One the most talented choreographers working today, Jonah Bokaer was the youngest member of Merce Cunningham Dance Company before breaking out on his own to collaborate with Robert Wilson, Tino Seghal, Christian Marclay, Anthony McCall, Daniel Arsham and other visual artists and theatre personalities. When not traveling internationally to create new dances or perform with his company, Bokaer can usually be found at Chez Bushwick, the interdisciplinary art and performance space that he co-founded in Brooklyn. FLATT contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with Bokaer at the Bushwick outpost to discuss his artistic development and his collaborative way of working.
PAUL LASTER: When did you first start dancing?
JONAH BOKAER: I grew up in Ithaca, New York. My father is a screenwriter. I grew up with movies and film from him. And my mother is a stage director. They’re both artists. I was always dancing. It was a big family. We were six kids. I would literally stage my siblings in the back yard and make routines and choreograph them. So, it was always in the picture. From age six, I was in some of my mother’s productions and always moving—doing my thing and moving. We found a way, very early on, to get me into some classes.
PAUL LASTER: How did you land a spot dancing with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when you were just 18?
JONAH BOKAER: There was a senior principal dancer that was leaving and they held an audition, which they very rarely did. They were trying to locate a replacement dancer. I went to that audition when I was 17 and still in school at the North Carolina School of the Arts. They didn’t take me at that audition, but about seven months later there was another opening and they hired me. I became the youngest performer Merce ever hired in May 2000.
PAUL LASTER: How long did you dance with the company?
JONAH BOKAER: I danced with Merce for seven years and during that time I also did a degree in visual and media arts at Parsons and the New School. It took a long time to do that degree while dancing, but I was patient. Although Merce really formed me as a dancer, I was always moving toward understanding the visual aspect of things.
PAUL LASTER: What were the lessons that you learned from Merce?
JONAH BOKAER: It was a very close bond that we had—a very close connection, which was an easy relationship. He showed up every day for his work, and that’s what probably marked me the most—more than any of the chance operations or his compositional strategies, which I don’t really use in my work. Just seeing this man who was in his mid- and late-‘80s showing up everyday to his own work was inspiring, really inspiring. And then, the curtain calls he would take: he shows up; he’s there; he’s in the theatre; he bows; he’s with his people; he’s with his team. I think that really marked me.
With the artist collaborations he did, I noticed that there wasn’t a lot of conversation. They were rather isolated, which, of course, is part of the aesthetic; but that propelled me to think about artist collaborations in a different way. I realized the artists he was choosing were mostly abstract artists. They were all Western—American or European. That probably catapulted me in a different direction, from seeing the limitations of that work.
PAUL LASTER: Are there other people that have influenced you?
JONAH BOKAER: I actually think Bob Wilson has impacted me much more directly than Merce did. Merce formed me as a dancer, and I’m grateful for that, but with Bob—whom I still collaborate with—it’s such a different relationship. He calls; we speak; it’s conversational. Bob’s intensity is well known, and a lot of people have written about it, but I find him very collaborative. He really does delegate and he lets people do their thing. He’ll call on the phone and say what do you think about this or that. That’s fed me in a different way—learning how a very different artist is depending on a team and looking at collaborations that fit together, that are consciously constructed.
PAUL LASTER: When did you start creating your own dances?
JONAH BOKAER: I was doing my first dances in 2002. They were mostly solos. Between 2002 and 2006 it was all solo work. And then I put them all together in one evening. That program still tours. In 2007 I decided to do my own work full time, to focus on it.
PAUL LASTER: How do you define your form of movement?
JONAH BOKAER: I always start with the visual design elements—before any movement, before any studies or putting vocabulary together. I start with what’s the space and what’s the visual design going to be? I use that as a fundamental principle for organizing the dance. The dance stops becoming scenic and becomes its own space and installation
PAUL LASTER: Would you call it an immer-sive experience?
JONAH BOKAER: Yes, definitely. I saw two dance concerts this week, which was proscenium work, and they credited scen-ography or scenic design. I’ve tried to really work against that so that it’s actually visual art on the stage. Scenic doesn’t fit. What we’re putting on the stage is by and for artists. Scenography almost sounds like a diminutive way of describing it. For example, when I collaborate with Daniel Arsham, it’s visual art.
PAUL LASTER: I’ve seen four of your performances, and two of them in particular seemed to be created around the objects. They were “Occupant,” a collaboration with Daniel Arsham at the Fabric Workshop and Museum that involved decaying 35mm cameras cast from chalk, and the “Eclipse,” a collaboration with Anthony McCall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with hanging light bulbs that formed a grid within the stage. How were those dances conceived and how did they develop around the objects?
