Jonah Bokaer by Madison Mainwaring

The choreographer on his early work with Merce Cunningham and collaborations with visual artists.

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Occupant by Jonah Bokaer, 2012. Photo by Carlos Avendano. All images courtesy of the artist.

If you ever have the chance to attend one of Jonah Bokaer’s performances, try arriving early in order to take a good look at the stage. Chances are that it will be filled with objects which could be called artworks in and of themselves: 35mm cameras cast in chalk, large cubes suspended in nets overhead, or lines drawn in the grid of an athletic field. When dancers enter the stage they interact closely with these meticulously produced sets, in some cases losing themselves completely in the physical environment—their bodies wrapped up in large sheets of paper, or obscured under a deluge of ping-pong balls.

Bokaer sources his choreography in an architectural or sculptural framework. Whatever’s onstage is never extraneous to the dance; it is part of the dance, the movements and visuals merging together as one. The action responds to a contextual imperative with a sense of urgency and necessity, and the result is strikingly pure in tone, free of anything suggestive of the ornamental or scenic. In order to achieve this kind of immersive experience, Bokaer collaborates with an impressive roster of artists, including Daniel Arsham, Robert Wilson, Lee Ufan, and Anne Carson.

Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times famously called Bokaer “contemporary dance’s Renaissance man.” Besides the frequent collaborative exchanges, his process involves the use of digitally programmed bodies, which are sometimes projected alongside the “live” dance onstage. This kind of work arguably places him at the forefront of the performance/technology nexus. Instead of founding a company, he’s opened two non-profits in Brooklyn that serve as incubators for up-and-coming choreographers, initiatives that earned him a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award in 2007. Look no further if you’re interested in the emerging dance forms of the twenty-first century.

Madison Mainwaring When did you know that you wanted to create dances, rather than just interpret the works of other choreographers?

Jonah Bokaer I made my first dance when I was six. It was with my siblings, actually. We were all outside, and I started creating patterns and movements, staging us together in space. And it was a dance—not just a routine, a dance. There were flips involved, and it lasted a full hour. This was an unusual thing for a six-year-old to do, and I think it’s what later led to more formal training.

MM You’re known as the youngest dancer ever to have been recruited by Merce Cunningham for his company. How did that happen?

JB I auditioned for Merce when I was seventeen, but I was not accepted. Nine months later I was contacted because of the impression I had made, and in May of 2000 I joined the company.

Let me explain what that experience looked like: moving to New York at the age of eighteen and setting up a lease and a bank account in forty-eight hours, all to start a life in dance. The rest was a drop-kick exposure to modern art on a global scale in a very non-stop way. Three weeks of rehearsals, and then a tour to Beirut, Barcelona, Vienna, Brussels, London, and Paris, with full repertory—we were all in everything. It was a beautiful, unbelievable shock. Performing outdoors and indoors, in museums, in daylight, by moonlight even. Though I had become very familiar with the physicality involved in the Cunningham technique, I wasn’t prepared for working with a senior artist like this. It took a full year to know which way was up. The work molded my bones from age eighteen to twenty-five in very profound ways.

MM You went on to collaborate with Robert Wilson.

JB Bob first invited me to choreograph Charles Gounod’s Faust for the bicentennial of Goethe’s birth. It was commissioned by Teatre Wielki in Warsaw, which is actually the largest physical proscenium in the world. I thought—first of all, Bob Wilson uses email? That was a shock. We quickly formed a friendship and a bond … I think we were even born on the same day. Bob is a generous collaborator, and I’m blessed to call him a friend. I love him.

MM You had been making dances for four years at that point, but with Cunningham your responsibility had been to a singular body—your own—as an interpreter. What was it like to jump into such a high-voltage, high-stakes production?

JB The scale for my own dances, which I began in 2002, often ranges between one person and eight people. With Faust, there were ninety bodies on stage. With Aïda, there are upwards of eighty bodies onstage, with only four or five main roles, so it’s much more of a chamber work, really. That leap of a ten-scale, from eight to eighty, was challenging. But I was well equipped to do it because of the animation that I do. I completed an art degree while I was dancing at the New School, and that has informed everything I’ve done, everything I’ve made. The tools I had access to with digital animation allowed me to work with large groups with more efficiency.

