John Jasperse’s “Canyon” Starts Strong Then Staggers Weakly to a Close

“I know this is going to sound just cheesy, but joy is something that is superproblematic.” So said choreographer John Jasperse, in Gia Kourlas’s Times feature from last weekend, of the ideas he wants to explore in Canyon, which opened last night at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival (through Nov. 19; tickets $20). Based on the results, it’s hard to argue with his sentiment.

Canyon opens spectacularly. The scenography (by Tony Orrico, who spends the show rolling around inside a box and laying down tape on the floor) is mostly a matter of DayGlo neon tape–orange and yellow-green–which snakes throughout the entirety of the Harvey Theater, from the lobby and down the aisles to the stage itself, where it playfully coils and loops in geometrically strong lines around the patches of disrepair on the upstage wall that give the space its air of glamorous decrepitude. The effect is sort of like AutoCAD vomited its 3-d modeling all over the place, the clean grid lines breaking down and careening wildly, like a drunk driver in Tron. The stage itself is cleverly divided up by a big, white Marley that angles from down-left to up-right, where it curls up in a little two-foot-high ramp. The small orchestra providing the score is situated in the back corner up-left.

As mentioned, the opening is definitely the show’s highlight. The company of six dancers (including Jasperse) kick it off by running in from every direction only to halt and leap up into the air, or extend, or kick, before shifting direction and rushing off. Sometimes these are solos, sometimes duets, sometimes much more complicated group work elegantly timed to capture, through movement, the same careening energy as the audience sees in the design.

But after maybe 15 or 20 minutes, all the urgency, geometric play, misdirection, and, indeed, excitement, seems to drain out the piece as the tempo shifts from allegro to adagio. There’s nothing wrong with a shift like that–in fact, the result can be quite dramatic–and for quite some time after I found myself engrossed in what Jasperse was doing.

The dancers had planted some five golf flags down-right, forming a sort of circle or square, which the choreography came to fixate on. Individually, one dancer after another would stagger and stumble across the stage to this space, where a sort of epiphany seemed to happen, their movement shifting from staccato to legato, allowing for a long, elegant solo.

I have no idea what these moments were about, but I was impressed with Jasperse’s pacing and willingness to really engage almost studiously with these moments, to let us really take them in and experience them. But then, well, nothing really happened. Almost entropically, the sense of order and energy and purpose in the piece sort of falls apart. It got downright boring and even doze-inducing, and then, to my surprise, it just ended. At 70 minutes it falls solidly within the standard duration for an evening length dance, but it wound up feeling short by virtue of wanting it to finally go somewhere that, ultimately, it seems completely disinterested in going.

I honestly don’t know what to make of it. The title seems to suggest a sort of trek from the heights of the canyon walls down to the floor and the profundity of the empty expanse, but unless my natural geography is totally messed up, I thought a canyon had to have two walls, necessitating a climb back out. Whereas this piece feels a bit like a hiker who gets caught at the bottom and slowly dies of dehydration, staggering on more and more weakly till it can’t keep going and just gives up.

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