JONAH BOKAER: It’s really about making a space with the visual design elements. Instead of saying there’s a dance and there’s visuals, it’s saying that the dance and the visuals are inseparable. It’s almost like fusing them together. I am so grateful for the chance to have worked with Anthony McCall. He was very involved. In addition to creating the installation, he was very involved in the score and the structure of the piece. He had a lot of contributions to make. He really wanted to work hand-over-hand on that collaboration and I’m very thankful that he did.
PAUL LASTER: What did you do with Tino Seghal?
JONAH BOKAER: In 2008, I was one of the interpreters of “Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things,” his piece at the New Museum in the After Nature show. It’s a piece of his where he took 15 images of Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, which started as still photographs, and laced them together through movement. The dancer breathes and cycles through all 15 of them and it loops. It ran for a few months at the museum. There were five dancers, including myself, that rotated performances. The sequence was set, but each of the five interpreters brought his own timing and phrasing to it.
PAUL LASTER: How did you collaborate with Christian Marclay?
JONAH BOKAER: I met Christian in 2002 because Merce had invited him to tour as a musician with the company. I’ll never forget that tour.
JONAH BOKAER: He came with the Cunningham Company to Portugal, Greece, Sicily, and Berlin. It was an amazing summer tour. I got along with him so well. He was so dynamic and also doing his own things on the road and brought in interesting people. In 2008, he agreed to allow me to use some of his music from an album called Records. I made a dance called “Minus One.” It’s a piece with three channel video animation and three performers. It’s a dance that still tours.
PAUL LASTER: Obviously, the artist that you have most collaborated with is Daniel Arsham. Is it true that you’ve performed at every opening of his since 2007?
JONAH BOKAER: Almost every opening. That’s a tradition of ours. It’s a drum. Daniel has an opening and I do a solo—usually very short, about 10-15 minutes. It’s so touching because it really comes from him. He proposed that starting in 2007 at Galerie Perrotin and I said yes. I always locate one work inside of his exhibition and perform a movement-based work around that work. It’s something that happens in the context of the opening, so it’s usually a rather public, not at all about seating or ticketing. It’s just a performance to mark Daniel’s opening. It’s almost a ritual.
I think the only ones that we’ve missed were last year. We’re both growing a lot so we’re traveling at different times and can’t always overlap. It was hard last year with Singapore and Hong Kong because the company was on tour, but with Arsham repertory.
PAUL LASTER: How in-sync are you guys?
JONAH BOKAER: We are in-sync. Daniel’s studio is about ten minutes away in Greenpoint. We talk weekly. He joined the board of the dance company, which I appreciate. He’s gives an artist’s perspective to all aspects of what we’re doing and it’s really hand-over-hand. Whereas some artists wouldn’t have time or make time, Daniel really makes the time. He’s there. He’s coming on the road. He’s very present. We make space on the tour to bring Daniel or someone from Daniel’s studio, which makes a difference. His materials and his people are with the company.
PAUL LASTER: He was the last artist to collaborate with Merce. I remember interviewing Bonnie Clearwater, who recommended Arsham, about it some years back. Is that when you met?
JONAH BOKAER: Exactly. We met in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. I showed up early onstage to warm-up. I walked in with my things and Daniel was sitting in the auditorium. I was alone onstage and Daniel alone in the auditorium and we said hello and then talked and I got to know him. During that season we ended up spending a lot of time in Miami together, going to visit studios and learning about his life. When he chose to move to New York, our friendship grew.
PAUL LASTER: The other person that seems to be a significant collaborator with you, as you have already touched on, is Robert Wilson. What’s your relationship with him?
JONAH BOKAER: It’s a friendship. We’re very, very connected. He calls me; he has called me in the middle of the night; and I’ve called him in the middle of the night, too. In fact, when Merce died Bob was the first one to call me. It’s very emotional. I’ll give you an example. Artists wrestle with doubt all of the time. We have to do and say and produce and perform, but the doubt is also a part of the picture. When artists can talk with one another these issues level, it’s a very vulnerable place to be. I’m thankful for the kinds of conversations, the very honest conversations that Bob and I have had. I think that kind of a bond can make work stronger. When you really say what you think and you really put yourself out there, it strengthens work. He’s a master at his many things and he has a very public career; but he’s also a real human being. What’s not often said about him is he really does want to give opportunities to young artists and I think that’s often a little bit overlooked.
Bob invited me to choreograph “Faust” in 2007 at the Polish National Opera at Teatr Wielki in Warsaw, which is the largest physical stage in the world. It was the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s text. It was Charles Gounod’s “Faust” and Bob invited me to do the choreography and to do the corps de ballet. That opera has the longest uninterrupted passage of ballets, seven dance sequences in a row. I said yes. I think that was also a part of me deciding to leave Merce, because I knew that I was going to be working on a different scale with much more narrative work and with opera. It’s full of emotion thinking about that transition at that time. Bob really gave me freedom. He taught me an enormous about technical theatre. He’s a master of technical theatre. He’ll use every fly rail in the house. He’ll use every light in the venue. He’ll push the electrical to the capacity. That man can harness a theatre and push a theatre beyond what we might think possible.
PAUL LASTER: You mention lighting. I’ve read that lighting is important to you. How do you think about those details of staging when you’re making a piece, like “The Rebel” that you recently debuted at the SCAD Museum of Art?
JONAH BOKAER: Bob and I have made five works together between ‘07 and the present. The curtain doesn’t go up on a new show unless there’s been 90 hours of lighting per premiere. He’s another one of these people that show up for the 90 hours of lighting. I think that my motor and my stamina come from Bob and from working with him. One of the reasons that I’m able to
sustain this rhythm of production and touring comes more from him and this rigor that he has, even now at age 70. He’s traveling and doing this full force. The first collaboration with him was a huge learning curve, but I got better at it. I’ve taken aspects of his approach. My own dances use 30 hours of lighting, which is an enormous amount for dance. It’s equivalent to four work days, four tech days. It’s challenging for venues to commit to that amount of time and level of detail. It means we work in Europe a lot and a less in the US. That’s a nod to Bob. My way of working with light comes from him.
PAUL LASTER: Even though “The Rebel” is an abstract dance, there’s a narrative nature to it, which I presume comes from working with Wilson. You’re creating a visual story based around Albert Camus’ eponymous novel that has a presence. Is that something that’s important to you in creating a dance?
JONAH BOKAER: I believe I work to distill images, hopefully unforgettable images that I want to present to the public; but it starts with images and I draw them. But yes, it’s much more narrative. The images lend themselves to narration more easily in my work than abstract dance. The project of formal dance and formal abstract dance continues, but it’s almost from another time. I’m not shy of narrative at all. I think it’s OK. We tell stories in different ways today than we did in the ‘30s with Martha Graham. We can think about stories and structure in a different way, and also look at literature from different parts of the world.
PAUL LASTER:The creation of a storyboard relates to your father being a filmmaker?
JONAH BOKAER: Totally.
PAUL LASTER: And the choice of Camus’ The Rebel, is there a full circle with your father?
JONAH BOKAER: Yeah, I went to North Africa for the first time two years ago, just to see where my dad was from. This is much more recent in my work, but I’m trying to connect to that part of the world more deliberately these days and to connect through people and material and sources. There’s a direct link…the work leaps from the “Ulysses Syndrome.” which references my father’s time in Tunisia, to “The Rebel.” And then realizing and going though what Camus had to say about North Africa in that time was really important. It was also the time of my dad’s life in that part of the world. Uncovering all of that was good. I didn’t think a pure abstract approach would be right vocabulary to tackle that. It’s really about people and their stories.
PAUL LASTER: There was another side of the performance that took place in the galleries of SCAD Museum of Art with two dancers. What was that part of it about?
JONAH BOKAER: It was 40 hours of dance and audio. It started with Camus’ Algerian Chronicles, a series of notebooks that he made about the Algerian revolution. We made 40 hours of audio of two female dancers reading his journals. When performing in the galleries, the dancers are listening to each other cycle through his journals to material that never repeats. That was one part of it and then in the theatre David, one of my dancers, and I tackled some of the dramatic writings through movement. We used a lot of creative liberty, but our point of departure was to look at what this man had written in his personal diaries. He had a theatre company that fell apart. He could only keep the theatre company going for two years.
PAUL LASTER: How is that you’ve been able to succeed where so many others tried and failed? It must be a tough business to survive.
JONAH BOKAER: With dance—it’s not that I want to be harsh, I want to be honest—it’s a totally different sector from the visual arts. It’s a non-profit endeavor. Usually you’re doing dance or making dance or structuring dance it’s a charity. Whether you’re fundraising or whether it’s donations or gifts or performance fees or the box office, it’s every different economic model than the visual arts, where there’s commerce. I spend probably 40 percent of my time fundraising every year—making sure that the work, and the dancers and the team and the production has the resources to continue and subsist. I keep going because…make dance, have integrity, support dancers, make strong work is what is love to do, but the fundraising is so consuming. It does get a little easier, but not much.
PAUL LASTER: You have obviously performed on grand stages around the world, but what is it about performing in galleries, say with Daniel Arsham, or at the Guggenheim with Lee Ufan’s work that appeals to you?
JONAH BOKAER: For me, it’s about intensifying the relationship between dance and visual art. That’s what I believe in; that’s what I’m impassioned by; that’s what I stand for. It’s a big history, dance and visual art, or visual artists working with dance. That conversation has had a lot of chapters. I’m very interested in intensifying it and taking a look at new ways that we can present that encounter. That as a program or mission is more important to me than having large numbers of the public see it. It’s about that encounter between dance and visual art. It’s almost more important to me that that holds up and that we stand for that than having 3,000 people in the theatre. If you choose the jewel and you make that one jewel very special, then it could be ten people or ten thousand people. It’s the same mission to me.