“But while the dancing was high quality, it was difficult to discern much meaning out of the piece.”
Is it reasonable for a dance critic to make a statement like this? In my view, writing in the era before Judson, let alone Cunningham, perhaps yes. But the assumption that likely underlies the statement−that dance is supposed to “mean” something that the choreographer presents in a way you can parse and give language to−is off-base today.
The piece in question is John Jasperse’s Canyon. After reading the full review of which this one statement is a part, I penned the following:
“I can’t tell you why I trusted choreographer John Jasperse when he placed the audience on air mattresses supine to look up at dancers doing risky weight-sharing partnering directly over us in Prone (2005). Likewise the “meaning” of Canyon, like so many messages that arise in dreams, I accept as a given without needing to know precisely what it is. Audiences and critics looking at dance today are invited to stay open for signals, to allow layers of imagery to build in our memory like so much visual poetry. That challenge evokes the excitement of a worthy mystery, a whodunit one hasn’t yet unraveled, but may well. And however it works out, the pleasure of dwelling in the rich world of signals can be, in itself, plenty.”
Jasperse is wonderfully articulate on this issue in a recent profile.
And then, wanting to share some of the meaning I gleaned in the work, I did something I haven’t ever done before in the seven years I’ve been writing about dance in Philadelphia: sent the newspaper an unsolicited review of something that a reviewer already covered. To be clear, I don’t think the work is without areas that need tightening or clarifying. But in 200 words what seemed most vital was to offer a way IN. My review wasn’t used, so here it is:
Canyon. John Jasperse’s newest work vacillates between the time when dancers, full-bodied and capable, make their bold marks on space, and the time when they stop. Its six fine dancers leap, swirl and whoosh across the stage in satisfying waves of changing groupings, or crash and dive, later giving way to times when their bodies are less ready for deployment. They crumple, they sag, or pensively await further instructions. The implied cycles – rehearse and rest, exert and surrender to exhaustion– are reminiscent of the arc of a dancer’s day, or life. In Canyon intimacy, doubt, camaraderie, and tenderness have their place too. And then, what are the messages coming from a deep interior or a faraway power that cause the dancers to pause, looking to the distance, or listening internally?
Jasperse often messes with conventions of staging and here turns the white dance floor askew in the curtainless cavern of the space. Tony Orrico’s design includes a white cube on wheels, creaky and scuttling, that decorates the floor, or walls, with zig-zags of fluorescent green tape, like the trail of a modernist snail.
Along with surges in light, Hahn Rowe’s magisterial score evokes a grand, sometimes thunderous existential question mark. And then it’s back to simple scratchings and settled tones. So it goes. The big moments and the small ones. The grand dance and the inexorable move toward stillness.