Age and Myth: Jonah Bokaer’s ANCHISES

ANCHISES, a collaboration between choreographer Jonah Bokaer and the design firm Harrison Atelier, receives its U.S. premiere this week at the Abrons Arts Center, inspired by the story of Anchises – the father of Aeneas (the epic hero of Virgil’s Aeneid), who is carried out of the burning city of Troy on his son’s shoulders.

Jonah Bokaer is at once ubiquitous, driven and remarkably humble; he answered questions for Culturebot amidst preparations for ANCHISES, a tour to Miami for his recent work, Replica, and who knows how many other things.


CB: Jonah, you’re one of the busiest, most successful, most multifaceted people I know.  You’re just shy of 30, you’ve got an amazing performance career, established two important creative institutions (Chez Bushwick and Center for Performance Research) and are deeply involved in new performance technologies.  How do you juggle all of this?

(Surely you flatter me! It’s not all that special.)

Currently, I work over 90 hours per week, and try to apply equal vigor to all of my cultural pursuits. Where I’m most satisfied is in technical rehearsal, and working with three key people who make my work possible: Aaron Copp, lighting designer; Julie Seitel, stage manager; and Samuel Stonefield, company manager. I feel at home with these people, and experience a focused, understanding bond that is non-verbal, and occurs through working intently on the same project. Being on the same page with people in collaboration is invaluable.

It’s also very valuable to work with mature performers, and in ANCHISES, the pleasure of being onstage with Valda Setterfield, Meg Harper, James McGinn, and Catherine Miller is highly rewarding.

CB: How do you take care of yourself, both in life and in art?  With so much going on, how do you spend the few hours that are yours?

Each day, I try to swim, which is where the most satisfying creative thinking occurs.  My family is also very important to me: I have 5 siblings, and multiple neices and nephews.  Collaborators tend to be some of the closest and most long-lasting friendships.

CB: It seems like you’re generally pretty collaborative in terms of your creative process.  Can you talk about how you identify the people you want to work with, and how they are involved?

All of my works begin with a visual collaborator, prior to any staging or movement research.  The visual design is used as a fundamental principal for the organization of choreography, which makes works which are synthesized, and fused, rather than operating independently.

Working with a visual designer or collaborator generally takes 12-18 months, and it an intensive and vigorous process. Normally the designer is present at nearly all rehearsals, which is a demanding way to work.

The design firm Harrison Atelier (with whom I am collaborating on ANCHISES) was co-founded by Seth Harrison and Ariane Lourie Harrison, whom I have known since 2005. Our collaboration has been highly involved, and developed over the course of 13 months.

CB: I’m interested in how things get from the grain of an idea to a full commissioned premiere.  Can you tell us what the life of this piece was for you?

In February, 2009 I met a talented and rare curator of dance named Eckhard Tiemann in Bangalore, India. Eckhard took an interest in my choreography, and later in 2009, set up a site-visit, lecture, performance and tour of Bournemouth, UK, under his artistic leadership as the Curator of Pavilion Dance.

Eckhard informed me of a community in Bournemouth with an audience question: most of the town was either elderly, or retired.

Over the course of a year, Eckhard designed a two-part commissioning program which involved a new media work called Double Feature, in response to the new construction site which would host Pavilion Dance upon the completion of its new facility, and a new choreography for stage, to premiere there.

In collaboration with Harrison Atelier, the production ANCHISES was formed. This was in large response to the problem of the aging body proposed in dance, which is a theme I have addressed in two past productions.

ANCHISES also experienced four production residencies, which I see as integral to making a full and mature work:

-rehearsal space in NYC at CPR, at $15 per hour
-lockout residency/design period in Hudson, NY
-theatrical residency for the set design at Abrons Arts Center
-10-day technical period in the UK, onsite in the theater

CB: I saw a recent performance of yours at Movement Research, and it was mentioned in your bio that your work is rarely seen in New York.  What do you attribute this to?

Currently, to premiere a new work, it takes 30 hours of technical rehearsals minimum.  I find that in NYC, facilities, theaters, staff, and presenting organizations generally expect very slim productions, and offer only 1-2 days of preparation. I’ve also found that I can no longer work in that way: to do a production correctly, I need 30 hours to prepare the work. This has to do with a method of working that uses the elements of technical theater in a full and integrated manner.

One aspect of the NYC performances which will be special, is that we are using LED (light emitting diode) lighting for certain aspects of the production.

CB: Anchises takes as its central idea that of aging, and the conflict between filial loyalty and the progress of the self.  How did you become interested in the story? What is your relationship to the classic myth?

My knowledge of Greek mythology stems mainly from the body of work Anne Carson has created over the past two decades.

