Review: In John Jasperse’s ‘Visitation,’ Mortality Seduces

A body under a sheet: That’s how children play at summoning ghosts. It’s also how John Jasperse’s latest dance, “Visitation,” begins.

Unsurprisingly for a work created during a pandemic, “Visitation” has mortality on its mind. The stage at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, where the piece had its premiere this weekend, is backed by a translucent scrim, and in the center of it is a draped opening, a triangular portal to the other side.

Soon, the body under the sheet (Doug LeCours) walks off, replaced by Cynthia Koppe and Tim Bendernagel. Koppe, on the floor, poses languidly, arching off the ground in suggestions of levitation, tilting her head way back. Bendernagel, standing, keeps leaning toward a side wall and not quite touching it with his face.

That’s an apt emblem for the whole dance, which keeps artfully approaching edges, leaning toward but not quite touching camp, kitsch, overwhelming emotion, ecstasy. When LeCours returns, he slowly lifts his shirt to bare his stomach. Is this an exposure of vulnerable flesh or is it a come-on? An image of illness or the illicit? A pose of the afflicted or the blessed? He pulls his hands through his hair, seductively, but also extends them in the air, as if communicating with a higher power.

Between the youthful attractiveness of these articulate dancers (whom Jasperse credits as performing collaborators) and the meticulous compositional finesse of the choreography — replete with symmetries and crossing lines, controlled even when it pushes toward looping leaps and turns — “Visitation” feels as concerned with beauty as it is with death. Perhaps with the death of beauty, or, in Wallace Stevens’s phrase, with death as the mother of beauty.

The soundscape, by Hahn Rowe, charges the action with bursts of static, industrial hums, the accelerating bounce of dropped objects, a tinkling between breaking glass and fire. But three times, these poltergeist noises are exchanged for orchestral music by Wagner.

At the center is no less than the prelude to “Tristan und Isolde,” that lushest mixing of sex and death. It accompanies a ghostly duet for LeCours and Bendernagel. At first they barely touch: the back of a hand down a leg, an arm through the gap made by the other’s arm. This builds into a loose, conjoined tumbling that’s strangely disembodied — like a version of contact improvisation in which the goal is not to share weight but to diffuse it. As Wagner swells, they roll on the ground, nearly like lovers in the waves, from here to eternity.

At this point, Stan Pressner’s lighting, generally glowing white, turns purple. In the scene before, Bendernagel and Koppe tie up LeCours with string. He holds the string in his mouth as they circle around him in the manner of maypole dancers or those binding someone to be burned at the stake. After they leave, LeCours tries to move, and his hobbled dancing, growing freer as it loosens his bonds, walks another line, this time between slapstick and transcendence.

And so it goes. To a voice-over that sounds like someone recounting a near-death experience, bodies under sheets return, now with lights: more children’s games or spiritualist’s tricks. Rigging raises a sheet, in front of and behind which the dancers play with shadows, misshapen ones with extra auras and penumbras.

The climax comes with more Wagner, as a reprise of the duet becomes a trio. The perpetual-motion, Möbius-strip quality of their intertwining both matches and resists Wagner’s infinite rise along with all the other associations of those sounds. As a séance, “Visitation” doesn’t exactly summon spirits. It dances on the edge.