Crossing Over: An Interview With Jonah Bokaer

By Anna Ter-Yegishyan


Choreographer and performance artist, Jonah Bokaer, abandons traditional dance and theatre elements and introduces a distinct visual media presence. He calls this unique approach a crossover between dance and visual art. His latest world-wide toured piece, Rules of the Game, embodies and facilitates this unusual relationship between two very different art forms. Jonah Bokaer lends choreography a new force by incorporating fine art and physical objects into his project. These features demand the attention of viewers the way conventional dance does not.


His close collaboration with Daniel Arsham, Pharrell Williams, and David Campbell, have helped transform the perception of dance through the set design and musical composition. Together, they have dismantled and redefined the boundaries between dance and art. Rules of the Game examines and embraces this crossover of the two mediums. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jonah Bokaer to find out what inspired this new idea of movement to share with the readers of FORTH.


AT: What sparked your passion for choreography and performance art in 2002?


JB: I’ve been choreographing my whole life, probably. Even at age six I was staging my siblings in the backyard, moving them around and creating routines. But what I started doing in 2002, and I’ve been doing this since the beginning, is fusing dance and visual art and intensifying their relationship. That’s what all of my work is based on—it’s my main mission. I’ve been doing this for about fifteen years now. Touring, certainly, often in museum spaces. This unusual approach has now been shared in thirty countries, so I’m very passionate about continuing. Amazingly, my work has never been seen in California. I’m very excited about it.


AT: How would you say your work has developed and changed over the years, since you started?


JB: I did an art degree at Parson’s in addition to dancing and having a career as a dancer. This led to a very intense immersion in the visual arts – I would call it a blended practice. I studied visual and media art, so early on I was doing a lot of videos, including video installations. I also draw, so I look at how choreography and drawing relate. That’s often where my work is now, it’s focused on those overlaps. It certainly evolved to a larger scale in Rules of the Game at Royce Hall with Daniel Arsham, Pharrell, and David Campbell.


AT: Your work has been categorized as ‘experimental’. In what ways would you say your choreography is experimental?


JB: I think of it as crossover work, especially in the context of Rules of the Game and its music and its musical collaborators. I think a lot about it in terms of how dance has been able to cross over into this genre and not only touch it, but work so closely with it. Experimental, yes, but I tend to use the word crossover because we’re actually tapping people and artists from totally different sectors to collaborate. You could argue that symphonic music or pop music rarely participate in dance so Rules of the Game makes that possible.


AT: How is your personality reflected in your work?


JB: Well, my parents come from different cultures. My mother’s American and from a theatre family. My father is Tunisian (North African) and is a screenwriter. It was sort of a transcultural upbringing. I think that the works on stage are definitely transcultural because of who is cast and who is represented on stage. We have so many people from different cultures and we’re bringing them together here. There’ll be dancers from California, but also from Dallas, Hungary, Italy…dancers with Mexican American backgrounds, African American, Iranian. That’s how I’m represented, is in this mixing.


AT: Are there any particular choreographers whom you identify with?


JB: I am very close to my friend Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a Moroccan choreographer. He recently commissioned a work for the Royal Ballet of Flanders. On that program there was work by William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham. I like Sidi Larbi’s work very much. Not only because of similar cultures and origins, but I like the fluidity, the softness of it, how kinetic it is. He is also a visual artist.


AT: I noticed that you incorporate visual aid and physical objects in some of your pieces. How do they support or add to the choreography itself?


JB: As opposed to décor or scenography with dance and theatre, we work with fine art on the stage. It’s something that’s distinct to my work and that we’ve been working on for a very long time. The elements on stage are plastic visual art objects. That’s different than most work, which tends to have disposable sets. They play a physical presence as objects and as art, which I like.


AT: What inspires your ideas for movement? Does improvisation play a role?


JB: The dancers are asked to improvise a bit. We have a method of warming up. It’s often very Eastern in its origins, like Chi Gong and yoga. But then we do something called solo studies or solo portraits that asks the dancer to generate movement and improvise as well. Usually the dance is nearly all set, but the performances and their interpretations change a little bit night to night. There’s some variety within it. It has a lot to do with the dancers.


AT: How long did it take you to choreograph Rules of the Game?


JB: The amazing thing about Rules of the Game is that it was commissioned by VAM, the academy of music in 2013 and then Soluna, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Festival came on board and effectively produced the musical aspects of it. It premiered in 2015 in Dallas. But then, centers here like CAP UCLA at Royce Hall offered to coproduce. That was a real honor, to have partners like that. It took three years to bring all of that together. However, the creation time in Dallas was three weeks. Producing and administering work on this scale is so massive, so consuming. Usually, when it comes down to production it’s relatively short. So, three years slash three weeks.


AT: What was your experience collaborating with Pharrell Williams and David Campbell for the music?


JB: Thankfully, my collaborator David Campbell provided such a generous introduction to Pharrell. It actually occurred here in LA, the first meeting. He was very intelligent, imaginative, spontaneous, powerful, instinctive, and clear to work with. And a pleasure. Having him bow on stage at BAM was just one of the most remarkable events.


AT: How significant are the roles of color and light in Rules of the Game?


JB: Usually with my work we do thirty hours of lighting. So lighting and lighting design is a department that’s very developed. That comes from my work with Robert Wilson who does ninety hours of lighting before he permits the curtain to go on. Daniel Arsham is the author of the color and the color schemes of this work, so he has played a big role. He has a particular aesthetic signature with color. He has publicly said that he’s color blind, but I’ve always felt that staged depth and depth perception are areas where he’s particularly gifted. I think it adds something, definitely. Certainly in Rules of the Game, the flesh tone and the color of the video, the plastic objects, the dancers, and the skin is very terra cotta. It’s fun.


AT: Are you interested in storytelling through your choreography?


JB: Because I worked with Robert Wilson and theatre and opera for so long, I have a little more experience in theatre and narrative theatre than maybe most dance makers. I’m not afraid of theatricality. Some of these works are very theatrical. Not overtly narrative, but definitely theatrical. I based the structure of Rules of the Game on a play with the same title by Pirandello.


AT: Anything else you’d like to share about yourself or your work?


JB: These dancers are extraordinary. They are basically like a little world microcosm. They work and feel like the UN. They’re so special, so diverse, so gifted. Many of them have been with me for a very long time, so I’m excited to continue with them, to continue representing them. It’s good working with them. I give them a lot of credit, and I want to give them more and more credit. I would also like to say that David Campbell—the arranger, conductor, orchestrator, co-composer of the work—was very generous. He lives in LA, so we’re excited to have him here and participate.


Rules of the Game will be debuting in Los Angeles, California at CAP UCLA this Friday, February 10th. Tickets are available to purchase here.


Curated by FORTH Nonfiction Editors.

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