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Jonah Bokaer - The Invention of Minus One

by Lori Ortiz
March 16, 2008
Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement
Harry du Jur Playhouse
466 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
212-598-0400
Jonah Bokaer, formerly of Merce Cunningham's company, is also a media artist. The 26-year-old dancer, choreographer, and impresario is combining the forms, and collaborating with a sophisticated eye and ear for the other disciplines.

In the spirit of Cunningham works like "Biped," Bokaer's stage is shared by the living and the cyber invented. The charmingly opulent Playhouse served as a foil for his fusion. His show benefits well from its lack of fussy perfection. A loosely hung bed sheet is the screen, with ripples that distort the live feed images of three dancers. There's plenty of found scenery on the denuded stage—enough to call it site-specific.

Bokaer continues Cunningham's investigations with the Lifeforms computer program and with video. Cameras on tripods are anthropomorphic props, set up radially with the legs opening inward, in a section that looks like a robotic water ballet. The cameras also capture images of the dancers seen on a geometric net of puffy octahedrons (white umbrellas.) Form and function are interchangeable, and deconstructable in Bokaer's premiere "The Invention of Minus One."

Though his vocabulary isn't refined and fully formed, Bokaer explores the shape of space around the body, like Leonardo did in his classic "Vitruvian Man." Layering time-based forms like video and dance, Bokaer invokes a later-day poetic aesthetic. Dancers position themselves and each other in successive stick-figure poses, and we accept them as avatars. The experience, at times, yields empathy and poignant emotion.

Bokaer opens with a solo " False Start." He's taken as his inspiration the eponymous Jasper Johns painting series; the first was made in 1959. Johns collaborated with Cunningham, and Bokaer is similarly engaged with like-minded artists of his generation. William Forsythe and John Jasperse are present in spirit. Christian Marclay's music is beautifully synched. "The Invention" is rhythmic and pensive, with brushed snare drum and long periods of silence. Marclay and costumer Isaac Mizrahi help bring over the new aesthetic, flecked with theatricality, personality, and emotion. Projected artless graphic signs move with the dancers, but never steal the limelight. There's not enough inevitability about those signs, but more on that later.

On his back, Bokaer heavily draws an arc with a leg crossing over to the other side, his foot making full contact with the floor. His dance is a la terre. It's rigorous, but rough and tumble. He never leaps into the air. His body takes angular forms at the foot of the stage, and then he walks back. The fire curtain closes. It opens. Lying on the floor with his legs up, his feet bang against a rattling gate in the denuded back wall. A screen comes down with a projection of Johns's "False Start." Out of its patchwork of bright reds, yellows, oranges, a virtual figure emerges, digitally muscle-bound and appearing to move mechanically, creakily. Bokaer mimics the 'tin man' figure as it dislodges itself from the colorful brushwork.

Bokaer in shadow against the now white screen executes quick-change positions. The shifting composition of blacks and whites suggests a scrambled code. He moves like the figures in Johns (later) works might, or the rulers and tools that hang limply off Johns's painted surfaces might, if they could. "The Invention" coincides with a MoMA Johns show; viewers can connect the two.

Cunningham dancers Holley Farmer, Rashaun Mitchell, and Banu Ogan dance "The Invention of Minus One," after a pause. Their heads are projected on the rippled sheet and on right and left monitors. The stage is so small that the different goings on do not compete for our attention or pose a quandary. Instead we summarize, relating the elements, for the most part.

The dancers stand on a diagonal in an upstage corner making faces that are distorted and blown up in a live video feed. Video design is by Michael Cole. They play a sleight of hand floor game with coins. This is iterated in simple projected signs penned on a laptop and projected, white on black. For example, an asterisk recalls the spinning coin.

Outlined or dotted line forms float on the black like chalked up dead. These also populate late Johns paintings. But they complicate "Invention." Hence, they don't have the immediacy that makes signs, signs, as the late video artist Juan Downey might have said. And George Balanchine taught us that a simple story works best for dance.

The impeccable dancing's the most interesting element. The three in striking Cunninghamesque combinations that culminate in a cobbled together and desperate embrace, falling and catching a fall, or in a deconstructed social dance.

Sensual hip rotations and mechanical, robotic, angular arms and legs are fused in one demonstrative movement. Farmer and Mitchell are awesome in military black tail jackets. Farmer wears gray sweat shorts and gators on her ankles and Mitchell wears black tights. Banu wears a mirror sequined top and tight aluminum pants. Her reflective presence is restated in her role, when she photographs Banu and Mitchell in the end. The dancers pose in the center of garment racks that were at first filled with clothes.

In a beautiful denouement, the two women each hold an umbrella in which four bulbs glow. The simple image is poignant, on the heels of this minimal landscape. They resemble Japanese dancers moving and swaying while walking. The odd dancer captures this in a photo.

The same images seen on the monitors and live, without competing, prove that different perspectives can only expand our experience of things. But there are so many things to notice in the "Invention," it is work, after the singular focus and clarity of "False Start." A new 2wice spring issue is a souvenir replica, a flipbook of the solo performed on a mirror. You can almost hear the music that helped tie together the dance, but wasn't in itself memorable.

Finally, Mitchell and Ogan go off into upstage darkness and the monitors go black. It suggests post-apocalypse and is full of trust in the power of art.
Jonah Bokaer Photo also courtesy of Jonah Bokaer

Jonah Bokaer
Photo also courtesy of Jonah Bokaer

Photo © & courtesy of Liubo Borrisov

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