The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

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JUL-AUG 2013 Issue


The choreographer Jonah Bokaer is the most meticulous of artists and the most meticulous of personages—elegant, courteous, soft-spoken, self-contained, and focused. It would be wrong to describe him as restrained, because he doesn’t seem to be holding anything back. His works—in which he appears—are masterpieces of control in every aspect—the movement to be sure, but also the lighting, the décor, the music, and the very molecules of the air around him. Of all of these, the light is perhaps the most controlled. He chooses what you will see, how you will see it. In this Bokaer resembles the second master craftsman with whom he worked: Robert Wilson, whose signal characteristic is über-control of all theatrical elements—words, mise-en-scène, and movement all in equilibrium, as if components of an intellectually driven interior décor. This kind of superintendence is—and I find this compellingly—the antithesis of the way of Bokaer’s first aesthetic mentor, Merce Cunningham.

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.

Cunningham famously left everything but the movement to collaborators, with little in the way of suggestion or direction other than the duration of time, achieving a Zen-ish depersonalization that, paradoxically, made the work uniquely personal and instantly recognizable. So too, the Cunningham dancers, whom Bokaer joined when he was 18 years old.

There was a plushness to him then, glowing in the stage lights like a beautiful puppy, radiant of visage, dedicated of purpose, and endearing. He stayed for seven years, partnering an older blonde beauty he flattered at every turn, growing up, and being given a rare, and as far as I know, unique chance to choreograph his own solo within a larger work. (In “Split Sides,” it transpires as a small tour de force with which Bokaer’s successor Silas Riener enjoyed show-stopping popularity.) Cunningham would say: “Jonah is a man of the theater.”

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.

This man of the theater morphed his “Split Sides” solo over time—it contained for a while a witty and beautiful swan allusion of which I was especially enamored—growing less creaturely and more precise. Sharp, like a titanium Swiss Army knife. The rest of his performances probably changed along the same lines, but it would have been harder to see since the qualities might have changed, but not the movement. Certainly his body changed from plush to linear. Later, one could look back and see that these changes were not only of body, but also of mind. Or that they were in him the same thing.

Still in his 20s, he departed from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to make his own choreography, while also working for Wilson, whom he cites in an essay in the book “BAM: The Complete Works” as the artist he most admires. Perhaps given their stature, it is inevitable that Wilson, and even more so Cunningham, are still invoked in discussing Bokaer’s work, though he has made some 32 dance works of his own, plus works in video, film, motion capture, apps, and interactive installations. I’ve done it myself—though I think another influence or inspiration is often overlooked. That would be William Forsythe, whose deconstructed ballet alphabet Bokaer mastered, and taught in software workshops. But it is Wilson you hear or read, or Cunningham, or just Merce. How frustrating, perhaps—no matter the affection one holds and no matter the respect—to read and hear all the time about the early influences, these “fathers.” At least I won’t be making that mistake again, because I know now who Jonah’s father is.

His name is Tsvi Bokaer, father of six. As Jonah himself once put it, he “flew the coop” at age 16 to study dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and left Ithaca, New York behind. And now, 15 years later, for the work he calls “The Ulysses Syndrome,” he  invited his father to join him on his migrant home: the stage. The piece was comissioned by the French and inspired by a cancelled tour to Tunisia.

He has made a work that—after a run last May at Gould Hall as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s World Nomads Festival—takes up an extended occupancy in one’s head. In the theater, it seemed glacially paced yet pierced by intermittent warmth, and overall, slight. In the weeks since, it has soaked up thought like a sponge. Now, it feels to me like a work that may—when we are far enough away to look back—seem like an end, or a beginning. So that everything else comes before it, and everything else comes after it. I am not sure whether it is a resting place, or a springboard, or if I am merely in the grip of some kind of over-reading, or, really, over-writing. But to me, this dance says: This is my father; this is where I came from; these are the footsteps I walk in.

And bare feet, at that. Bare and similar. We are not talking about influence, or choice, or making any kind of decision, or having any kind of reaction. We are talking about actual resemblance. You don’t need to be told about it; you don’t need to intuit it. You look at Jonah, and you look at Tsvi, who is 71, and there it is. The same feet. The same legs, slim in jeans. Jonah in a dark pullover, with a scruff of beard, his glossy hair very close-cropped. Tsvi wearing a simple, crisp button down. Not costumes, then, but clothes. Oddly, Jonah is the more formal. But the legs and the feet are equally formal; those high arches, those slender limbs. Choreography recapitulates ontogeny.

