Dancers are warriors in the most punishing artistic discipline there is and the choreographer and media artist, Jonah Bokaer, despite his slender physique and quiet voice, is one of them. The youngest dancer ever to be hired as a professional for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company (he was only 18 years old) he has worked with a roster of famous names such as Robert Wilson and Deborah Hay, as well as making his own mark choreographing works that incorporate his fascination with animation and motion-capture techniques. He helped to found Chez Bushwick, a non-profit dance/performance space located in Brooklyn, in what was once an industrial building, which stands opposite a noodle factory on a wide, treeless road lined with abandoned lots and a cement works. For us, the surprise of finding a space dedicated to creative risk-taking in this location was wonderful—one of those unique New York experiences where exciting art takes place in a strange location, and it’s for real, an antidote to the theme-park ‘edgy’ of somewhere like the Meatpacking District.
I read something your mother had said about you when you fell in love with your partner, and she said it was so nice to see you like that ‘because you had been career-oriented since the age of seven.’ What did she mean?
[Laughs]I think what she meant by that was that I’ve always been motivated to do dancing and the body arts in a very intensive way and in many different directions.
How did you express it when you were a little boy?
Um, well my mother was a theater director and so I was performing in her productions—often. Her father was Arthur Lithgow and she and her siblings were all heavily involved in the theater.
So you’re not the Billy Elliot story? You didn’t have a father who was going to beat you up if you became a dancer.
Not quite! Actually my father is a filmmaker. He’s from Tunisia.
I was going to put it to you, about dance, that it seems to me that it is the artistic medium of which audiences are the most unsure. They don’t know the language of it unless it is a Janet Jackson video. This must be a tremendous obstacle for you.
I think you’re correct, I think that is an obstacle but I would be eager to see audiences empower themselves more because if you have two eyes and you go to a dance concert, you know more than you think. It’s a very available art form.
But they are looking for narrative, like you get in traditional ballet.
I think plotless dance is a bit of an unknown for people but at the same time the sort of Duchamps idea that the audience completes the work by bringing their attention or their observations to it … [they may say] ‘I don’t understand dance but this is what I saw.’
Do you think we as a culture have compartmentalized dance? I grew up in Africa and dance is incorporated into ritual and life there. We have sexualized it as well, so that that is where we put dance and nowhere else.
I agree. I think it has been compartmentalized. Also modern dance, avant-garde dance or ballet for that matter has been marginalized, further than compartmentalized … I think it has very real market challenges.
I was watching your pieces on YouTube and I felt they were very austere and demanding. The titles of them: ‘No Caption’, ‘False Start’, ‘The Invention of Minus One’, ‘No Exit’ …. they were all negatives…
Well, I do make demanding choreography. I think I ask a lot of the audience. My hope is that my work pushes audiences towards more mature feelings about dance because I frame my subject matter or dancing material in a very straightforward way and thematically I am trying to work with some very sophisticated ideas about how the body is presented.
What sort of ideas?
Well, you noticed that some of the titles deal with subtraction and I deal a lot with negative space, with erasure of the body.
Why? Because I think that speaks about a good use of media, in music … I’m actually trained as an animator and in my opinion that’s where new vocabularies lie, in dance production … if you have a moving body on stage and a moving image, you can play with levels of human presence on stage, or absence for that matter. I work a lot with motion capture. It is basically an avatar so that I can perform with a double on stage.
Would you say your work isn’t dance, as such, that it’s extreme expressive movement for which a dance training is helpful?
Um … I think it’s dance.
Why? What makes it dance?
Because its primary medium is the moving body.
But if I stretch my hand out like this to the glass of water there, that’s a moving body but it’s not dance.
I’m so glad we’re having this discussion! I think that sort of a gesture would be in the realm of theater. I think that the moving body is dance. For me the moving body on its own, when the moving body is the medium, then it’s dance.
What’s walking to the subway then?
Er … locomotion?
So I watched your piece ‘False Start’, and this is what I took away from it. It’s this body, you, banging on what looks like a sheet of corrugated metal, and there are many different kinds of movements interacting with this sheet of metal. Eventually the dancer seems to submit and lie face down, and as he does, the sheet of metal rises and reveals a gorgeously colored painting. I took this to be any kind of attempt at breakthrough or revelation only comes once you have submitted or yielded yourself to it. I loved it because it was so bleak. Are you bleak?
[Laughs] I don’t think I’m a bleak person, no. I think I’m restless and creatively engaged and a big handful. That piece stems from a title of a painting by Jasper Johns, the source of inspiration for that work. What his project was, aesthetically at that time, was to collapse themes of expression and representation. So that passage which you saw on YouTube deals a lot with collapse. You know to create formal innovation, you may run up against a wall, you may try to break down the wall, the wall may not give, the wall may dissolve … I think there’s poetry to it.
So when you’re at a party and Janet Jackson comes on, can you happily get up and just dance like a normal person?
Yes, definitely. I went out dancing in Belgium when I was on tour. It was a lot of fun. That’s the fun part.