MM Evidence of Wilson’s influence on your work comes through in the exacting design of the spaces in which your dancers perform. There’s something very interesting about these spaces: the dancers interact a lot with whatever is on the stage. At times I can’t tell who or what is dancing—the objects or the people?

JB My work poses questions.

MM Are you making an ontological statement with this pattern of interaction? Are we products of our circumstances?

JB In my choreographic universe, the “autonomous body” is over. It’s over. That’s not how we live or work or behave any more. This idea of the pure body moving through space, the modernist body, divorced from context and meaning—that stems from the 1950s. I choose to intensify the relationship between dance and visual art, and all my work has followed from that. What happens when you blend visuals with dance? They can occupy one another’s presentational formats. This notion of occupation is about space, vocabulary, ownership, possession, even annexation—and this slippage between media is becoming increasingly complicated and nuanced.

I started working this way after growing skeptical of dance’s historical interaction with visuals. Oftentimes it’s scenic—a beautiful backdrop, costumes applied as “decoration.” I’m consciously trying to move beyond the scenic. There’s never any décor; it’s always real art on the stage. This makes it more connected to fine art than dance has traditionally been.

As art has changed, I feel that dance has to respond and to engage more. For example, in Study For Occupant, the 35mm cameras made of chalk—which you saw—serve as obstacles, and later become drawing utensils—the dancers draw on the floor with them in real time.

MM This kind of interaction with the art sometimes becomes very elaborate. I imagine there’s a lot of effort put into the technical side of things.

JB I treasure my production team. They are very sophisticated colleagues.

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On Vanishing, Jonah Bokaer. Excerpt performed at Asia Society Texas Center, 2012. Photo by Jeff Fantich. Image courtesy of the artist.

MM Has anything ever gone wrong?

JB When I was working with Bob, I saw him almost break a theater once. Every lineset in the opera house was being used, and almost all of the AV and lighting capacity was turned on. Breaking boundaries does occur, even within the infrastructure of a theater, whether it’s the lighting, height, or rigging, when artists push their form and genre to the maximum extent.

In a very different way, I am also pushing, more so with the vocabulary of what is placed onstage—whether it’s real trees, strange types of fluids, sand, stone, steel—there’s always an unusual use of materials. In Why Patterns, for example, that production uses 10,000 ping-pong balls, dropped on the stage by Daniel Arsham and Snarkitecture, as a visual element. What this means is that hazards for the dancers are incorporated into the choreography: the ping-pong balls become a choreographic obstacle course.

MM There’s clearly an intellectual rigor to your work. I know the Romantic notion of the dancing body as an impulsive, preverbal expression of ecstasy was discarded long ago. But I’m wondering—how does impulse play out in your work? With all the cerebral stuff going on, do you still try tap into it?

JB I’ll speak to that in relation to On Vanishing, a 2011 work commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum. I worked with the curatorial team there: Alexandra Munroe, Sadhini Poddar, Charles Fabius, and others who were working on the Lee Ufan retrospective. The context was the Guggenheim Rotunda, where a massive sculpture by Lee Ufan, Dialogue, had been installed. The premise was an event that had disappeared, Things and Words, a work that Lee did in the 1969 in Tokyo. Lee gave me permission to “reimagine” the event. So it wasn’t a reconstruction, or a restaging—I don’t appreciate the limited rhetoric currently circulating around those words in performance. It was a reimagining between two artists from different generations. The license was given from one artist to another, for which I’m very grateful.

There’s a great deal of training needed for my work. It’s very rigorously designed. But to answer your question, I offset this by working with open scores, so there are two poles going on at once. One is a virtuosic, almost hyper-written choreography, and the other is openly-scored movement, where the interpreter makes all the choices. All of them.

I think that the audience can feel a sense of rapt attention, and with an open score I present things that have never been seen before. But I’d be surprised if audience members can tell the difference between what is and is not choreographed. In On Vanishing, the opening and the closing solos are totally free, but everything else couldn’t be more scripted. In Study For Occupant, the drawing on the floor changes every night. That’s where impulse comes into my work.

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Why Patterns, Jonah Bokaer. Image courtesy of the artist.

MM You are actively engaged in trying to forge an economy for the dance world, which is why you founded Chez Bushwick, where emerging dance artists can rent a studio for five dollars an hour, and the Center for Performance Research. You won a Bessie Award in 2007 for this kind of work. What inspired this initiative? Has your overlap with the visual arts—perhaps the most lucrative of all mediums—allowed for an economic overflow?

JB I saw my predecessors come across financial peaks and valleys, even when they were five decades into their careers. At the same time, I saw Brooklyn real estate changing and thought there was a window for dancers of younger generations, my own generation and those that follow. I wanted future artists, future college graduates, performers in their twenties and thirties, to have access to large amounts of space in New York in the ways that I did. That was the motivation behind these gestures—to make it affordable. That’s what I had when I moved to Bushwick, and I wanted to pass this along.

The financing of visual art—well, if you think about it, it’s a luxury mentality: if there’s only one of something, its value and its exclusivity are very clearly appreciated. However, with its disappearance and the ephemerality of the act, dance resists such an economy. It never becomes an object. It vanishes. My work tries to participate in that conversation.

MM Right—you incorporate vestiges of previous work into new pieces. In October 7, 1944, for example, a video clip from Study For Occupant tells us you’ve used the same cast of four female performers. It’s almost as if you’re tracking the trace of the dance.

JB The decision to cast the same interpreters multiple times is an act in itself. I love my performers. It’s love. I’m very faithful to them. Casting is an act of reinforcement and it goes along with the idea that these interpreters are not interchangeable. They are unique—they are the most valuable material.

That’s a big difference between “visual performance” and dance—in the visual art world, there’s a disposability to the interpreter. Take a look at any “visual performance” practitioner today, and you’ll quickly see that the people are interchangeable: it can be done by anyone, with people swapping in and out. I’m concerned about dancers who give themselves over to that economy for short-term gains.

My theory about choreography is that it asks for specific skills, which require individual interpreters. For that reason, I stick with the same people.

MM That’s something noticed more often in classical dance, where there is the “cult” of the ballerina and her particular aura. 

JB Yes, and where there are stars and principals.

I’m very committed to the performers who come into my life. They enter my life, all in different ways, and I never leave them. Among our collaborating artists, performers, and technical team, there are four infants under the age of three. So there are four babies, and some of them come on tour, some of them are in the studio. It’s a family. Which I think says a lot about how we work. We’re trying to look at the whole person, and support the whole dancer.

MM What are you working on right now?

JB In 2015 I’m working with Daniel Arsham on a restaging of Study For Occupant at the Malraux Museum in Normandy, which has a very different architecture from previous performances of this work. This project is part of the Pharenheit Festival, organized by CCN Le Havre in France. The conditions of the project will stay the same—so the grid, the visual scheme, all of that will stay fixed. That’s January 31 through February 1.

I will also be premiering a monodrama opera, one that’s very rarely produced. I’ve been developing it, with stops and starts, for seven or eight years. Its casting, concept, and music are so improbable that it has taken a long, patient approach.

There’s a work usually staged in museum spaces, Other Myths, which was just in Milan at La Trienniale, produced by Change Performing Arts. It will premiere in the US in two very unique pieces of architecture. I love that project, because it tackles the bare museum, the building, as is—with no artifice.

Daniel and I have a shared performance at the Peréz Art Museum of Miami on March 5. He is like a brother to me. We’ve been connected from the start of our careers, so there’s a bond and a loyalty that keeps going. We’re just about to start working on our eighth or ninth full length production.

I plan four major museum appearances a year. These performances are not objects—they can’t be monetized in the same way that visual art is valued. It’s almost like couture. I do this for the craft, the context, and the occasion, fully and by hand.

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Curtain, Jonah Bokaer, SACD, 2012. Photo © Pascal Gely. Image courtesy of the artist.

MM Your titles tend to evoke the idea of erasure, of a presence made absent. For example: On VanishingThe Invention of Minus One, and False Start.

JB Yes there’s a taking away, a reduction.

MM What does this theme or motif illustrate?

JB Part of the idea of ephemerality is that it’s here, then it’s gone. Or is it here and is it gone, at the same time? The work is always cyclical that way.

There’s a cultural aspect, too. In terms of practicing choreographers, directors, artists—we don’t see many from North Africa and the Middle East. My father’s family is very connected to that part of the world, so some of my thematic material takes on the idea of disappearance, often the disappearance of people. That gives it an austere feeling that is, to be honest, not everyone’s idea of having a good time at a performance. Sometimes it’s described, depending on the piece, as “tough work.” People disappear, and objects disappear, and images disappear.

In a recent study, they found that only four or five choreographers from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria are acknowledged and professionally circulating in the world, while there are over 1,200 performance non-profits in New York City alone. It’s definitely a question of what’s visible, and what’s invisible. Maybe that contributes to the reduction idea.

MM Are you responding to the idea of family in your work? I’ve noticed that some of your dancers—Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper—are of another generation, sixty or seventy years old. In their gestures—the setting of a collar, for example—there’s something of a personal urgency.

JB Valda just turned eighty, and her energy cycles still far surpass mine. Depending on the work and the number of people, yes, a family constellation will emerge. One work illustrating this principle was Anchises, produced in 2010. Anchises is a gap in the mythological canon, because we don’t quite know what happened to that character, that ancestor. The father dies off anonymously, during a crisis of emigration. I created that work with Harrison Atelier, a design firm.

You’re picking up on the idea that touch is used, and more so than in the works of my formalist predecessors. We touch onstage in my work.

MM I saw a lot of this in your latest work, October 7, 1944, at the Center for Jewish History, which told the story of four women who tried to start a revolt in a Polish concentration camp. The incorporation of touch—hands on hands—made it a very real tragedy, rather than something of the opera.

JB Tragedy is daily. The scale of opera and myth often efface that. In the case of October 7, 1944, the tragedy is about a matter of twenty-one days: these women were in the camp for many years, and liberation came twenty-one days after they were killed.

I was thinking about the human scale of that, and so … the viewer is invited to look at the motion in the videos at eye level or chest level. Never from above. This was how I felt the media could address these very human, very fragile issues. I don’t think live dance performances can take on issues of national responsibility or genocide. After two years of reflection on that project, the curator and I agreed not to include any live elements. I just don’t think that choreography can address that. But what we can do is address human relationships.

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Filter, Jonah Bokaer, 2011. © Anthony Goicolea. Image courtesy of the artist.

MM What are your thoughts on the audience? Given that your work has a personal and ethical framework, I imagine you have hopes for what people will take away.

JB Thank you for mentioning that. I have a saying: if you have two eyes you know about dance. People should be able to view it, approach it, and hold opinions about it. I feel that dance, unlike a lot of text-driven work, which poses language and translation barriers, can be that accessible.

There’s also something about attention. Our public is more and more disposed to shorter performances. In order keep live work with a ticket-purchasing model, I think we’ll probably be seeing shorter programs, in general.

MM You are trying to reach this changing audience with your development of dance-related apps. Your process starts on a digital, animated body before being transferred to a live one, which arguably places you at the forefront of the intersection between dance and technology. Can you explain the way these two mediums interact in your work?

JB There have been four apps I’ve worked on, the idea being that a tablet or mobile device is also a venue. People are more likely to conduct a one-minute download than they are to commute to see a two-hour show. In 2015 I’ll be working with Georgia Tech on my fifth app.

I do have software that’s been designed specifically for my work, which allows me to draw, prefigure, and animate a body. That’s another aspect of the invisible or “vanished” aspect of my work.

MM A doppelgänger that then disappears. But your double sticks around in a few pieces—in Future Tense, when your digital image walks up and down a flight of stairs while you dance alongside it. And in Nudedescendance, in which a projected double does a solo before you interpret its movements.

JB When you choreograph something and then it’s danced, that also creates a double. You transfer or transmit choreography, and another body ends up doing it. It’s the same thing with animation. Even a solo piece involves a double. It’s rarely seen in performance, unless there is an exhibition element that accompanies it. And that’s ok. I want people to see what they see.

In Future Tense, there’s a relationship between the moving figure and the recorded figure, and the latency of the body moving and the image moving. If you think about it, the uses of time are different—projected time vs. physical time. Dance has a lot to contribute to that conversation.

For more on the work of Jonah Bokaer, visit his website.

Madison Mainwaring trained with the Rock School of the Pennsylvania Ballet. She lives in Manhattan.

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