The kid's got moves
Over its 55 years of existence, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has produced quite a number of choreographers. Among the former dancers of the man considered the father of post-modernist dance are two of the most outstanding choreographers in the United States: Paul Taylor and Karole Armitage (the "punk ballerina"). At the same time, Jonah Bokaer, also a former dancer in the company, may be the first successor to the late Cunningham, at least in terms of his vision and artistic worldview.
Like Cunningham, Bokaer, 28, is interested in technology, and creates his choreographies with computer program Dance Forms. In addition, he often collaborates with artists from various fields and get his inspiration from creative artists who are identified with Cunningham's work, such as Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns; he often performs his works in unconventional spaces (for example, a church or an airport), as well as in the open urban space; and his language of movement is amazingly minimalist and clean, almost on the verge of ballet.
"I worked with Merce for eight years, as well as with choreographers John Jasperse [no relation to the artist] and David Gordon," says Bokaer in a phone interview. "I think that what they all have in common is the conceptual aspect of their work, and that definitely influenced me. In my works I usually begin with the concept. My choreography always deals with moving images, and always requires a very physical performance. I think that the real difference between me and them is that my works are very interdisciplinary."
And in fact his works often blur the borders between various fields. For example, in "Relative" (2006) he tried to examine the concept of mimicry in the sense of the study and teaching of movement. In the work, which is performed by him and his three brothers, Bokaer is seen imitating movements shown on a screen.
According to his Web site, "Dancers primarily learn movement by copying other dancers, teachers, choreographers, or skilled individuals. Bokaer's work "Relative" collapses this foundation, by learning and performing movements from a digital avatar, so that the process of mimicry is self-constructed, both doubling and subverting traditional dance conventions."
His favorite choreographers have highly varied styles. He mentions the names Yasmeen Godder, Keith Hennessy (U.S.), Alain Platel (Belgium), Christian Rizzo (France), Michael Schumacher (Holland), William Forsythe (Germany) and Padmini Chettur (India).
Bokaer's official address is New York, but he actually wanders all over the world with his works, and in the coming year he is scheduled to spend only 21 days at home.
Behind him are eight years as a dancer in Cunningham's company, over 20 dances that he created as well as two centers for performing arts in Brooklyn that he helped establish.
His works are in demand internationally and recently he was named as one of the "Nifty 50: America's up-and-coming talents," in The New York Times T Magazine.
"Offstage Bokaer speaks softly and moves gently. More monk than acrobat," was how the magazine described him.
For the purpose of his first work, "Octave" (2004), which was inspired by Duchamp's famous work "Bicycle Wheel," Bokaer collected 5,000 used subway MetroCards and asked volunteers to throw them at him while he was dancing. In his new work, "Why Patterns," which will have its debut performance at the end of the month, there are four dancers from the Dutch dance troupe Dance Works Rotterdam, who use 5,000 ping-pong balls.
"Replica," a duet that he created last year for himself and Judith Sanchez Ruiz, and which deals with memory loss and other things, will be performed this year in nine cities worldwide, and may also be staged in Tel Aviv.
Strong memories of Israel
Bokaer was born in Ithaca, New York to a mother who was a theater director and a father who was a Tunisian-born film director. The father immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and left Israel for Los Angeles.
His paternal grandfather was an Olympic gymnast, and his maternal grandfather was the famous director Arthur Lithgow. Bokaer has a dozen cousins living in Israel, which he first visited at the age of four.
"Those are strong early memories," he says. "It's very funny that some of the first dance performances that I saw as a child were those of the Batsheva and Bat Dor dance troupes [from Israel], when they performed in the United States."
Since then he has frequently visited Israel.
Bokaer began to study ballet in his hometown, and in the mid-1990s he performed in central roles in the local ballet troupe, the Ithaca Ballet. Afterward, he studied at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Washington Ballet, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and Cornell University, where he was exposed for the first time to the principles of Cunningham's technique. At the same time he started to study in the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and during the last year of school he began to study in Cunningham's studio in New York.
A short time later, when he was 18, he became the youngest dancer to join Cunningham's troupe. During his eight years in the troupe he completed a parallel degree in Visual and Media Studies at the New School, and became involved in various social activities, including establishing community cultural centers.
Dancing in the dark
Bokaer describes his relationship with Cunningham, who died last July, as very positive. "We never had a difficult period together," he says. "We worked closely on his new choreographies, and toward the end of my work in the troupe I had an opportunity to create animation with him in his home. That was an excellent experience. Merce was very demanding but also very patient, and that was a good foundation for the training, the work and the activity of the troupe."
Cunningham fans will recall Bokaer from the lovely solo in "Split Sides" (2003) in which he looked like a wind-up doll. Bokaer said the solo was half-created in the dark, during the major blackout in New York City that summer.
"He (Cunningham) staged a series of positions, then verbally dictated to me how to move from one another, using descriptions like 'crumble, melt, slam, wind, toss, or move like a snake' - he wanted me to make the connections, using them to punctuate or cut up the time," Bokaer says. "It had a very jagged texture. I felt like he knew my body very well, the dance was kind of a portraiture."
Bokaer has been creating choreographies since 2003. His work pattern includes creating a solo (usually performed by him) and group work every year. The group work can also include a large number of participants. For example, for the opera "Faust" staged by Robert Wilson, which debuted two years ago in Warsaw, Bokaer created a choreography for 90 dancers, all from the Polish National Dance Company.
He says that his creative process usually begins with drafts using the Dance Forms software.
"Normally it begins with animation, I'm doing solo sketches on Dance Forms, and later on I go into the studio and check them on myself," he says. "During the second stage I decide who my collaborators are. You can definitely say that I usually begin with a visual component, and that the decision about integrating the media into the work is a key point in its nature and development."
What advantages do you find in working with the computer program?
"It's such a new way of thinking that it takes me a lot of time to integrate it into my work. It makes structural things more easy, watch reversals, how to make materials and see patterns in a new way. It also allows you to document choreography so easily. It makes choreography less slippery and more concrete, you can e-mail it."
Your work seems to be as poetic in the sense that it deals with dualities, with reduction and disappearance, and in doing so asks questions about the nature of movement and about what turns it into dance. Do you agree with that analysis?
"Its true, my work deals with absence, collapse, negation, reduction, and researching concepts of duplication. I believe that these themes developed as a result of my media studies and my profound involvement in media art. The use of animation, screening and other media in order to create movement leads in the end to questions of this type about the origin of movement and about how it duplicates itself."