Jonah Bokaer: In-Between Days
Photos by Liza Voll, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
The dancer/choreographer Jonah Bokaer seems to be fascinated with the spaces and states that fall in between – the shades of gray (though not so well defined as that) between black and white. Thus one of the most compelling moments of his evening-length program, CURTAIN, at Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Theatre this week is the transition between the dance called CURTAIN in its U.S. premiere (originally meant to be danced by ballet superstar David Hallberg, who withdrew due to injury) which Bokaer performs in white shorts and shirt, under bright white lighting, and Sage Phrase, performed by Bokaer in all black on a largely dark stage, barely lit by a bright light positioned on the stage that glares into the audience, making it hard to see much of anything at all, lending a subterfuge-ish sense of mystery to the piece.
Three things happen, spotlit, during this transition: one of Bokaer’s two other dancers (they are the amiable James McGinn and Adam Weinert – the latter, like Bokaer, an alum of The School at Jacob’s Pillow) removes, limb by limb, a frail cast of a body lying on the left side of a stage, while the other pours plaster into an impression of a human figure in what looks like white sand. In between McGinn and Weinert, the visual artist Danaiel Arsham, looking like a magician, holds a glob of goo that he pours, like a liquid, onto the floor, where it pools; he picks it up and what seemed to be liquid is again solid.
This goo is what the advance material on Boaker’s appearance called “a non-Newtonian shape-shifting element,” which Bokaer, in a brief phone conversation, described as an invention by Arsham that is something between a liquid and a solid. (Imagine a looser, more viscous version of Silly Putty, or the 1970s kids’ toy Slime.) It’s certainly fun to watch, and is used to make the point he’s standing between a liquid will become solid (the plaster), and, conversely, a solid on the other side of the stage that was once liquid.
Among the other in-between states Bokaer and his collaborators seem to be exploring is the state between stillness and movement – “the pregnant moment” that art historian Ernst Gombrich explored in Moment and Movement in Art. Thus, in addition to the stop-and-go quality of Bokaer’s dance (which he attributes to the three-frames-per-second 3-D animation system he uses to generate his choreography, but which is also characteristic of the dances of Merce Cunningham, of whose company Boaker, famously, was the youngest-ever member; and the movement in the operas of Robert Wilson, with whom Bokaer has collaborated) there are times when motion happens abruptly from stillness, with no apparent preparation or instigation, as when Bokaer, the woods exposed behind him through the theater’s open barn doors, rigidly tips off the back of the stage, or when his two puckish sidekicks suddenly appear, stock-still, on the rear edge of that stage, looking not as if they have jumped up from below, but as if they were placed there.
Bokaer noted he is interested in the space between the performance and the audience (hence the name CURTAIN); perhaps that is why some dramatic parts of the dance take place behind the footlights at the back of the stage (near that precarious open space). In many of his off-center movements (during much of the dance his weight is on one leg) he explores the white spaces created by the angles of his limbs, snaking an arm between his separate legs, or, repeatedly, behind his back to grasp the opposite elbow, a stance he holds several times, absolutely motionless, for what seems an eternity. Often one fist is clenched, and he remains stone-faced throughout the evening.
There are other memorable moments, as when Bokaer smashes an upright plaster figure, then takes its place in the rubble; a battle between Weinert and McGinn in which the blows are literal – with exaggerated breaths they blow each other away; and an endless stream of goo being poured from way up in the theater’s rafters by a hidden Arsham. (We know it was he because he takes his bows in a climbing harness.) The dance is very much a cool intellectual exercise, but there is also humor if you deign to recognize it and dare to laugh. —Bess Hochstein
Jonah Bokaer in the Doris Duke Theatre
Through August 5
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA