BWW Interviews: Jonah Bokaer

Jonah Bokaer has cultivated a new form of choreography with a structure that relies on visual art and design. He ultimately aims to transform notions of how the public views and understands dance.

Bokaer was born to Tunisian and American parents, and has been active as a choreographer since 2002. He has created over 55 works in a wide range of mediums, such as film, opera, app, and art installation, in a variety of venues, ranging from proscenium stage, to museums, to galleries, to architecturally resonant locales. He works internationally, exhibiting and touring worldwide.

Bokaer has created works within museum spaces that live between choreography, visual art, and moving images.

This approach to art making has been acknowledged by museums such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, PS1 MoMA, The New Museum, The Museum of Arts & Design, MASS MoCA, Miami MOCA, MAC Marseille, IVAM Valencia, Palazzo Delle Arti Napoli, Kunsthalle St. Gallen, SCAD Museum of Art, Ludwig Museum of Budapest, MUDAM Luxembourg, PAMM | Pérez Arts Museum of Miami, MAC VAL Vitry-sur-Seine along with many others.

A few of Bokaer's frequent collaborators are Daniel Arsham (2007-Present), Anne Carson, Richard Chai, Merce Cunningham, Anthony McCall, Abbott Miller, Tino Sehgal, Robert Wilson (2007-Present), along with other leading innovators in mediums such as performance, visual art, literature, and design.

Jonah Bokaer was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Choreography this April, 2015.

He dedicates the Fellowship to each of the performing artists, collaborators, and technical professionals who have made his work possible since 2002.

In the coming year during the course of his Fellowship, he will continue to intensify the relationship between choreography and visual art, with a strong focus on museum works, and international exchange - which remains the focus of his creative output.

Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down to speak with Mr. Bokaer.

Q. When did you first develop your interest in dance?

A. I have danced for as long as I can remember. Since the age of 18, I've had the opportunity to work professionally in dance and have enjoyed the rigor of training, articulating, and refining the aesthetics of what is physically possible for dance in our time. For me, the body is always the primary material and subject. More and more, I have taken inspiration from visual art and design to inform my new choreographies. I also draw, animate, and make one video work each year.

My parents and loved ones inspire me; I'm very thankful that my parents, siblings, partner, and colleagues are artists. My dad is a screenwriter, originally born in Tunisia. My mother is a theatre director and teaches local youth in New York State. I think the most vivid early memories of art were watching my parents work and learning that art was a life-long project. It started there.

Q. Any major influences?

A. I've had the opportunity to work with many historical icons in the performing arts, but the one who made the greatest personal contribution to my development was Robert Wilson. He took me under his wing, gave me very bold opportunities, risks, and challenges at a pivotal moment in my career. Bob is a legend. He's also a real human being and very generous with his collaborators. He is the gold standard to me of how to succeed in performance long term, while also giving back to younger artists.

Q. Any favorite roles?

A. My favorite work was a 2011 commission from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, responding to the work of artist Lee Ufan. The commissioner of the choreography was Charles Fabius. It was a very enriching process because there was a 50-year retrospective of material to respond to. I made a work for five dancers in the rotunda of the Guggenheim, and we sold out both performances. It was, architecturally, one of the most memorable works I've been able to create and perform.

Q. When you were a principal dancer with Merce Cunningham you were also attending college. How were you able to juggle everything?

A. All of my work is multi-disciplinary, and that passion is what allowed me to achieve balance. While training as a dancer, I completed a double degree in Visual and Media Arts at the New School and Parsons School of Design. The majority of my inspiration comes from the visual arts. I'm always looking at what is new, adventurous, and original in visual culture.

Q. When did you first become interested in choreography?

A. I believe I started staging my three siblings in dances, in the backyard, when I was about 6 years old. I guess it's just something I've literally always done.

Q. How would you describe your first dances? That must have been a challenge.

A. Beginning in 2002, I began to show my work in galleries and museums. This was because I was working in a very visual manner, and it just seemed right to me. Now with more maturity, I would say that I seek the greatest possible resonance in a given space, its architecture, and the staging of choreography within it. The choreography and the space - any kind of space - should always be a hand-and-glove experience whenever possible.

Q. How has your choreography evolved from then to now?

A. Increasingly, I now work in harmony with the scale of each performance occasion. Theater performances tend to have a specific duration and, if I may say so, conventional constraints around the expectations of a ticketed audience. I find the temporality of programming in museums to be much more accommodating, elastic, and adaptable, in terms of the time of a performance. When a given length of time is established, I then work on a structure that can create the most powerful dramaturgy (form) for the audience to experience the performance.

Q. You've had a long working partnership with visual artist Daniel Arsham. How did that come about?

A. Daniel and I met in Miami in March 2007, which was the first time he collaborated with Merce Cunningham. We met onstage at the Adrienne Arsht for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, which is where our friendship began. We have been friends, and have been working together ever since.

Q. What do you think Arsham brings to your work as a visual artist?

A. Continuity, vocabulary, and content are always passing back and forth between us. I think that color and lighting also plays a big role in our exchange.

It is a constant, and sometimes daily, dialogue that we engage in together. I'm glad to say that Daniel Arsham and I are at work on a very large new production slated for 2016-accompanied by a well-known composer and a symphony orchestra-with substantial touring planned for 2017. It's a work that will synthesize existing repertory with Daniel Arsham's art, along with an ambitious new creation and original scenography by Arsham.

Q. In your words, what are the traits of a good choreographer?

A. I'd like to say that good choreography also depends heavily on good performers - and on engaged audiences. Personally, I like to go and see dance performances with a blank slate, and very little information or reading in advance, to keep the experience of the movement as immediate as possible.

For my own part, I always begin with the visual and design elements of my choreography. Following that, and the design of the space, I then go towards the design of actual movement. Then I work with dancers. Finally, at the end, we implement music. To my knowledge, our company is the only process in the world working this way.

Q. What was your reason for founding Chez Bushwick?

A. As a young man, I had the opportunity to establish a community space that allowed emerging artists the opportunity and a creative space to work and develop. I first moved to Bushwick in 1999, and permanently in 2002. Everyone thought I was insane, but now the neighborhood has become feasible for a whole new generation of artists. Chez Bushwick is all about providing a permanent, accessible, affordable space for the performing arts, in an area of NYC that deeply needs it.

Q. How has Chez Bushwick influenced the New York dance scene?

A. Following the success of Chez Bushwick being able to offer artists affordable workspace, I had the opportunity to co-found CPR between 2006-2009, with the center opening publicly in 2009. It involved a capital campaign, cooperation from the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, and negotiating a mortgage in the middle of the global recession. It is my pleasure to remain on the Board of CPR, and I am very proud that the organization remains so stable during this time of legacy shakeup in NYC dance. CPR was possible because I was in my 20s, did not need much sleep, and was discovering my capacity as a powerful fundraiser. I'm proud of CPR, but it took a strong head, a strong spine, and, at times, a strong stomach. Creating NYC arts real estate is not an experience I would recommend to others. But I'm thankful that I did it when I was young enough, to now relax and enjoy the purity of making new dance, which is what my life is dedicated to. It just feels right.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. This year, I was honored to become the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Choreography, which has been wonderful news to digest, and allows a great deal of planning towards the realization of future projects. I wanted to personally share the news with you-it goes public on May 12.

In addition, we have always had the good fortune of touring about 30-35 weeks annually, and often in Europe - though I'm very passionate about sharing my work broadly in the U.S. 2015 will include tours to France, Atlanta, Italy, Miami, and elsewhere.

I am creating a special NYC performance for December in a fantastic (and unexpected) space, which gives audiences customized event experiences. It should be a fantastic engagement - our home season.

I am also soon releasing my 4th App - which should be a blast.

I'm becoming more satisfied with the projects themselves - and with how the public receives them.

Photograph © Michael Beauplet

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