Face to Face: Jonah Bokaer

Creative mind at work in the tech studio

Bokaer's FILTER at Georgia Tech

In 2006, dance and media artist Jonah Bokaer was one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch”—a title to which he has delivered. In the midst of a whirlwind career, he’s been named one of The New York Times’ “Nifty 50,” and Crain’s New York selected him as a “40 under 40.” He’s become known as a fearless advocate of the arts and his name has become synonymous with technology.

Bokaer was first noticed at 18, when he joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and danced with them from 2000 to 2007. He’s worked with artists including John Jasperse, David Gordon and Deborah Hay, and he is a frequent choreographer for stage director Robert Wilson. Bokaer helped found two Brooklyn-based nonprofits: Chez Bushwick, a performance and rehearsal space, and the Center for Performance Research, a LEED-certified green building where he develops his work.

Over the course of the 2010–11 school year, he spent five weeks in residence at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he premiered his multimedia piece FILTER. There, in collaboration with grad student Stephen Garrett, he developed Mass Mobile, a mobile app that lets audience members alter FILTER’s lighting design elements before and during performances.

At his Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival debut next month, Bokaer will present RECESS and Why Patterns—a collaboration with design firm Snarkitecture and 10,000 ping-pong balls.

Dance Teacher: Can you tell us about the work that will be shown at Jacob’s Pillow?

Jonah Bokaer: Why Patterns is set up like a ping-pong game, and there are three floods of balls from above, the side—everywhere that interrupts the dance. RECESS is an event that I made with the artist Daniel Arsham. Like its title, the piece addresses a childhood game of playtime, but the title also refers to negative space: a recess or cavity. Although these works are very abstract, they represent a lighthearted approach to making new choreography.

DT: What are the seeds of FILTER?

JB: I grew up as one of four brothers, and I decided to portray scenes of fraternal behavior that spoke about coming of age. I cast the production with four performers who look nearly identical to one another, to point toward a theme of visual duplication. This was inspired by the photography of Anthony Goicolea, whose portraiture involves multiple images of the same figure, altered digitally. The title of the piece refers to the parts of my work that are never seen by the public: changing and filtering movements on-screen through digital tools, like live-processing and animation programs.

DT: Can you walk us through Mass Mobile, the app used in FILTER?

JB: The app functions as a tool for the public to change the look, color, occasion and angle of the lighting. The set had nine trees onstage, and the audience could choose trees 1–9 to light up the space around them, within about two seconds of touching their phones. They could also choose the color of lighting. The results yielded far more participation than we had estimated. In performance, the app was actually so popular that it crashed the server before Scene Three.

DT: How did it change the piece?

JB: The mood was impacted: I sensed a great deal more blue in the work, which might have led to a more melancholy or intense viewing experience. There was also a very rapid rhythm of the audience’s responses—which was a surprise.

DT: You have done so much in your career already. What are your goals?

JB: I’m currently working on my 30th work of choreography, which will be complete in the fall of 2012, near the time of my 30th birthday. Longer term, I hope to stabilize the activities of Center for Performance Research and establish the space as a permanent incubator for artists in NYC. Much longer term, I’d be fascinated to conduct more research in astronomy and other gravitational systems. Also, it’s a personal goal to own an apartment.

 

Nancy Wozny is a 2011 scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Photo by Anna Lee Campbell

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