You get the impression John Jasperse is expecting the question: What exactly does an East Coast-bred, New York City-based modern dance choreographer—albeit one of the art’s foremost emerging talents—have to say about a Montana Hi-Line he hardly knows? The tall, wiry man pauses for a second, leans back in a chair and says casually, “Yeah, I had a little trepidation about that.”
From a local vantage point, Jasperse’s challenge seems impossible. Commissioned by Headwaters Dance Company (formerly Montana Transport Dance Company, or Mo-Trans) and Artistic Director Amy Ragsdale, Jasperse was enticed to be the second choreographic contributor to the company’s epic “Montana Suite” project—a four-part, multiyear series featuring prominent dance artists visiting the state to make work inspired by specific regions of Big Sky Country. This past summer Jasperse flew to Missoula, had lunch with Ragsdale and then, armed with an itinerary and a road map, drove alone to Browning. Over the course of eight days he made it east to Wolf Point and back, meeting with third- and fourth-generation farmers, American Indian artists and other locals. When he returned to Missoula, he had just more than two weeks to work with Montana composer Philip Aaberg and craft an original, 20-minute dance piece that captured his impressions of the expansive Hi-Line. That piece will debut at Headwaters’ annual gala performance starting Thursday, Feb. 8.
“I’ve traveled a lot,” says Jasperse, whose work has been presented across the United States, Brazil, Chile, Israel, Japan and throughout Europe, “but never there, not in those circles, or anything like it there. It was definitely an interesting experience because…not only was I coming from an outsider’s perspective as someone not from Montana, but I would say I was up from Missoula and I’m a choreographer and I’m working on a contemporary dance piece and all of this, and with each statement I could just see their eyes closing and their heads sinking…I finally just said I was there working on an art project.”
Jasperse has a sense of humor about the experience partly because, although he has never taken on a project as acutely pre-defined as the “Montana Suite,” his reputation has been forged on exactly the sort of honed perspective and sense of place this piece requires. In fact, his most prominent recent works specifically address both themes: 2005’s critically acclaimed Prone had half the audience lying on a matrix of inflatable mattresses on the stage with the option of either craning their necks to watch the dance happening around and over them, or staring up at reflective panes placed on the ceiling that showed the dance and the audience’s reactions. The result was a dance as much about the audience’s perspective—and reactions—as the dance itself. In 2003’s CALIFORNIA he collaborated with architect Ammar Eloueini, who erected an enormous abstract industrial sculpture; Jasperse’s dancers interacted with it as if it were another dancer. The site-specific approach there centered on the relationship between the dancers and their surroundings. Both pieces contain comparable elements to his new work about the Hi-Line.
“I may not have a specific experience with that particular environment, but if you look at my work, there are ideas about expansive space, emptiness in relation to loneliness, and a certain kind of harshness, or some sense of a non-decorative approach, as in an economy of materials,” Jasperse says. “The way in which I approached those [past works] may be very different, but all of a sudden there is a very interesting common ground when applying it here.”
Jasperse then goes through a list of influential touchstones from his travels, both environmental and social, that inspired his finished piece, although mostly in an abstract manner. For instance, the contours of the terrain are represented by six ropes strewn horizontally across the stage for the dancers to weave through; the image of hundreds of telephone poles cutting through the landscape and disappearing into the distance led to movement phrases that the dancers repeat time and again before the moves slowly fade; and the harshness of the Hi-Line prompted Jasperse to have UM art professor Bobbi Hilton and artist Christine Milodragovich create rigid papier mâché-like costumes that partly restrict and test the dancers.
The piece is much different from last year’s “Montana Suite” installment in that, unlike fellow New York City choreographer Jane Comfort’s literal historical narrative on Butte—best described as a theatrical interpretation—Jasperse’s take leaves room for audience interpretation. That’s something the choreographer felt strongly about, not only because his work is typically open-ended, but also as a means of conveying an awareness of his self-described “outsider” perspective.
“It’s about clarity of intention,” he says. “I’m not here to say here is the place you are from…I feel like it’s pretty dangerous territory to feel like you actually understand it all. But what I can do is look at how all of these issues that I explore within my own work are reflected here. It’s an impression. It’s that place through a filter. And I found that there was a lot to say.”
Headwaters Dance Company presents its gala concert Thursday, Feb. 8, through Saturday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 PM at the MCT Performing Arts Center, with a Saturday matinee at 2 PM. The concert features seven pieces, including Part II of the “Montana Suite” project. $15/$8 matinee.