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REVIEW: Jonah Bokaer's The Invention of Minus One at DiverseWorks

Posted Dec 04 2008 2:33am

Dear Readers, I don’t often write reviews for this blog. However, I’ve worked hard on this one and would like to share the details of this interesting performance with you!name

Photo ©Michael Hart

Photo ©Michael Hart

The Texas air was, for a change, a bit chilly. Groups of people stood together on a long, industrial loading platform. Those who had remembered their warmer clothing or coats waited in relative comfort, while others huddled in the crisp night air, thankful for the promise of only spending ten minutes of this evening’s event outdoors. The lights of a vehicle focused across the narrow parking lot, casting illumination on a single garage door in a warehouse that mirrored that of the DiverseWorks gallery and performance venue. Known for hosting experimental works of both performance and visual art, this 25 year-old establishment was likely not surprising much of its audience by briefly displaying a portion of the evening’s dance performance outside. However, as it was late November, only in a city with a climate such as Houston’s could this have been accomplished without protests from the patrons.

Those gathering waited to see the latest offering from an accomplished dancer and choreographer from New York who has already, at the age of 26, received many accolades for his work. Jonah Bokaer, upon joining the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2000, became, at age 18, the youngest professional ever hired in the ensemble’s history. In 2002, Bokaer led a group of artists and choreographers in the foundation of Chez Bushwick, an organization based in Brooklyn that focuses on interdisciplinary collaboration between artists of all disciplines, and fosters the development of new work through public programming and by offering much-needed rehearsal space to artists at the subsidized rate of $5 per hour. In addition, Bokaer has co-founded the Center for Performance Research in New York, is a published writer and activist, and drives the spheres of digital media, motion capture, and contemporary technologies to new levels of innovation and interconnectedness in their applications for movement research and development.


Flickr Photo by eschipul
Flickr Photo by eschipul

With the highway traffic of I-10 roaring nearby, Jonah Bokaer took a turn as performer in False Start, a brief prelude to his feature work T he Invention of Minus One, and the reason for which the audience assembled outside. As a lone figure he stood silhouetted before a garage door on a concrete loading dock. Though he began standing, much of the dance was executed at a low level, his body folding and unfolding on the narrow, gritty space within the glow of strategically placed headlights. A rapid flurry of crisp and articulated movements was interrupted by broad strokes, occasionally accented with the rumbling of Bokaer’s feet striking the metal door as he skillfully used it to propel his lower body and shift weight into his hands. During a brief moment of rest for Bokaer, a vibrant image of reds and blues (a projection of Jasper John’s painting, False Start, the namesake and inspiration for the solo) appeared on the garage door. Within the image, an almost skeletal figure took shape and began its own series of folding and unfolding gestures, its lifting, sliding, and flopping a result of the gravity-free motion of unembellished computer animation. Echoing the movements of the figure, Bokaer re-created the phrase. Moments of illumination and darkness followed as the headlights toggled on and off and Bokaer teased the audience, backing up and hovering much too near the edge of the three or four foot ledge, dipping a toe beyond the brink.

False Start is not always presented outdoors. Performers and choreographers often have to make adaptations in dance as they move from venue to venue. In an interview with Nancy Wozny, Bokaer responded to a question about how he planned to adjust the solo for the DiverseWorks stage. Without divulging any details, he commented, “I look forward to adapting to the space at DiverseWorks and making sure that the piece can “live” there in a way that complements the beauty of the venue.” True to this mission, False Start, seemed at home in the tarnished environment of the Warehouse District. Had it inhabited the same location as Minus One, the solo perhaps would have felt more like a “false start” to the dance that followed. As it was, the piece was fully permitted to stand alone. Despite the occasional distraction of cars meandering through the parking lot, and that the distance was perhaps too great between the tiny makeshift stage and the spectators for comfortable viewing, False Start was an intriguing, rich work, and a fitting opening act to the evening’s main event.

