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John Jasperse Company - ‘CALIFORNIA’

Oompa Loompas in the Golden State

By 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 opportunities.

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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