I think there are gaps in the historical and mythological record: for example, Anchises dies an ambiguous death, and there are few details of his passing. Did he die at sea? During the fall of Troy? Abandoned/deposited in Sicily? It’s ambiguous, and in a sense, forgotten, which I find fascinating.  Aeneas, the son of Anchises, moved on to found the city of Rome after the fall of Troy, and effectively, this details the transition from antiquity to classicism.  Having personally developed and co-founded two buildings in NYC during an extremely challenging real estate climate – I find the problem particularly intriguing.

CB: What is your ideal for the future of performance?  What do you love in dance, opera, theater, music – and how do you see it developing?

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote called “On Vanishing”…

“Choreography is an act that vanishes. This is what drew me to the themes of Anchises – a character who vanishes, both from the historical record, and from public consciousness. Anchises has not received the forms of homage bestowed on other, younger archetypal figures: only remnants of him are recorded, including an ambiguous disappearance. This relates to choreography: we witness movements reproduced, but rarely the original event. As opposed to dancing, which is communally shared, or publicly viewed, the act of choreography is often private. It occurs, is transmitted, and disappears, through performance. This also relates to the form and figure of Anchises, and how he vanished.

As a choreographer working in 2010, it is treacherous to approach Greek subject matter. But language offers an important key, as the Greek language refers to choreography as “dance writing” from the words χορεία (circular dance) and γραφή (writing). It is still possible to design movements, without anxiety, in a specified form. This art form is on a continuum that is advanced by many participants, simultaneously, and over time: choreographers participate in this continuum, by moving the art-form in a variety of different directions

Choreographers, too, are vanishing. Within the past year, Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Michael Jackson, and Kazuo Ohno all passed away, to varying degrees of public awareness. Their participation in new choreography has expired. This disappearance presents a problem, the implications of which are unexplored. And there is a parallel between overlooking the value of choreographers, and overlooking the value of the elderly.”

CB: You have worked extensively with some major giants in modern performance: Merce Cunningham and Robert Wilson.  Can you tell us some of your most fulfilling moments with each?  And, addressing ANCHISES, what we derive from the old is gleaned from their experience, knowledge, and past mistakes…what have you learned from your artistic elders?

ANCHISES is an accumulation of changes among five performers of mixed generations, whose ages span more than 50 years. The choreography refers to a multidimensional process of physical, psychological, and social aging among five bodies. Some dimensions expand over time, while others decline: reaction time, for example, might slow with age, but world wisdom might expand. Working with Merce Cunningham taught me that physical, mental, and technological growth can occur late in life. Similarly, Robert Wilson taught me that the body holds unstoppable forces of perception, defying limitation. And working with my father, recently, taught me that parents are often interdependent on their children.

It is difficult to summarize the experience of working with Merce Cunningham, as we worked together for 8 years, and traveled to 200+ cities in over 30 countries during that time. A fond memory is of being at the Blue Lagoon with him in Iceland, in the dead of winter, and watching him enjoy himself floating in the sulfur ponds – he seemed very joyful in that moment.

My working relationship with Robert Wilson is far closer and more collaborative than I experienced with Merce who, in my experience, did not collaborate closely with others. Working with Bob subsequent to the experience of dancing in the Cunningham Company was a relief: the director spoke, talked, joked, directed, and otherwise interacted with the creative team in meaningful ways. Bob and I continue to enjoy an ongoing collaboration, and are well-matched because we work formally, through abstraction, and with a large focus on the technical and design elements of a theatrical event.

Influences on my work include:

-Sarah Jane Bokaer, director
-Tsvi Bokaer, filmmaker
-Daniel Arsham, visual artist
-Anne Carson, writer and classicist
-Aaron Copp, lighting designer
-Anthony Goicolea, photographer
-Liubo Borissov, media designer
-Narciso Rodriguez, designer
and many others

Working with Merce Cunningham and Robert Wilson has likewise been very formative, intense, and profound in terms of the development of my own career, and my own work.

What I’ve learned from my artistic elders is that they, too, are still exploring, struggling, pushing, and searching for new directions.

CB: In an interview with Jonathan Cott, composer John Adams talks about some artists receiving creative energy from turning their backs on the past – he describes it like a primal scene with the father – where the act of artistic patricide is one of self-survival.  I thought this was particularly resonant with the themes of ANCHISES, and wonder how this might have meaning to you in relation to your own artistic past with Merce.  Do you ever feel in your creative process that you’re trying to eliminate that past?

The themes of ANCHISES involve saving, or salvaging, a parent during a time of crisis, and placing greater value on familial care than on material wealth. There is also an ethical and ecological component to the work: what happens to the aging body in our society?

I continue to move forward on creating original works without any anxiety over past influences.  I simply move on, with my own aesthetic signature.

Jonah Bokaer and Harrison Atelier
Abrons Arts Center
November 17-21 | 7:30 pm
TICKETS: $20, $15 students/seniors

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