Jonah Bokaer By Jennifer Tarrazi-Scully

the-backstage-beat-logojonah-bokaer

It was a long tough week slugging through kids, work, the schedule, and the 5ams to the 10 pms, the emotional ups and downs and getting ready for a house guest. I was a little stressed out and frazzled but being the dance junkie I am, I had a performance to look forward to.  Saturday night I made it out again to one of my favorite Theaters in town, The Ferst.  This time to Jonah Bokaer the recipient of this year’s ARTech Residency at Georgia Tech.  It has been a long time since I’ve seen someone new and fresh and I was really looking forward to it.  I also did something I’ve never done before, I took my mother.  There have been many times where she has seen me perform, but I don’t think we have ever sat in the audience together.  I have to say she was a good sport to leave her grandchildren behind and accompany me.

The evening started out the moment we arrived at The Ferst.  In the side galleries there was video footage playing on the walls.  One was of dancers in a tent lit from the inside, another looked like a computer generated cardboard cutout of a dancer linked to other cutouts rotating around and around.  The last image was a couple of moving animated figures.  This was nice foreshadowing for what was to come.  As we entered the house the curtain was up and the stage was bathed in blue light.  There was also a gold platform set up in the center surrounded by little winter trees.  Yes, my friends, trees.  Needless to say, I was excited and the tone was set.

Jonah Bokaer is a young choreographer out of NYC, with a very extensive pedigree.  He attended Cornell Univ. and got his degree from the N.C. School of the Arts.  At a very young age he was recruited for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  With his long arms and legs and his perfectly arched feet I would have guessed this without looking at the program.  He has the quintessential Cunningham physique.  He went on to get a visual media degree from the New School and studied media and performance at Parsons School of Design.  He also dabbles with digital media and 3-D animation on his own.  He has worked with the likes of John Jaspers, David Gordon, Robert Wilson and many more.  Now at the ripe age of 25ish he is touring his choreography internationally.

Before the show began we got a little tutorial from the choreographer and were told that we could interact with the performance.  “Please Turn ON your phones!” was announced at the beginning which is contrary to what one usually hears.  Music technology master’s students Stephen Garrett, Anosh Daruwalla and Nathan Weitzner, under the direction of Professor Jason Freeman, developed an iPhone app called MASS MOBILE.  As audience members we could download the application and light up the trees and control colors on the set.  I do not have an iPhone but my seat neighbor kindly let me see his.  It was a pretty cool feature.

The concert consisted of two pieces.  The first one was the US premier of FILTER.  Four dancers in union suits, two in navy and two in white, slowly, liquidly moved throughout the space.  The movement was very Cunningham-like with a release edge to it.  Subtle and quiet, I felt I was watching four campers sleep walking through a snowy forest.  This strong image was a constant for me throughout the piece.   There was a nice moment when three dancers lifted one in navy over their heads like a log.  At this point I noticed he was the only one in long sleeves, a detail which would be significant later.

Another element to this piece I thought was really smart was the way Bokaer used the platform to cut the space.  I like a choreographer who is willing to define the performance area in different ways.  Obviously, it lay on the floor and dancers were on top and around it.  It was tilted up and a duet of mirrored images occurred in front, like a man having a conversation with his own shadow, as the other duet hid behind.  It was used as a balance board, and it tilted as one dancer fell and was supported by another.  At this point, the platform was attached to ropes held by the other dancers, like a sleigh during Christmastime.  My favorite moment in the whole show was a stunning floor solo.  The choreography was refreshingly faster here.  Wiggly and sharp the dancer reminded me of a worm squirming after a rain storm, or a camper having a disturbing dream.  The curtain dropped behind him after he settled into a comfortable fetal position.  He laid there for an awkwardly long time.

The next time we see the performance space, the gold platform was suspended from the ceiling at table height, revealing another raised area upstage.  It took this audience member a minute to realize that there was live music coming from this area, and the dancer with the long sleeves was the musician.  The other dancers were now able to go under the plank and use it like a table.  The three gentlemen move gesturally with their upper bodies, like architects looking over blueprints.  The forth dancer in his new role as singer, emitted eerie notes as he walked forward.   They all rolled off the stage into the pit to sleep for another uncomfortable amount of time.  I do love it when work extends past the parameters of the stage.  The piece moved on at the same pace until the end, past a section with no set but smoke lingering in the air.  The audience could interact and light up the smoke in different colors from their iPhones.

REPLICA was the last dance of the evening.  We were greeted with a giant block with crushed sides as though it had been hit with a hammer or body parts.  This cube was a vehicle for many things, one of which was a surface to project images on.  Retrograde was a choreographic manipulation used a lot in this piece.  Video was played backwards, phrases were done backwards, but it was subtle not obvious which seems to be a strong element in Bokaer’s work.  All the great ideas and high production were amazing, but they did overshadow the fact that there were two beautiful dancers on stage, one of which being Bokaer himself and the lovely CC Chang.    On the videos we saw the dancers emerging from or submerging into the box.  We also got to witness jagged holes being produced live on the prop by a third party.  This image added and interesting topography for the stage.

The evening was thought-provoking, it was chalk full of genius ideas, but it wasn’t for the average theater goer.  Jonah Bokaer is an artist who tiptoes the perforated line between dance and performance art.  I respect trailblazers and inventors, artists who are willing to make an audience feel uncomfortable and awkward, but I felt a smidge beat up.  The concert was very slowly paced and long. It clocked out at two-and-a-half hours for just two pieces, which is indicative of a protégé of Merce Cunningham, but I felt it needed some editing.  Having said this, Bokaer has accomplished so much at such a young age, and I’m so happy to have seen this work. So many brilliant images and ideas stayed with me and reverberated in my mind.  I am looking forward to the future work of this emerging choreographer.

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