Observer: Jonah Bokaer | Performance Artist
Photography by Joe Chea
What’s your AMMO?
My AMMO is the body in motion. 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 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 1 video work each year.
What are some philosophies that you can share that have kept you focused and on track with your vision?
My vision has always been to intensify the relationship between dance / choreography, and visual art. Philosophy is rare, when thinking about that overlap. However, I think a great deal about the ephemerality of dance: that its value exists in the experience of seeing it, before it disappears. Dance vanishes: and choreography, the act of making dance, is rarely visible. To me, the main philosophical questions are around that phenomenon.
Tell us about Chez Bushwick.
As a young man, I had the opportunity to establish a community space that allows emerging artists the opportunity 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.
Most of your work is multi-disciplinary. Where do you pull ideas in creating this work?
Yes you’re right, all of my work is multi-disciplinary. 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. I think that is what mainly fuels my choreography.
Which was one of your favorite pieces to work on.
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 5 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.
You have choreographed 30 works around the world. How do you differentiate each piece when creating?
With each work, my goal is to re-craft the artform of choreography. It sounds bold, but, it’s the truth. I start from scratch each time, push myself for original vocabulary, and often seek adventurous young collaborators. I also try to learn as much as possible about the audiences, cities, and cultures which will view the final work – for me the transcultural experience is a very important factor, and keeping new dance accessible to all cultures. I differentiate each work with its visual “universe,” and you’ll notice that each work invents a whole new visual system.
What inspired you to pursue art, what is one of your youngest and most vivid memories of a growing relationship with art?
My parents and loved ones inspire me: and 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. The ongoing work I’ve achieved with Daniel Arsham, is among my personal favorite, because of the deep friendship. There is also a sense of common trust that is very rare. Because we met in our early 20s, I think that those early creative memories are the ones that will last.
Who are some of your icons?
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: but 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.
If you could describe yourself by 1 type of food, 2 colors, and one animal what would you pick?
My name means “dove,” but I’ve always felt like more of a panther: I’m tall and slender, but powerful, fast, fierce – though I try to maintain an elegant exterior. I am very attracted to large felines: leopards, tigers, and cheetahs; especially lions. I love them. I have dark features from my father, my favorite colors are dark: beige, deep blue, charcoal, navy green. Tough pick, for food! But I am a vegetarian, and adore Mediterranean cuisine. It’s where I belong.
What projects are up next for you?
We have 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. Currently I am with dancers in residence in the Hudson Valley, at work on two major commissions. One is for the 70th Anniversary of a historical event in Polish and women’s history, set to premiere on October 7th of this year, at the Center for Jewish History. Ririe Woodbury Dance Company has also commissioned a new work, set to premiere this fall. I am creating a special NYC performance at a new venue called Lightbox, on W 38th Street, a fantastic jewel-box space which gives audiences customized event experiences. It should be a fantastic engagement – our home season. 2015 will include tours to France, Atlanta, Italy, Miami, and elsewhere. I am also releasing my 4th App – which should be a blast.