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John Jasperse Company - ‘CALIFORNIA’
Oompa Loompas in the Golden State
Mary Ellen Hunt
September 17, 2004 --Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
I came through the door wanting to like John Jasperse’s “CALIFORNIA,”
which had a run recently as part of the Form and Architecture series at
the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, but I left shaking
my head at a piece that started with some fascinating ideas – a
marriage of shape and movement -- but by the same token, missed so many
Upon entering the auditorium, we had time to inspect the architectural
armadillo-shaped hulk that hung suspended over the stage like the half-crumpled
remainder of some airplane bulkhead (“CALIFORNIA” starts with
the lights up, which is apparently de rigeur these days for avant-garde
works). We had time to absorb the plinky-plonk of Jonathan Bepler’s
John Cage-like prepared piano sounds – some kind of Minimalism is
also de rigeur, it seems.
It was not altogether an unpromising start, as the lights changed ever
so subtly and the audience became aware of a dancer in workaday coveralls
slowly drifting on half toe toward Ammar Eloueini’s looming set
piece. In the far distance, eight fluorescent bulbs laid end-to-end at
the back of the stage began to glow like radioactive sausage links. As
the dancer passed behind the bulkhead, she seemed to disappear into the
metallic maw as if swallowed by a giant whale -- indeed, the multifaceted
exterior of the shell itself gave the organic curves of the structure
a fragile look.
But as other overall-clad dancers joined the first in stalking slowly
about the bulkhead, I couldn’t help it. An unfortunate sub-soundtrack
introduced itself into my head, and it went something like this: “Oompa
loompa, doompety-doo, I have a perfect puzzle for you….”
The impression of Oompa Loompas in, say, the Lockheed factory in Van Nuys,
CA was only underscored when a dancer returned to stage wielding a leaf-blower,
which she matter-of-factly employed to set the behemoth -- which I now
thought of as a fearsome Wangdoodle, eating poor hapless Oompa Loompas
for breakfast – in motion.
Seriously, though, a meshing of dance forms with the motion of the architecture
seemed to be the point of the piece. And while I want to say that
the dancer who lay moving on the floor was doing so in response to the
motion of the set piece, I’m actually not certain if that was true
or not—or even if it was meant to be true.
The fact of the sculpture recreating the space which the dancers inhabited
was implied, touched upon, but on a stage the width of the Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts, the dancers had only to move off to one side to stay
out of the mobile’s way, and that is what they did. Consequently,
I missed any overt and developed response on the part of the dancers to
the reconfiguration of their space. The play of negative space on the
concave side of the set piece, for instance, offered boundless possibilities.
What if the set had been allowed to drift freely without any stoppage?
The evening was filled with those what-ifs. Sure, you could just enjoy
the pleasure of watching tight duet work from obviously highly-competent
dancers including Jasperse, Steven Fetherhuff, Eleanor Hullihan, Rachel
Poirer, and Katy Pyle. But even not knowing much about the motivations
of the piece, you could see the dismantling of the object coming from
miles away. The dancers pulled on hidden strings to release segments of
the piece, unhooking and popping off a few sections that dangled pathetically
in the corner for the rest of the "CALIFORNIA," really looking,
for all the world, like the remnants of a tragic Venetian blind disaster.
The tightly clasped trio of dancers, who partnered together shoulder to
shoulder, might have been interesting, but I was ultimately unable to
grasp the significance of the image, or understand how it fit into the
picture as a whole.
Development was also not to be found in the peculiar shedding of the coveralls,
which apparently were designed to split down the middle and reveal tatty
skivvies underneath, all to shimmering sounds which vaguely recalled riotously
emerging Brood X cicadas. Or perhaps these were what Willie Wonka described
as the "vicious kinids?"
Jasperse does have a talent for the transition, whether it be via choreography,
lighting, or architecture, but in a sense we were too far away from the
action at YBCA to appreciate those subtleties.
A promotional card for the show describes the work thusly, “…‘CALIFORNIA’
is an abstract, spiritual reflection that asks, ‘What should one
do when things haven’t worked out as one might have hoped?’”
What a question.
Edited by Jeff.
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