The last time New York-based dancer/choreographer/media artist Jonah Bokaer performed in Los Angeles, it was with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, more than 10 years ago. Indeed, the multi-hyphenate was 18 when he had the distinction of being the youngest dancer ever to join the iconic troupe in 2000, staying until 2007.
And while much has transpired since then, Bokaer is fired up that he and his colleagues are finally making a long-awaited debut at the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall, February 10. The bill features three works, including the West Coast premiere of “Rules Of The Game,” made together with designer Daniel Arsham and music co-composed by Grammy award winner and Oscar-nominated pop guru Pharrell Williams, and Oscar award-winning David Campbell.
Speaking by phone from New York, Bokaer, the son of a Tunisian father and a Welsh-Scottish mother, is the first to acknowledge that, although Cunningham is a “towering reference, he is not relevant to my working methods—or choreographically,” adding that, “none of my work is made by chance—it is all conscious construction.”
To further delineate the differences between Cunningham’s process, which included rehearsing without a score until, perhaps, the last moment, Bokaer explained, “We dance to the music—in this case, Pharrell—who is such a different kind of pop and production master-mind. I’m thankful for that physical training I received from Merce, but “Rules” is a crossover work.”
Bokaer, who trained in dance at Cornell University, graduating from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and also receiving degrees in Visual & Media Studies at the New School in New York, has been dubbed, “contemporary dance’s Renaissance man,” by Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times. With “Rules,” which premiered in Dallas last November at the SOLUNA International Music and Arts Festival and featured the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Campbell (who had also arranged the score), Bokaer said the genesis of the 40-minute opus was inspired, in part, by Luigi Pirandello’s play of the same name.
“If you were to dissect the structure—what I would call a scene-by-scene faithful skeleton of Pirandello—it is textless, but you’ll see certain echoes—the lovers fight, the men duel. But it’s transposed into such an urban, contemporary format that it’s really iconoclastic.”
And while many scoff at the notion of the ‘C’ word—crossover—Bokaer embraces the concept.
“The idea to include and to work with and commission Pharrell, had to do with a passion for sharing dance with audiences of today. I think that this composer and genius has found ways to cross over, to stay innovative and be a kind of polymath and cultural producer on a prolific scale.
“But doing dance was a new frontier for him,” added Bokaer. “For his willingness to go there, I am so grateful. He has given a gift to dance.”
That propitious collaboration stemmed from Arsham having worked with Williams for the past several years, including covering Williams in plaster and creating a full-body cast that was then exhibited in Paris in 2014, marking the release of Williams’ second studio album, Girl.
As for process, Bokaer explained that Williams was involved with everything from the creative inception and meetings to the listening sessions, and that “he took a bow with us at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music],” another co-commissioner of the work.
Added Arsham: “Williams was more observant than you would expect. It was the first work he made for an orchestra, and watching him navigate that—both in terms of how his ideas translate into an orchestra and how that might interact with the performance—was interesting. He was not overbearing, but very specific about what he thinks, and he did take a lot of notes from both Jonah and David.”
With eight dancers, “Rules” also features Arsham’s arresting film backdrop, one punctuated with ceramic basketballs and classical busts that waft through the blackness like heavenly creatures. These same objects appear onstage, as well, props with which the performers interact.
The other two works on the program, “Recess” (2010), set to the music of Stavros Gasparatos, and “Why Patterns” (2011), which makes use of Morton Feldman’s 1978 score of the same name, were also created in conjunction with Arsham, whose artistic partnership with Bokaer goes back a decade and is emblematic of the pair’s synergy.
Notes Bokaer: “I think that the shared years as young artists is a very deep bond. Those formative years of trying and succeeding and risking and having changes in your life and going through it together—that’s deep. They always say that the art is the easy part—and I believe that—whereas, production, the realization [of a project] is difficult.”
Bokaer and Arsham met when Arsham, now 37, was creating stage designs for Cunningham, including the 2006 work, “eyeSpace.” The pair, who also had mutual friends, had collaborated before Cuningham’s death in 2009, “but,” recalled Arsham, “it was after Merce died that our collaboration started getting more in-depth.
“And the process for how we made work was very different than Merce’s, since Merce’s was entirely based in a chance procedure, Jonah would never know what I was making for the choreography in advance of it, and I wouldn’t know what the dance was going to be.
“The way Jonah and I work,” added Arsham, “is quite the opposite. The stage elements are in some ways motivating a lot of the movement, and the dancers interact with them quite heavily within the performance.”
To wit, “Why Patterns.” Cast with the work’s four original dancers—Laura Gutierrez, James McGinn, Szabi Pataki and Sara Procopio—it is testament, in part, to Bokaer’s sense of mischief. Featuring 10,000 ping pong balls designed by Arsham’s company, Snarkitecture, and a re-imagined Feldman score (Alexis Georgopoulos/ARP is also credited in the program), the work has the dancers cavorting amid the balls, as well as whimsically engaging with them: blowing, bouncing, tossing them.
“We wanted the kind of glassy, sublime aspects of Morton Feldman to become playful, so that’s where I think Daniel intervened, to great success,” said Bokaer, who is working on another work set to a Feldman score.
Since the composer died in 1987 and might not be well known to younger generations, Bokaer pointed out that he takes a “long arc and view of projects and participants and collaborators. These forms, like Feldman’s music,” he added, “may pass away, where audiences for these kinds of work are dwindling, and it takes incredible, deliberate kinds of intervention to keep audiences active and engaged.”
Someone who knows a thing or two about audiences is Kristy Edmunds, artistic director of CAP UCLA. She has been tracking Bokaer since 2007, and saw one of the dancer’s last performances with the Cunningham troupe at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, which she helmed from 2005-2008.
“Jonah’s work is very conceptual, highly precise and very specific. When I watch the movement material, you can see that there’s a tight calibration around the design aesthetic. They’re incredibly facile and doing a lot of different things, but the work is as much informed in visual art as it is in dance and choreography.”
Edmunds also wanted to offer a survey of Bokaer’s work in order to “create access points with visiting artists.” To that end, CAP UCLA has partnered with the Miami-based Young Arts Foundation and is presenting a week’s worth of related activities. Included are a Young Arts Salon on February 8 (Edmunds moderates a discussion with Bokaer and Arsham), and a demonstration performance for LAUSD students the morning of February 10 at Royce Hall.
Explained Edmunds: “Jonah’s ability to talk through design strategies, choreographic care, how he works as a visual artist and how he works in design, I think that’s important to another generation of dancemakers, and performance makers and visual artists, for that matter.”
As for L.A. audiences seeing Bokaer’s work for the first time, Edmunds believes that they’ll react, “like they always do. Some will respond with that extraordinary relief of a discovery and feel like, ‘Whoa, where did this come from? I’m so thrilled I got to be exposed to this work.’ While others,” she added, “visual art, design and architecture people in the audience, they’ll read it in a different way than dance people. When you have a great mix in audiences, it tends to be an exciting receipt of work.”
Bokaer, also cognizant of his audiences, prefers calling them, “users or groups or fans or participants, because we push a lot of digital content out. I think audiences are changing,” he continued. “They tend to be inclined towards shorter works, because a three-act ballet is a hard sell these days.”
To illustrate that, Bokaer said he recently made a “Scheherazade” for the Royal Ballet of Flanders that runs a mere 40 minutes. “One has to measure the attention span of the public and how that’s changing. Audiences are consuming more through images now and through more succinct ways of getting information.”
Having authored a whopping 57 works in a variety of media, including choreography, video, opera, motion capture works and museum appearances, Bokaer not only makes original works on paper, does animation and develops apps, but is also dancing a solo in “Recess.”
One wonders, then, how he rations his time.
“I have never needed much sleep,” he admits, “and I do what I call a hybrid practice. This season, for example, I had major museum exhibitions in Paris, in Puebla, Mexico, and many others. Sometimes it’s hard to tell that [kind of] story, but that is an integral part of my practice and not a side thing. That’s again why the work is so visual on the stage. It’s a hyper-graphic way of doing dance.”
And while Bokaer’s might seem like a hyper-existence, he maintains it by training in chi gong and yoga. “These two techniques create very powerful performances and physical clarity. It’s an energy management system. We have a method that we use with myself and the eight dancers, called ‘solo studies.’ There is training and warming up before we even begin rehearsal.
“I do believe,” continued Bokaer, “that in a lot of dance companies or ensembles, the dancers are asked to do it themselves. But I’ve been careful and specific about the building blocks and how it relates to what we ask for on the stage. But it’s also about building powerful images and unforgettable performances.”
That last notion might also have roots in Bokaer’s decade-long working relationship with 75-year old Robert Wilson, a theater and opera giant known for his glacial movement style and sumptuous lighting. Having choreographed a number of operas for Wilson, including “Faust” (Polish National Opera) and “Aida” (Tetra dell’ Opera did Roma), Bokaer can’t lavish enough praise on the high priest of theater.
“His work is breathtaking, Wagnerian. With Bob Wilson, it’s love, a complete connected, loving relationship. And it’s very collaborative, whereas with Merce, it was kind of methodical, austere and absent. Bob taught me the stage from the outside. It’s incredibly rigorous and durational, and I just think it transformed my notion of how to harness the theater.”
Bokaer further described Wilson’s work as imagistic, adding, “I think you can see traces and influences of Bob in my work, although my work is more urban and kinetic, as well. Bob drew a lot of inspiration in the ‘70s from the East—theatrically and aesthetically, and I think he has stayed with that aesthetic line. I tend to be drawn to the Mediterranean and the Middle East—maybe it’s my heritage.”
In addition to his artistic work, Bokaer, who has been awarded numerous fellowships, including a Guggenheim, founded Brooklyn’s Chez Bushwick in 2002, and CPR—Center for Performance Research—in 2008, two independent arts centers that nurture young artists in New York City and internationally, initiatives that earned him a New York Dance and Performance Bessie Award in 2007.
“I’m so honored that Chez Bushwick and CPR are still alive and well in New York. It’s a labor of love and is incredibly time consuming to continue and hold the risk for Brooklyn performance spaces,” Bokaer insists, “but we have to. This is my way that future kids will have the kinds of opportunity that I did.”