments that telling him he shouldn’t be so formal is like telling him he shouldn’t be so thin. Or so old.

This information sets up the structure of the evening: an ironically meticulous interplay between formality and informality. Melnick reads the message off a laptop delivered by a remote-controlled toy truck, while Jasperse, naked, carefully stacks cardboard bricks into an irregularly cantilevered tower. The distancing, pre-planned effect of television is subverted when Chrysa Parkinson, via a video of a Skype Internet call, talks (probably with Jasperse, but we hear only her voice) about the progress of the piece, which she’d have danced in had she not moved to Belgium. The truncated remarks, pauses, and embarrassed laughter are what you’d expect from an impromptu chat with a longtime colleague—but funnier.

A section of the floor has been removed to create a long trough across the back of the stage, its horizontal design echoing the shape of the band of black-and-white floral wallpaper that stretches across the rear wall. The three performers enter from this cavity. As they execute precise and beguiling movement-patterns in unison, various body parts disappear into it. But the trench is also a site of disorder. Hilton topples in at one point, and so does the little truck that delivers the laptop on cue. (The truck also brings in jockey shorts for Jasperse, when a careful duet between a naked man and a clothed woman begins to seem a little too, well, informal.)

Another issue raised by the presenter’s words is that of age. These seasoned dancers aren’t kids but very smart adults; coincidentally, all of them, including Parkinson, are 43. Hilton reads from the laptop a group e-mail fired off by Melnick. It itemizes all her “don’ts,” including “I don’t jump,” and follows the dauntingly long list with an equally daunting one of her current injuries and weaknesses. But, just as a great actor is said to be able to hold listeners spellbound while reading the telephone book, performers like these can thrill you just by rolling imaginary lint off their fingertips. Few of their admirers would miss a high leap (there are one or two) when they can watch Melnick delicately, fluidly, and attentively rearrange her joints. Athletic lifts can’t compare to the way these performers cluster to sag against one another and slide gently into amazingly beautiful and unusual sculptural formations, while Hahn Rowe—manning a laptop, violin, psaltery, electronic aids, and pre-recorded material—embeds subtle allusions to gamelan music in his elegant and witty score. As the three venture out into space, slipping in and out of synchrony, Parkinson returns to the monitor to tell them, “That’s brilliant!”

After this burst of dancing, they haul out a motley trio of chairs and announce that they’ll take questions from the audience. Here informality speaks with a forked tongue. The thoughtfully delivered (and hilarious) answers have absolutely nothing to do with the questions posed, even when
Hilton prefaces her response with the familiar trope, “That’s a very good question.” A query about rhythm prompts Melnick to mention her background as a gymnast and muse about her on-again,
off-again vegetarianism.

Just before the end, Jasperse appears, smiling shyly; suddenly, smoke begins to curl out from the seams of his black jacket. Formalism (often misleadingly defined) has become a dirty word, both in relation to art and art criticism. Jasperse and his irresistibly charming colleagues have lit a fire under that trend, and I, for one, would relish seeing it go up in smoke.