New York choreographer John Jasperse doesn't like dance critics, which is a tough bias to have when a) you live in the most critic-rich city in the world and b) your most ardent desire is to build a larger and more diverse audience for concert dance -- which is, in fact, the goal of this 32-year-old maker of dances. Best known for his piece Excessories, which blends S&M elements with fashion shows and a dose of nonchalance, the choreographer has developed a following in New York and earned critical notice on a recent European tour. Despite his success, Jasperse still sounds charming notes of surprise when discussing his work, especially when he talks about the part of Excessories in which performers fondle themselves and one another.
Nudity and masturbation have been a part of contemporary dance since the '70s, though Jasperse's use of self-fondling is decidedly less utopian than the clothes-shedding dances of that earlier decade. The reaction to the section in Excessories has varied from laughter (Germany) to utter silence (Portugal), the latter being the most perplexing for Jasperse. Despite the sensationalistic nature of the autoerotic moment, the work's threads of cynicism about fashion and personal relations are far more prominent, and that kind of artistic mocking is tantalizing for Houston, a city accustomed to pretty, but seldom socially relevant, story ballet as its main course of dance.
Jasperse, who will be performing at DiverseWorks Thursday through Saturday, is fresh from a concert date in Germany, and ready for a place where audiences aren't well-versed in contemporary dance. He even embraces the idea that Houston dance audiences might be shy about paying to see people disrobe. We can blame that shyness on the '70s, Jasperse claims, a decade that taught audiences to be a little frightened of modern dance. "There was a long period where dance was made about dance," Jasperse says, "and if you couldn't contextualize what you were seeing in terms of contemporary dance, the work tended to alienate you, because you couldn't understand it."
Jasperse aims to provoke his audience. If the point of contemporary dance 20 years ago was to be self-referential, then Jasperse's point is to be a new, bolder Everyman, out to find an audience that wants to think more than it wants to absorb pretty pictures.
-- Megan Halverson
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Excessories will be performed Thursday through Saturday at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346.