Jonah Bokaer, Choreographer, Media Artist & Founder of the Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation
May 7, 2019
Q. You were named a French-American Foundation Young Leader in 2008, the first dance artist to be chosen for the program. What were some highlights of your experience as a Young Leader?
At the time of being acknowledged by the French American Foundation I was 26, and incredibly honored by the distinction at that unique juncture in my professional life. The opportunity struck me as a larger opportunity as well to represent the cultural sector, the nonprofit space, and an artist’s perspective within such an impressive group of young professional leaders. The dynamism of the classes of 2008 and 2009 were particularly striking: many of us participated in the program in Strasbourg in September 2008 timed with revelations of the global financial crisis, which perhaps added intensity to the bonding experience in our group. Lasting and durable professional connections have grown and sustained well after the program – in addition to friendships, many relationships have turned into professional associations and ventures for myself, and many in our class. I believe that the development of my work in France, including French distribution for my work, was also an adjacent outcome of receiving this honor. I continue to try and remain as connected as possible to the Foundation, and its remarkable programs and networks.
Q. Did you always know you wanted to pursue a career in the arts, or was there a particular moment that goal crystallized for you?
Thank you for mentioning that. I made my first dance when I was six, and would describe a career in the arts as secondary to a love for the artforms that called to me. It was with my siblings, actually. We were all outside, and I started creating patterns and movements, staging us together in space. And it was a dance—not just a routine, a dance. There were flips involved, and it lasted a full hour. This was an unusual thing for a six-year-old to do, and I think it’s what later led to more formal training.
I have a saying: if you have two eyes you know about dance. People should be able to view it, approach it, and hold opinions about it. I feel that dance, unlike a lot of text-driven work, which poses language and translation barriers, can be that accessible.
There’s also something about attention. Our public is more and more disposed to shorter performances. In order keep live work with a ticket-purchasing model, I think we’ll probably be seeing shorter programs, in general.
There’s a cultural aspect of my career between France and the U.S. as well. In terms of practicing choreographers, directors, artists—we don’t see many from North Africa and the Middle East. My father’s family is very connected to that part of the world, so some of my thematic material takes on the idea of disappearance, often the disappearance of people. That gives it an austere feeling that is, to be honest, not everyone’s idea of having a good time at a performance. Sometimes it’s described, depending on the piece, as “tough work.” People disappear, and objects disappear, and images disappear.
In a recent study, they found that only four or five choreographers from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria are acknowledged and professionally circulating in the world, while there are over 1,200 performance non-profits in New York City alone. It’s definitely a question of what’s visible, and what’s invisible. Maybe that contributes to the subject of crystallizing or distilling what has been important in my career.
Q. Your work in choreography melds together media art, video, design, sculpture, and other practices. What inspired you to pursue these cross-disciplinary collaborations? And what is the biggest challenge to producing works that bring together such varied forms?
Yes it does, and I often describe the work, and its business model, as fusional. Beyond the challenges of operating a nonprofit in the United States, which has some inherit difficulties in terms of capacity building, I’ll speak to that in relation to On Vanishing, a 2011 work commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum. I worked with the curatorial team there: Alexandra Munroe, Sadhini Poddar, Charles Fabius, and others who were working on the Lee Ufan retrospective. The context was the Guggenheim Rotunda, where a massive sculpture by Lee Ufan, Dialogue, had been installed. The premise was an event that had disappeared, Things and Words, a work that Lee did in the 1969 in Tokyo. Lee gave me permission to “reimagine” the event. So it wasn’t a reconstruction, or a restaging—I don’t appreciate the limited rhetoric currently circulating around those words in performance. It was a reimagining between two artists from different generations. The license was given from one artist to another, for which I’m very grateful.
In terms of challenges, there’s a great deal of training needed for my work, and a great shift in arts education in the U.S. right now, as well as the financing of arts education. My work is very rigorously designed. But to answer your question, I offset this by working with open scores, so there are two poles going on at once. One is a virtuosic, almost hyper-written choreography, and the other is openly-scored movement, where the interpreter makes the choices.
I think that the audience can feel a sense of rapt attention, and with an open score I present things that have never been seen before. But I’d be surprised if audience members can tell the difference between what is and is not choreographed. In On Vanishing, the opening and the closing solos are totally free, but everything else couldn’t be more scripted. Balancing those opposites can be a different kind of challenge, for the artists inside these works.
Q. Tell us about the foundation you run and its work to establish affordable arts spaces for local artists.
Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization which oversees both my choreography and art spaces. Through the support of its Foundation Board, generous donors, and foundation grants, the organization has triumphed in fulfilling its dual mission: which is to foster the development, research, and presentation of new performance works across disciplines, while establishing affordable art spaces for a diverse community of artists.
I saw my predecessors come across financial peaks and valleys, even when they were five decades into their careers. At the same time, I saw Brooklyn real estate changing and thought there was a window for dancers of younger generations, my own generation and those that follow. I wanted future artists, future college graduates, performers in their twenties and thirties, to have access to large amounts of space in New York in the ways that I did. That was the motivation behind these gestures—to make it affordable. That’s what I had when I moved to Bushwick, and I wanted to pass this along.
The financing of visual art—well, if you think about it, it’s a luxury mentality: if there’s only one of something, its value and its exclusivity are very clearly appreciated. However, with its disappearance and the ephemerality of the act, dance resists such an economy. It never becomes an object. It vanishes. My work tries to participate in that conversation.
Q. What upcoming projects are you working on, and where can we see them?
I am speechless to receive an early suite of awards at the beginning of 2019. The fellowships will allow me to evolve a set of programs designed to fill the gap that arose in the aftermath of 9/11, a time in which America largely turned away from cultural exchange with Middle Eastern nations. These programs will allow my organization to build lasting relationships designed to foster diversity and cultural advancement through the arts.
First, in Stanford, California, I was honored to be named a Mohr Visiting Artist at Stanford University. The Mohr Visiting Artist program at Stanford, supported by Nancy and Larry Mohr, brings acclaimed emerging artists on campus for one term to teach an accredited course and present performances to the Stanford community and the public. During my time on campus I developed a course with Charles Renfro, partner at Diller Scofido + Renfro, entitled “Dance, Architecture, and Technology.” Between January and March of 2019, I staged ten site-specific choreographies with students in the Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed McMurtry Building of Art and Art History. The works included ten students of extraordinary ability and diversity, all of whom were women.
Second, thanks to the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I was awarded the DisTIL (Discovery Through Iterative Learning) Fellowship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill through the academic year 2020, where I’ll have the opportunity to collaborate with UNC faculty across multiple disciplines during a residency of seven week-long visits. This fellowship will include a robust collaboration with the renowned Middle Eastern scholar and authority Charles Kurzman. The goal of this program is to help UNC faculty and students look at their own work through a new lens. These discoveries will be shared through discussions with the wider community, including a public-facing program taking place in March 2020.
Finally, I was honored to be selected as an artist in residence at the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva Island, Florida. I will create a series of new lithographs and screen prints tentatively titled “The Disappearance Portraits” which utilize imagery from the Red Sea Basin, and in and around the Arabian Gulf. I will also choreograph a new dance called “Dry Docking” with longtime collaborators of the dance company, exploring Mediterranean Migration.