Portrait of an Artist: John R. Jasperse

Courtesy of Chris Taggart

Choreographer John R. Jasperse is an artist-in-residence for the Office for the Arts at Harvard's dance program.

Choreographer John R. Jasperse has had a career spanning nearly three decades, during which time he has choreographed more than a dozen major works. In 1990, he founded the John Jasperse Company, of which the innovative style expands the relevance of contemporary dance to broader audiences. Jasperse is a Fall 2012 artist-in-residence for the Office for the Arts at Harvard, where he has been working with student dancers who will perform a full-length work at the Harvard Dance Center from November 29 through December 1.

The Harvard Crimson: You have described yourself as having an ambivalent attitude toward dance. How has this informed your work?

John R. Jasperse: It’s not that I’m indifferent [towards dance], it’s that I have both a very strong connection to the form and a lot of simultaneous doubt about the form. That tension is imbedded in all of my work. There are ways in which I keep trying to invest in what I would say are the essential powers of dance in terms of the resonance of physical experience…. [But there is a tension] between intellectual intelligence and experiential intelligence, [which is] very much a different kind of system of intelligence from the one that is valued in academia.

THC: Recently you gave a talk entitled “The Gendered Body in Movement” at the Harvard College Women’s Center. Why do you think dance is a suitable medium for challenging notions of gender and sexuality?

JRJ: I think that any kind of performance form that deals with human beings deals with these [issues] because there is no such thing as neutrality. Gender in some ways is a stylistic construction of sexual identity that every human being has. One of the things that’s particular about dance is it’s centered on the physical aspects of experience, so the prominence of these issues is probably stronger in dance then it is in other art forms.... In Western classical ballet you see an extremely strong manifestation of that [gender construction]. So there’s an opportunity inside of dance to work with its own history of the gendered body.


THC: How did you become involved with dance?

JRJ: Dancing was really powerful as a physical experience in my teens…. I didn’t really play sports, and I was kind of your typical gay man growing up [who] felt very related to a particular idea of what a gay boy would be. When dancing came along, I suddenly had this very empowered experience of my body. The contrast with all the other experiences with my body that I’d had up to this point was so strong that I think it excited a really strong interest in me. I also was very taken with the social aspect of dance. I think there was something in working with others to make something that was very interesting to me and continues to be exciting even in moments that I find it really challenging.

THC: What inspired you to make a career as a choreographer?

JRJ: I started making work pretty much immediately upon starting dancing. Making dance is not an easy thing to do…. You spend your life making experiences that are not generally mainstream cultural experiences. They disappear as soon as you stop doing them. There’s a kind of ideology there that’s diametrically opposed to everything about a consumerist society that values ownership. In dance there’s really nothing to own. It’s a very curious and interesting thing.... And I think that people who do it do it because of some mental, primordial need.

THC: Your most recent work, “Fort Blossom revisited (2000/12),” features two naked male dancers. What was the thinking behind this?

JRJ: Once upon a time in making work I really felt like I could control things [and] be objective and not open to interpretation. But the body isn’t like that. I wanted to make people aware of the shifts in their own vision. For me, “Fort Blossom” is all about the slide…. You see something one way, and now something very slight has changed, and suddenly you’re seeing it in a completely different way. The piece is also about duality: clothing/naked, black/red, fabric/flesh, men/women…. In Fort Blossom, what you think is really clear becomes very unclear, and it opens up the possibility for really understanding differences in a different kind of way.

THC: Where do your ideas come from?

JRJ: Circumstances. I’m used to working in these very extended processes where I keep working everyday and keep exploring.... [But] here at Harvard, nobody really has that much time. In order to respond to that, I decided I’m going to make [the piece I’m choreographing at Harvard] these six dances that collide in one experience.