Jonah Bokaer: School at Jacob’s Pillow Alum Returns with Two U.S. Premieres
Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photos of Why Patterns by Artworks ©Daniel Arsham/Snarkitecture
Much has been made of the fact that Jonah Bokaer was, at age 18, the youngest dancer to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; that he takes an interdisciplinary approach to dance, collaborating with visual artists and architects to create his work; and that he is something of an international art world darling, having had his work produced across North America, Asia, and Europe. What greater cred could a hot, young global art star ask for than to be the current choreographer for Robert Wilson’s operas?
So when RECESS, the first of two U.S. premieres that comprise Bokaer’s current program at the Pillow, begins with stone-faced Bokaer deliberately rolling a scroll of thick, white, photographic paper across the stage with focused flicks of his toes, picking up a corner and folding it to form a perpendicular overlap, with a 45 degree angle in white and a right angle of negative space, which he variously walks and lies along, creating shapes with his limbs that echo those of the paper, a viewer might think: “Yeah, I get it. Cold intellectual exercise.” That impression remains as Bokaer impassively folds, unfolds, and refolds the paper, until it is back to its original form, a bit crinkled from wear. Then things get interesting.
What looked like a shadow-shaped black blotch on the paper is actually a cut-out, through which Bokaer slips and scoots under the paper to the end of the stage. He grabs the free edge of the paper and runs across the stage, the paper ripping and forming wings as he goes. Is paper to Bokaer what jersey was to Martha Graham? He crumples the paper into a tent-shaped pile on the stage, and steps away. When the pile of paper begins to move, seemingly of its own accord, with a heartbeat rhythm, we find the warm, humorous heart in Bokaer’s work.
RECESS includes a few more surprises of crumpled mounds of paper becoming animate while Bokaer impassively continues rolling out, folding, and otherwise interacting with the paper. It’s like a funny magic puppet show. The noise of the paper is the soundscape.
The foot-rolling-a-tubular-object motif recurs in the second piece, Why Patterns, which begins before the intermission with stagehands assembling a large square on the stage, formed from a perimeter of clear tubes of ping pong balls, to the tune of James Brown’s Sex Machine, while overhead lights create a flickering grid of squares within the square.
As expected, ping pong balls scatter and fly in this piece—tossed in one at a time or flowing in a deluge from the wings; dropped from on high en masse or slowly streamed down from the rafters; poured or flung out of the tubes; set in motion by the four dancers, who alternate between ignoring the little white spheres and
determinedly moving them. They sweep them into corners, using their feet to roll the tubes like push brooms. They play soccer, using tubes held upright as goal posts. The play another game of tossing balls through the spaces formed by one another’s limbs in relation to their bodies or the floor. And at one point they frantically toss all the balls out of the square, in a race against a musical cue in the soundscape, which consists of the composition Why Patterns by Morton Feldman, with additional scoring by Alexis Georgopoulos.
Like RECESS, Why Patterns is a witty exploration of interactions between dancers and simple material in space, in which props and set design are one and the same, and of the beauty of geometry. The properties of the materials ensure that no performance of either piece will ever be the same. The Doris Duke Theater’s black box format is a bit problematic in terms of sight lines for both of these works, which feature a lot of floorwork – less so for the site-specific RECESS, where most of the magic happens in the middle ground.
The element of chance in these dances points back to Bokaer’s experience with Cunningham, as does his stop-and-go phrasing and abstract, angular, blank-faced, off-kilter movement vocabulary, though Why Patterns does have a few sections of unison and natural movement. Also Cunninghamesque is his collaboration with equally celebrated artists working in different media—in this case Daniel Arsham (an undercover performer in RECESS) of the design firm Snarkitecture and the fashion designer Richard Chai. But while Bokaer is following in the footsteps of giants, his humor is all his own. In what should be a long career ahead, we can only hope he cultivates this unique blend of intellectual inquiry and playfulness.
Jonah Bokaer in the Doris Duke Theatre
Now through August 7
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival