John Jasperse, new director of the dance program at Sarah Lawrence, has not retired from his acclaimed role in the world of dance. “This idea of doing more than one thing has kind of always been how I’ve progressed through my career,” he said.
Still, he admits his new position as director is “a very large job.” The dancer and choreographer who graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1985 began this fall as director of the dance program, replacing Sara Rudner who has been director since 1988 and will continue to teach in the department.
Though Jasperse has taught as a guest artist and has intermittently taught seminars and workshops at institutions including Hollins University, University of California–Davis, and P.A.R.T.S. (Brussels, Belgium), relatively this will be his first long-term position at an institution.
“Dance is not an easy economic climate, so I’ve been very privileged to be able to focus in that way primarily or solely. Now as I’m aging, I could continue that, but that might create more challenges for me as an older person,” Jasperse said. “So there’s a little bit of long-range planning, thinking about what’s the way in which I can remain vibrant and connected as I age.”
Just as Sarah Lawrence prides itself on faculty who are actively working and contributing to their field while concurrently teaching at the college, Jasperse assures he will continue to work in choreography and performance in the living world of dance, as that type of connection has always been integral “for the vibrancy of this program.” However, Jasperse said taking this position was certainly a career shift.
“It’s a little bit challenging to figure out how to balance all of that, obviously because I am now a director of a program as an added responsibility,” Jasperse said. “I’m sure that my creative practice will change.”
Jasperse follows an impressive lineage of dance directors beginning with Bessie Schonberg, the founder and director of the program from 1938 to 1974. In recognition of her prominent presence in the New York dance scene, the New York Dance and Performance Awards were nicknamed “the Bessies.” Jasperse won one such award in 2014 for Outstanding Production for his work Within between.
“After Bessie was Viola Farber, who was another really celebrated dancer and performer, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company, and then Sara Rudner, founding member of Twyla Tharp Dance Company,” Jasperse said. “You’ve had these very strong women, who were major forces in the field of dance, associated with and directing this program.”
According to Jasperse, the program has largely evolved by the agency of its directors, a practice which he intends to maintain during his tenure.
“At Sarah Lawrence there’s something very visionary and very different over the various iterations of the program that has happened, so that was appealing to me,” Jasperse said. “Hopefully I will be able to keep all the strengths that are there and adapt it in a way that it continues to respond to the changing world.”
Among his anticipated developments, one of Jasperse’s foremost objectives is the promotion of community. He plans to establish programs accessible to all Sarah Lawrence students, not just those taking dance classes, as a means of engaging all in the artform in order to encourage group empathy.
“We do have a practice of building proficiency in relationship to embodied experience through movement practice, but is that the only way? And my notion would be: What are the experiences of dance and movement that can bring to the college that are immediately accessible to anybody?”
Inspiring expansive ideas of dance is just part of Jasperse’s larger aim: to inspire students to expand beyond the self, beyond the “solipsistic space of ‘my voice, my vision, my way, my identity, my projection.’” Jasperse wants students to consider that, “‘What do I get?’ is not the only driving question.”
Embracing community is especially important at an institution like Sarah Lawrence where collaborating is crucial to a well-rounded, liberal arts education, Jasperse said, noting the concept’s feasibility with interdisciplinary courses and projects.
“How does my work talk with politics, or with ideas from other artistic disciplines, or with social culture?” Jasperse asks himself in developing his work. “While I have really worked abstractly, I see those connections as really active and informing the choices that I make as an artist. So it seemed like an interesting kind of institution to be inside.”
Noting subjects which can be integrated into dance making—political science, literature, history, LGBTQ studies—Jasperse said he admires Sarah Lawrence’s encouragement of such interdisciplinary study and aims to grow it within the dance program. He also expressed that his admiration for this model of education was part of the reason he decided to take the director position at Sarah Lawrence specifically.
“I’m a very particular kind of artist,” Jasperse said. “In some institutions that are more traditional conservatories, I’m an odd fit, because I’m working at a high level professionally, but some people might find my work ‘weird’ or not subscribing to some more traditional value systems.”
Although Jasperse had been well-received at some traditional institutions, others have not been so welcoming. He explained, “When you’re cast as the freak, you have a very difficult position in trying to actually activate students.”
Just as dance at Sarah Lawrence is far from a conservatory-style program, Jasperse emphasized that it is also in no way an isolated program. It does not exist “just as professional practice that is in its own corner,” he said. As director, Jasperse maintained that he will grow and expand the interdisciplinary mentality.
“I’m looking forward to digging in and really not getting too daunted by the challenges that I see, and really focusing on the opportunities that are very real here and building on the kind of strengths of that this program historically has.”
Victoria Mycue '20