Inside, DiverseWorks’ intimate performance space seemed more equipped for a photo shoot than a dance performance. The stage was set with an assortment of tripods, projection screens, and three wardrobe carts draped with bits of clothing and feather boas. Fifteen white photography umbrellas, installed in a rectangular pattern on the back wall, revealed their purpose as The Invention of Minus One began. Projected upon this unconventional backdrop were two faces. In silence they waited, spoke, and shared brief moments of laughter and sobriety. It was a candid moment shared by the dancers before they physically took the stage in an upstage corner. The three performers would visit this location often throughout the duration of the piece, standing shoulder to shoulder in a row as if collecting themselves before moving onward to the next chapter of their visual story.

The dancers, Bokaer, Alison Cave, and Jimena Paz, wore simple but slightly absurd costumes designed by Isaac Mizrahi. The lone male figure in the trio, Bokaer donned a military-style jacket that seemed a bit cumbersome in appearance with epaulettes heavily beaded with what looked like uncooked macaroni noodles (I believe they were actually wooden beads). Paz was sleekly and femininely dressed in silver leggings and a shimmery top that could easily have come off the Mizrahi fashion line rack at any Target store, while the androgynous Alison Cave’s apparel combined these two looks with silver leggings beneath a less decorated military jacket.

Like many of the key players in Modern Dance, Jonah Bokaer’s investigation and exploration of movement and concepts grows like a branch on a family tree. His work with Merce Cunningham is an unmistakable influence, yet Bokaer presents strong and identifiable themes in a way that Cunningham’s purely kinetic work does not. Although it is left to the viewer to draw their own conclusions about how or why they relate, in The Invention of Minus One, Bokaer has presented vignettes that clearly interconnect and even hint at an underlying meaning. For example, the use of visual media and technology and the way humans interact with it was a common thread throughout the piece. Video projections (designed by former Cunningham dancer, animator, and college professor, Michael Cole) formed a corps of additional performers. The images displayed were varied and included immediate and live footage of the dancers, cutouts of the performers, à la the Vitruvian Man, that bent and twisted like paper dolls as they floated across the screen, and graphic representations of cameras and Polaroid snapshots which shifted and whirled into formations or materialized unexpectedly. Pieces of the set were manipulated and relocated in a similar fashion. At one point the women took Polaroid shots of one another as Bokaer danced on. Once created, these became an effective addition to the collection of props used ingeniously throughout the work.


Flickr photo by worleyworks
Flickr photo by worleyworks

The sound score, composed by Christian Marclay, crackled, whirred, and pulsed, giving auditory support to a visual feast. In fact, the sounds themselves seemed to give off a kinetic energy that could almost be seen. At times the trio of dancers performed in silence, accompanied only by the award-winning lighting design of Aaron Copp. They responded and connected to one another in a purposeful yet entirely undramatic way. Although the work made great use of gesture and expression, which ranged from unconscious tics to hand signals, to awkward or silly chortling, the majority of the dancer’s movements appeared simple and pedestrian only because these performers are so skilled. By nature, choreography that is created using simulated or animated dance forms, a method which is at the heart of Bokaer’s work, presents certain challenges for a performer. Although technology can mimic human locomotion, it can produce transitions and sequences that would not be the first (second, or even third) choice of the dancer who must translate the movement onto their body. It is to the credit of these movers that they were able to make the sometimes disjointed choreography look effortless.

There are many memorable moments in The Invention of Minus One which were imprinted in my mind on that chilly November evening. Perhaps an homage to the Cunningham and Cage chance principles, one such episode engaged the dancers in what looked like a slight-of-hand parlor game as they passed a coin between their fingers and beneath their hands on the floor of the stage. In another passage, umbrellas, lit from the inside, turned Jimena Paz into a jellyfish-like creature. Her subtle movements had the effect of whispering, demanding that the viewer pay closer attention. Later, overturned wardrobe carts and focused lighting framed the soles of each dancer’s feet as these appendages performed their own, unique pas de deux. For the most part, although clearly presenting human interactions with technology and with one another, Minus One delivered movement devoid of theatricality. However, in one of the rare moments that this work ventured into emotional terrain, the ambiguously dressed Alison Cave, bathed in a blue spotlight, sat surrounded by the Polaroid photos which she had just collected. One by one she gazed at the photos as if memorizing or recalling the details of each. As I write this review of The Invention of Minus One, this image, in particular, resonates. I realize I am doing the same. Capturing, collecting, and recalling these snapshots in time and space. They remain with me as if caught by the flash of a camera.


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