Jonah Bokaer Choreography’s Triple Echo and Fast Cannons
The Commons Choir’s mayday heyday parfait
CENTER FOR PERFORMANCE RESEARCH | JANUARY 7-9, 2019
The Million Underscores’ The Third Man
VITAL JOINT | JANUARY 12-13, 2019
In NBC’s virtuosic Mike Schur comedy The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up in an afterlife that appears utopian. It’s complete with custom houses, soul mates, and dessert flavors like “Jeans That Fit Well.” But there’s a glitch: Eleanor is in “The Good Place” by mistake. And when she’s serenaded by a “three-hour spoken word jazz opera,” she suspects that something might be wrong with this approximation of heaven, too. She’s right. She’s actually in the afterlife’s equivalent of Hell, and this performance is meant to torture her.
This scene is built for comedy, but it speaks to the challenging quality of experimental art. At its best, it is spirited, risky, and playful; it combines unexpected components to create work in a new register. But even a slight imbalance of elements can sour an entire performance. You could end up being serenaded by a discordant spoken word jazz opera from “The Jazz-Splainers.” This dynamic lends itself to niche audiences and little funding; it’s a wager to back these experiments.
Still, the Brooklyn-based Exponential Festival takes this risk. Each January since 2016, the multi-venue series has curated a slate of emerging experimental performers who blur and complicate the boundaries of theater, comedy, visual art, and dance. This year’s choreographed offerings include a polemical presentation from an artist collective; two solo pieces that fuse movement with media; and a “homoerotic performance-noir.” At times, these eclectic engagements overextend themselves, but they also speak to the radical possibilities of movement-based performance.
In 2017, an interviewer for Artspace asked The Commons Choir—a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary performance collective founded by Daria Faïn and Robert Kocik—to describe the work of one of its members. The group demurred; the Choir, they explained, “is by definition a ‘commons’ or a coalition or at least a micro-demos.”
We are poly-lingual and multiethnic, the manifestation of the world at large we would want to live in. It’s fair to say that we fully emphasize our differences as a way of understanding indivisibility…. We constantly work with the idea of the “exarchon” from Greek tragedy—individual performers alternately step forward to lead, cue, tune, time or create what is taking place.
This answer says as much about the composition of the group as it does about their performances. Over the last ten years, The Commons Choir has sculpted ambitious works that actively resist categorization. They feature dance, spoken word, and music; they also invoke architecture, psychoacoustics, photobiology, and contemplative science. Pull at a single thread of a project and you’ll discover that you’re trying to disassemble a knot.
The latest version of The Commons Choir’s evening-length work mayday heyday parfait at the Center for Performance Research (CPR) begins with a memo from Kocik. What you are about to see, he explains, is an “investigated musical about the displacement and interchange of people.” It will span the “age of discovery to now, present-day Brooklyn.”
It’s Sisyphean to track the history of human strife in a single performance; the nine artists who appear in the work, though, approach this task with a seriousness and intensity that shows they’re trying. They warble. They shout. They proffer manifestos on change and stasis. Choice missives include “Once there was, and once there wasn’t,” “Some things never keep changing,” and “Drop everything.” They even handle a wooden set piece, shaped like a globe and rolled like a yoke.
Ichi Go, one of the dance “exarchons” of the group, leads in this effortful movement. She thumps and whirs while her peers rail against capital, empire, and discrimination; she crouches in a defensive stance as they rattle off threats to the world’s stability, including “airplanes in buildings” and “reality on TV.” Even when the group sits cross-legged and stands erect, though their movements have a sense of gravity. One wonders just how saturated their project can be before it collapses under its own weight.
One of the event’s brightest moments comes when three members of the collective—Go, Saúl Ulerio, and Ilona Bito—perform simultaneous solos at the center of the room. Their bodies each rumble with a sort of internal, unconscious rhythm. From the wings of the space, their peers elevate their steps; composer and musical director Anaïs Maviel offers a ringing celestial accompaniment. Perhaps this sequence connotes a sort of revelation, a breakthrough to the “manifestation of the world at large we would want to live in.” But what if it’s also an instance of the performers unlatching themselves—their bodies—from an unwieldy project?
The Million Underscores and Nicolas Noreña’s The Third Man also has a seriousness to it; in contrast to the confident mayday heyday parfait, though, this piece, performed at Vital Joint, has a more furtive, pulsing intensity. The engagement is designed for two stage performers, a projectionist, and two audience members. Upon arrival, the projectionist gives the two patrons earbuds and iPhones and cues them to hit play on a 36-minute track.
