Theater archives

John Jasperse Pulls a Treasure From the Trash


John Jasperse speaks softly and smiles at us, but he’s clearly worried. In the statistics-filled speech that opens his wonderful new work, Misuse liable to prosecution, he obliquely links the relative poverty of established dancers and choreographers (his annual salary from his company is $26,000 a year), wasteful excess, and the detritus with which we flood the planet. Misuse, part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 25th Next Wave Festival, is titled after a sign on a milk crate, and to make the piece, Jasperse became a recycling maniac. Sets, props, and costumes are the products of creative scavenging. The immense, gleaming hangings are made of wire and plastic hangers. The lighting design (by Joe Levasseur and Jasperse) incorporates fluorescent rings that flicker like fireflies. Composer Zeena Parkins plays her electronic harp, backed by her pre-recorded score and the interventions of two live bagpipers (David Watson and Matthew Welch) stationed in the top balcony, but at one point she’s blowing through plastic hosing to animate a melodica. The dancer-collaborators (Michelle Boulé, Levi Gonzalez, Eleanor Hullihan, Kayvon Pourazar, and Jasperse) wear odd assortments of garments backward, upside down, and on parts of the body they weren’t meant for. Brooms and mops become headdresses, tools, even elements of a sculpture. When Jasperse delivers his introduction, he’s sitting on the floor, speaking into an orange highway cone propped on a broom.

Improbable tasks and bizarre actions abound. While the audience is assembling, Jasperse is lying onstage on his back, feet in the air, beneath a hanging made of orange electrical cord. He’s knitting with his legs. Knitting (or crocheting) must also be the source of a smooth leg-phrase that Gonzalez and Hullihan execute while seated against the back wall and that Hullihan later repeats leaning against a mattress braced by others from behind. When Boulé and Hullihan crash into the mattress and hurl each other violently against it, the last of the plastic bottles they’ve stuffed under their T-shirts fall out. Amid such sights as the three men tumbling in zany, possibly dangerous configurations onto a semi-deflated beanbag chair (and then Jasperse wandering around blindly with the thing on his head), there’s plenty of dancing.

What’s definitely not left over or discarded are the terrific performers and the movements that Jasperse, with their help, has devised. Still, when two or four of them tangle, I can imagine I’m seeing the initial knitting ingeniously recycled. One person may keep kicking another lightly to turn him or her to a more accommodating angle, and their limbs and torsos loop around and over those of their partners with a kind of dogged, harum-scarum slipperiness—as if they’re making something together but don’t know what it is.

Once Hullihan enters with a carton, upends it to disgorge the beanbag, and puts the carton over Jasperse’s head. He stands a moment, then bends over to slip the carton off. In sync, the two of them shove the objects forward a bit. After the men have had their game with the squishy chair, Jasperse stuffs it back in the carton and briefly plunges his head in after it. There’s something forlorn about the often futile efforts they all make throughout the piece to use what they find and tidy up after themselves. Parkins embeds sounds of plastic crunching, glass breaking, and knitting needles clacking together into her score, and its occasional deep roars, screeches, and melancholy tootlings conjure up a wasteland.

I didn’t know that “It takes twice as much water to manufacture a plastic water bottle as can be contained in that same bottle.” The gap that Jasperse mentions between celebrities’ inflated earnings and what dancers make may surprise some, but we know all too well the disparity between what our government spends on making war and what it spends on preserving the environment and enabling art like this.