(Dance Review) Jonah Bokaer at Jacob’s Pillow

Jonah Bokaer in 'Why Patterns' (photo Robert Benschop)

Jonah Bokaer in 'Why Patterns' (photo Robert Benschop)

Jonah Bokaer
Doris Duke Theatre
August 3, 2011

Review by Anna Rogovoy

(BECKET, Mass.) – Jonah Bokaer possesses a syrupy yet precise movement quality and the sort of unaffected stage presence one might not have expected from such an arguably precocious individual — at 18, he was the youngest person ever to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; now, just shy of 30, Bokaer has garnered numerous awards and co-founded two dance institutions in New York City. At Jacob’s Pillow this week, he presents the U.S. premieres of two works that confirm his choreographic voice as entrancing and subtly unpredictable.

RECESS, which is restaged site-specifically for each venue in which it is performed, begins with Bokaer kicking open a roll of heavy white paper. Dressed in black with his arms held stiffly at his sides, he revolves around himself, extending a leg to the front, the side, or the back in order to push the paper across the stage. Methodical and specific in each gesture, his movement bears traces of the Cunningham aesthetic, traces that are set aside as his body loosens and flows into a backwards somersault. The outline of a person is cut away from the paper he has unrolled, and he rests briefly in this space, calling attention to the dual meaning of the work’s title: recess, here, alludes not only to playtime, but also to an empty cavity.

The first meaning of RECESS is illustrated as Bokaer folds the paper, using the full reach of his body to trace and crease the lines he creates. Like a child constructing a huge origami sculpture, he shapes and reshapes the paper, bestowing different qualities upon it: sliding under it, he turns it into a rug and himself into a mouse; crumpling it (and allowing an unseen second performer to slip inside), he creates a moving creature that shakes and twitches as he watches; shaking it gently up and down, he forms a billowing wave. In one moment of pause, he scrunches a bit of the fabric of his pants in his fists. It’s a tiny yet telling gesture, one that denotes his comfort and flexibility during this (partially improvised) performance. The end of the piece is similarly casual, accompanied by James Brown’s infectiously upbeat “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine.”

'Why Patterns' by Jonah Bokaer (photo Artworks Daniel Arsham - Snarkitecture)

'Why Patterns' by Jonah Bokaer (photo Artworks Daniel Arsham - Snarkitecture)

Why Patterns, a collaboration between Bokaer, four dancers, and the design practice Snarkitecture, contains some of the same elements as RECESS; namely, an inquisitive, playful spirit and an innovative use of props to initiate, frame, and interrupt movement. Why Patterns begins with Irena Misirlic walking backwards towards the back of the stage. A single Ping Pong ball flies out of the right wing and, as Misirlic exits, Adam Weinert enters and crouches over the ball on all fours, moving it with his breath as he crawls across the stage.

More balls are tossed on and the other two performers, CC Chang and James McGinn, enter, tracking linear paths. All four experiment with bouncing balls to each other before lying on their backs and moving like synchronized swimmers in a pool dotted with white.

Bokaer’s choreography, all of which seems to be affected by the unpredictable behavior of the 10,000 Ping Pong balls which fill the space, is luscious. Rich with extensions and suspensions, the dancers alternate between displays of speedy agility and deeply rooted pauses. Sensitive to each other’s timing, they explore the spaces between and within their bodies using both individual balls and long plastic tubes containing dozens of them.

Memorable is an understated duet by Misirlic and Weinert during which they keep a ball suspended between their foreheads. This question of balance is tested again later by Chang who, left alone onstage for a spell, balances a ball on the back of her hand as she walks slowly towards the audience. Wondering what would happen if it fell, we are relieved when she lets it drop intentionally, a movement that triggers a cascade from offstage (an action/reaction relationship explored repeatedly throughout the work).

The tangible spontaneity of both RECESS and Why Patterns combined with the technical prowess and unpretentiousness of the performers establish a world that is at once adventurous and insightful. Constantly evolving and consistently intriguing, Bokaer’s creations beg to be seen again … and again.


Anna Rogovoy is The Rogovoy Report‘s chief dance critic. She studies dance, literature and writing at Bennngton College.



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