While the audience listens to a scripted noir voiced by Timothy Scott—about a forlorn private eye and complete with arson, murder, and lust—the projectionist tinkers with torn loose leaf paper for a makeshift backdrop. The two stage performers act out a silent accompaniment to the drama. One of them is Noreña, billed as “Man with the mustache;” Tanya Marquardt, Paul Langland, and Alessandro Magania all take turns as Jim, the private eye. (This reviewer saw Magania in the role.) Classical music saturates the intimate basement haunt.
There’s a way to discuss this physical performance in terms of dance. The performers shuffle against the walls when they want to convey sneakiness, bring their hands up to their faces in shock, and plunk to the floor when the noir takes a narrative turn. At one point, they even perform a duet. Mostly, though, they stand still or pace around the space. “Jim” adjusts his hat in a mirror. Noreña undresses. There’s consistent movement throughout the 36 minutes, but then there’s movement in a more traditional play, too.
The unexpected choreographic feat here is in the projections. This work alone could constitute a sort of dance, a delicate work of shadow puppetry. Tear a hole in a page and you’re left with a spotlight; rip out a shape and you have a backdrop. Refract the light in just the right way and reflect the audience’s raw impressions.
The combination of an audio track, music, performers, and projections—all for an audience of two—can verge on cluttered. And the creative decisions might seem, in passing, arbitrary. Why are there only two patrons per viewing? Why not play the audio track from the same speakers as the music? Why do the performers hold a full-length mirror in front of the audience? But the performers help see these choices through; they commit to them with every step, every glance, every beat of the work.
The Commons Choir’s Kocik made clear that the piece on display at CPR was an excerpt from a work that is constantly being “reorganized” and “recontextualized.” Noreña offers a similar conditional in the program for The Third Man, explaining that the group has “been developing it over the years like this, presenting it for two people at a time.” He goes on:
This format has allowed us to maintain our curiosities awake, learning from every audience; it has allowed us to change it and change it, wondering what if and how about—and testing our questions in the intimate architecture of two performers, one projectionist, two audience members, one story, and Chaos… We continue to change. We continue asking questions. We continue allowing room for Dear Chaos. We continue performing.
This embrace of chaos is spirited and slippery and teeming with risk. It raises the stakes for any performer, but the alternative is more staid and cautious art. Jonah Bokaer’s two Exponential Festival selections, which shared a bill with mayday heyday parfait at CPR, offers a more pared down example of experimental movement. Though Bokaer works with video and live dance, choreography is not simply an element of a multidisciplinary collage. It is central.
In Triple Echo (2015), dancer Sara Procopio performs a slow, statuesque solo to an original score by Stavros Gasparatos. She grazes the walls and presses herself against a projected video, propped on its side and split across two panels, of what looks like a rehearsal scene. Her hands wash over her shoulders; spark to the skies; extend in gratitude or commemoration or perhaps pain. Despite this charged choreography, her face and shoulders are alternately stonelike and slack, and the result is an emotionally stripped performance. In Bokaer’s solo Fast Cannons (2018), performer Wendell Gray II executes another set of angular moves. He, too, shifts between being sharp and lax. And his gaze is, similarly, disinterested. There’s experimentation in their restraint.
For the last ten years, Bokaer and choreographer John Jasperse have run the CPR out of a Williamsburg venue. It’s both an incubator and performance space. This January, they announced a milestone: they have paid off their mortgage. That a scrappy, experimental space has now solidified itself as a Williamsburg institution seems like a coup. As its website notes, “CPR is the result of artistic vision and market forces coming together.” But what responsibilities or limitations come with operating such a space? Market forces don’t favor two-person audiences, and tickets to see “micro-demos” aren’t on StubHub.
The Exponential Festival registers this challenge: it claims to champion “ecstatic creativity in the face of commercialism.” There’s freedom in art that resists profit. It can thrive with micro-budgets, small spaces, and limited runs. This type of performance, as the festival credo notes, affords a radical model for “inclusiveness and a diversity of artists, forms, and ideas.” At the same time, it can be difficult to resist the market forces that sustain other artists. An incredible degree of dedication and often thankless effort goes into performing, say, the same show for two people at a time in an unmarked Brooklyn basement.
Another line from the Good Place feels fitting here—this one, from Jacksonville EDM DJ Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto). “I wasn't a failed DJ,” he says of his career. “I was pre-successful.” Again, it’s a punchline, but the idea that art that isn’t commercially viable isn’t successful is worth reimagining. It’s worth allowing room for Dear Chaos.
ERICA GETTO is a writer based in Brooklyn.