Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Capturing Motion and More: A conversation with dance/media artist Jonah Bokaer

photo by Michael Hart

Jonah Bokaer is a New York-based choreographer and media artist. A former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Bokaer is now based at Chez Bushwick, a performance and research venue for dance and media. Bokaer stands at the forefront of the interface between technology, dance, and the body, and has amassed numerous awards and grants for his work. This weekend at DiverseWorks he's performing The Invention of Minus One and False Start.

Dance Source Houston: When I look at The Invention of Minus One my first response is to pick up the dance like an object (if that were possible) and look for its operation center. It seems to beg the viewer to wonder how it works. What do you think the audience needs to know about this dance, if anything?

Jonah Bokaer: The Invention Of Minus One aimed to produce a historically-significant body of digital artwork and choreography, involving one year of motion capture research on the moving bodies of four dance artists, and culminating in an interdisciplinary live performance for stage. Many observations have been made about the human body in motion while creating this piece, which is of great relevance to the fields of dance, live performance, stage décor, design, anatomy, kinesiology, and sports medicine.

DSH: Talk a bit about the technology that makes the piece possible.

JB: The Invention Of Minus One has also engaged digital artist Michael Cole to build a décor out of the motion capture data, which was designed to accompany the stage production. Cole rendered and stored excerpts of the 365 movement phrases into a cohesive and visually integrated design, using Maya, Motion Builder, Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects and Motion.

DSH: I am wondering how you see the piece as culmination of a body of research?

JB: By mapping body movements in the three-dimensional domain of motion capture, the anatomy of these dancers will be studied in minute detail, creating both live and digital archives of kinesthetic data. This research will lead to quantitative conclusions about the joint velocities of modern dancers, and the various degrees of rotation, flexion and extension in each joint of an athlete's moving body. Daily movement phrases will be designed to study impact and torsion in major joints of the body that are often placed at risk in contemporary dance: the knees, ankles, shoulders, and sacro-iliac region will be placed under close kinetic and anatomical inspection. The project will also challenge the emerging field of motion capture technology to a new level of temporality, through the generous participation of Greg Worley/WorleyWorks Studio, who has agreed to subsidize the use of a Brooklyn-based, state of the art PhaseSpace™ Motion Capture System.

DSH: Is all movement capturable?

JB: I do think that all movement is capturable, including pedestrian movement in public space, and have made a number of media works that explore this, including a work called A Cure For Surveillance:

DSH: Have you always veered in the media direction? Do you remember an early experience with some form of technology as a child or teenager that set your present direction?

JB: Yes, I have always veered in the media direction in some way. My father was a filmmaker, originally from Tunisia, and my mother was a theater director: I believe that these were early influences in a strong way. As a very young child, I also used to balance blocks and objects in various, precarious positions – usually achieving strange structural balances.

DSH: The idea that motion can be captured, separated, and possibly freed from the mover is kind of exciting. Movement is what we have in common with the natural world. It's a liberating idea that our motion can transformed, distilled and altered. It levels the playing field a bit, in that your piece shows human movement in a different and almost pure context. There are moments in the dance where the live dancers partner with "captured motion." I found it enormously refreshing to extract movement from humans and just look at the movement. Do you find your attraction to movement can be free from a human species bias?

JB: Yes – and I often choreograph with images or objects as much, or as frequently, as with bodies. Parts of the video create movement, too, which the videographer made, but the choreographer did not.

DSH: To what extent do you share a boundary with movement researchers?

JB: Over the past several years, I have developed a body of work addressing the creative potential of digital technologies in movement production. I often create choreography by rendering a virtual body in the built domain, employing motion capture, digital animation, 3D modeling, and choreographic software to generate movement material. "Choreography" involves designing a body onscreen, embodying its movements in real time, and performing the choreography live. In that regards (and in relation to notions of "research" defined above), I do think there is a shared boundary with the fields of biomechanics, kinesiology, and gait/movement analysis.

DSH: In watching you move in False Start, I imagine your brain at night going through all the possible joint actions. As a soma-wonk myself, I found myself mesmerized by the sheer possibilities of motion in the piece. Talk a bit about how your solo came together.
JB: False Start is a technology-influenced solo that I animated, choreographed, and performed by the artist through the use of digital choreographic software. The movement for the piece has been designed through the use of 3D animation, and pays homage to the historical painting "False Start" by Jasper Johns (1959). This particular work will address the erasure of the moving human body, and the trace of its presence. As with previous two works, I use a solo choreographic practice to address the deconstruction of modernist portraiture, presenting a digital "maquette," which is mimicked by the performer.

DSH: There's a fabulous garage door in the DVD that seems quite important to the piece. We don't have one in Houston unless you travel with your own. Will you be adapting this piece to the DiverseWorks space?

JB: While developing new choreography, I frequently question (and subvert) the spaces in which my work is performed, creating site-specific installations that playfully critique the venue presenting a dance. This generally involves a visual or sonic intervention in the periphery of each individual venue, as with the use of a garage door in the space where this work was performed in NYC.

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.

DSH: As founding director of Chez Buswick, how do you find running an organization as both a support and laboratory for your work?

JB: I am deeply committed to fostering interdisciplinary dialogue with artists across media. With this in mind, I have established a cooperative studio space in which artists can congregate, develop ideas, and present work in a catalytic environment. I am interested in bringing innovative new work into direct conversation with contemporary thought and culture. That is a fueling motivation behind my efforts with Chez Bushwick. Increasingly, artists in NYC are having to "rewire" the way that they think about how to sustain themselves, and their artwork: Chez Bushwick provides a space for its founding artists, but has larger generative power as well.

DSH: You just finished up working with Robert Wilson in Faust and Aida in Warsaw Poland. How did that go? Is opera your next frontier?

JB: I do not think opera is a next frontier personally, but I have been lucky enough to work on the productions of Robert Wilson, most recently, FAUST commissioned by the National Opera of Poland.

Bob's show is gigantic, visually stunning, and very fully realized. His scenography is quite vast: he used nearly all 120 fly bars of the theater for the décor of Faust.

The ballet music for Faust, which is one of the longest of any opera, has a long history of being difficult to choreograph; Zachary Solov and Anthony Tudor at the Met Opera, and others, have tried to move it beyond kitsch but are often described as never having succeeded: it's generally so over the top that the expression 'like Faust' has come to mean pulling out all the stops. I believe that Bob's approach to scenography raised it to a new and surreal level and just might have clinched it. I hope the production will come to NYC, or at least that the documentation is strong, so that others may see it in the United States.

DiverseWorks presents Jonah Bokaer: The Invention of Minus One, on November 21 & 22, at 8:00 pm, at DiverseWorks. 713-335-3445 or www.diverseworks.org

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.