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome. Photo © Bénédicte Longechal.

The piece begins with the men seated upstage, leaning on a wall. The feeling is of heat, weariness, and waiting. Time passes. Day turns to night; there are ambient sounds, or perhaps the afternoon heat overcomes Tsvi, who lies down. Much later, Jonah will return to this wall, but on the other side of the stage, and perch against it with his foot raised at an angle in a curious unrepose, as if it were not exactly a wall, but not quite a floor. It’s the most enigmatic moment of the piece. The posture itself is nothing anyone would do, or does. (Similarly enigmatic are some pieces of what look like newspaper that begin on the floor, then are taken up and carefully manipulated, and hung on some low-hanging lighting fixtures as if they were laundry.) It’s curious, but you can’t linger to wonder if it isn’t a horizontal pose made vertical. You just look at this kind of thing and move on, because if you stop to question it you will miss what is happening. Even when the work is slow, you have to stay in the now.   

This is what happens after that opening wall prologue: Jonah Bokaer crawls away from the wall, and from his father’s side, away from the easy, Mediterranean intimacy enacted there. He moves on all fours, hands and feet, in an intricate, low creep, suggestive of an elegant insect, a fastidious cat. It’s an immaculate and careful transit to center stage. “I’ve never seen him crawl before,” I thought. “But Tsvi has.” Because once upon a time, Baby Jonah must have lit out across the living room floor, away from his father, bent on action, escape, exploration, something.

In an interview with the New York Times and in his press materials, the choreographer says that he considers this piece a solo despite the continuous presence of his father, who is sometimes leaning on the proscenium with heroic nonchalance, sometimes competing, as in a game of ring toss of a sort, played seated, with rings removed from his fingers—a little like jacks, a little like miniature bocce. (I saw, in pentimento, the game of jacks sometimes played in Cunningham “Events.”) At one point, together, they mime a shoot-out with unseen forces, the lights popping off with each shot. How is this a solo? For the entire 60-minute dance transpiring to an occult text—Tsvi’s “screenplay” in 12 cantos called “Le Danseur Errant et la Méditerranée”—the two of them are on stage.

I considered that for a day or two. And then I thought, “Of course.” Tsvi is, after all and first of all, Jonah’s father. It would be possible for Jonah alone to occupy this landscape Tsvi devised and Jonah made visible, for Jonah to dance this work alone, or continue it alone, or write a next chapter. But the other way around? Tsvi in the world without Jonah? Who can contemplate that; who would want to? Least of all, Tsvi.

I love curtain calls, and theirs were some of my favorite ever. Jonah, usually so controlled, his affect so pristine, broke out in a grin at his father, happy. And Tsvi, hand clasped to his heart, center stage, in the limelight. And Jonah moved them off. I could almost hear him thinking, “Let’s go—Dad??”

 A few days later I wrote to him and asked, “What did you call your father, growing up? And what do you call him now? I find myself imagining you addressing him.” Ever courteous, Jonah wrote back. “I always refer to Tsvi as Tsvi, though sometimes in technical rehearsals we call each other T.B. and J.B. We rehearsed in English, French, Italian depending on the section (and Judeo-Arabic for the jokes).”

There is, as it happens, an actual state (or lack of state) psychologists call the “Ulysses syndrome.” It afflicts immigrants, wanderers, those separated from their people, or their place of origin. It is named of course for Homer’s Ulysses, who came from Ithaca. The symptoms are various, having to do with the clash of dream and reality, homesickness, and regret, among other perturbations. There is nothing in Jonah Bokaer’s work that suggests a leap into the generalized-self-referential, like the idea that we are all exiles, or any such soupy thinking. It is extremely specific: Tsvi was born in Tunis, in the Mediterranean, across whose blue waters lies Greece, and Ithaca. To sail there, you’d tack between Sicily and Malta. Jonah was born where Tsvi moved—that other Ithaca, split by gorges and drowned in snow.


Nancy Dalva

NANCY DALVA writes from Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2013

All Issues