Jonah Bokaer at ADI by Luella Christopher

American Dance Institute
Rockville, Md. 20850
February 26-27, 2016
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Jonah Bokaer is a revolutionary choreographer in the best possible way. As relayed to New York Social Diary on July 18, 2008, the many titles of Bokaer’s pieces over the last decade deal with subtraction – often with negative space that erases the body. He is a self-proclaimed avatar performing with a doppelganger (double) on stage and working in the mediums of animation and motion-capture. Bokaer strongly believes that modern dance, avant-garde dance and even ballet have suffered from marginalization that prevents them from appealing more broadly to lovers of the performing arts. With his digitally programmed bodies and animation, he seeks to transform how the public views and comprehends dance.

If one characteristic could be defined as central to Bokaer’s choreography, it would be memorable motionlessness of a calmly investigative nature. Videos of his works frequently show him with back to the audience located upstage (in dance parlance, to the rear). Aptly described by Alistair MacCauley in the August 2, 2012 issue of New York Times, Bokaer takes a series of positions that start firm but suddenly crumple, collapse or diminish. He thus projects a series of ideas about “mobility and immobility, statuary and dance, fragility and creation”.

Bokaer, a nascent dancer with Merce Cunningham while still in his teens, acknowledges the influence of Robert Wilson – with whom he collaborated in a number of operas including Faust, Aida and On the Beach (the latter facilitated by Mikhail Baryshnikov, eminent transplant to the United States from Latvia as well as the Kirov Ballet). His reach can be epic, using the visual and design elements of choreography, design of actual movement, work with his dancers and, most surprisingly, implementation of music at the END of the process. Cunningham was noted for insisting that choreographer, composer and visual artist work in isolation from each other – think composer John Cage or artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Bokaer uses software for drawing, prefiguring and animating a body. As anyone checking his website can discern, Bokaer emits a digital image to walk up and down a flight of stairs while he dances alongside it. In all fairness, however, this was largely achieved in the choreography by Robert Helpmann for “The Red Shoes”, the pathbreaking forties dance film that inspired generations of dancers among which I count myself. Bokaer offers an intriguing explanation for his use of dopplegangers: “When you choreograph something and then it’s danced, that creates a double . . . you transfer or transmit choreography and the body ends up doing it”.

Trained at the New School in Manhattan where he earned a degree in art, Tunisian-born Bokaer is the child of parents steeped in theater arts. He founded Chez Bushwick and Center for Performance Research, both located in Brooklyn. Bokaer has created over 55 works in a wide range of mediums such as film, opera, applications and installation in venues from stages to museums and galleries, many overseas. His dancers interact with whatever is on stage and thus the question becomes: What’s dancing? Objects or people? Moving beyond the scenic, Bokaer shuns decor and disdains the currently popular use of projections as a backdrop.

This painstakingly articulated methodology infuses the two works shown at American Dance Institute on February 26 and 27, 2016. “Recess” (2010) is a collaboration between David Arsham and Bokaer. It explores language, space, architecture and improvisation, as well as memory, temporality, representation and movement.

A vehicle for Bokaer and an invisible dancer, Hungarian-born Szabi Pataki, “Recess” begins in a haze with strobes and an oversized long roll of white photo paper situated at stage right. Bokaer emerges from the haze, bends his back and sculpts the air with his arms in quintessential Cunningham poses. He steps over the roll of papers and extends it across the stage. He falls on what looks like his own shadow, then slides off of it – but the shadow is still there. It’s our first clue that something extraordinary is functioning here.

Bokaer proceeds to configure the roll of paper in different shapes and at various angles, eventually coaxing it into the shape of a rectangle. Then he lies on his “shadow” and disappears underneath it, an apparent projection on the floor in the shape of his body outline. Next the paper becomes a moving clump, which he proceeds to rip into pieces.

We are treated to still more surprises. The clump moves by itself, almost like an iceberg or a junk heap. At stage left, Bokaer folds the piece in triangles, clumping it behind what remains of the roll, then elongates it in two parts. Under this mass of paper, he breaks through and swirls with it, covering all but his head. He picks up a white cutout and wraps it around himself. The lights lower as he walks to the back.

To a brief musical interlude, the stage crew removes the clumps of paper. Without an intermission,“Why Patterns” (2011) begins. The performers build a courtyard of squares lined with plastic tubes containing miniature golf balls or ping pong balls. They reconfigure the squares into a full court with strobes focused on the center one-third of the panel. From front to back, a woman walks slowly backward as a single ball falls from the ceiling and with which a lanky male performer moves spiderlike along the floor. Other balls rain down from above. Three more performers – by now, I am ready to call them actors – move among the balls. Movements are precise, deliberate with sharp changes in direction. Some of the balls are ponged at each other, a kind of interaction that strikes one as impersonal.

Suddenly a gazillion balls rain down on one performer at mid-stage (slightly upstage from center). The four performers are on the floor, moving now in unison like the human four corners of something. Balls encased in the tubes act as a perimeter on this court. One male performer “sniffs” at one of the two females and moves with her. He more nearly resembles an insect or animal than a human. They are so close but do not quite touch; perhaps they are human afterall. They kick and pay with the balls.

The two performers on the periphery walk slowly, allowing the balls to fall from the plastic tubes onto the floor. The pair at center stage is connected by a tube. The second pair – separated – kick their tubes across the floor as if mopping. The male is using his tube almost like a baton. In a moment that most closely approximates two separate duets, the women allow themselves to freefall against the male performers. Arms and legs make shapes and angles, mostly in straight positions.

The sound score morphs into thunder. After a brief blackout, three of the performers try to clear balls off the court. Strobes are invading from the ceiling in cones that grow bigger and seem to merge. One female, later identified to me as Laura Gutierrez, walks slowly, deliberately in pigeon-toe style, as if she has been damaged by the action. She advances to the front of the stage, brightly illuminated and with a single ball on her hand, perfectly balanced. The others stand behind her as more balls rain down.

Then each performer moves separately. Are they at peace with the onslaught of balls? It seems so, but this impression does not last very long. Aligned, they push the longest tube to the back, laying shorter tubes at angles within a defined space, making a variety of geometric shapes. And then it’s over. A single ping pong ball rains down at the end, almost sardonically, bringing closure to the torrential occurrence.

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher