People walked out of Merce Cunningham’s concerts for decades. His choreography defied conventions and required audiences to experience dance as abstract art, without narrative or emotional motivation.
Jonah Bokaer’s “FILTER” brought out some of the same response as his mentor’s work Saturday at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center of the Arts, though Bokaer’s approach to integrated media is completely different. But if Cunningham had been in the audience at the U.S. premiere of “FILTER,” he probably would have approved, watching with his impish smile.
Boeker, a talented young champion of New York’s downtown/Brooklyn experimental art scene, is developing design-based integrated media performances, influenced by avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, in which movement comes second to visual elements.
Atlanta dance audiences’ taste has been shaped by Atlanta Ballet and by seasoned touring companies that frequent the city, such as Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey and Pilobolus. These troupes offer consumers what they expect: dance is the primary focus. It’s accessible and easy for audiences to connect with emotionally. There’s often narrative or appealing lyricism, recognizable steps and some degree of technical virtuosity. Bokaer’s highly abstract and dreamlike architectural world defies such conventions.
But, whether one was absorbed or put off by its unfamiliarity, the work was masterfully performed with courage and vulnerability; thoughtfully conceived, its elements were fully integrated and meticulously layered.
Bokaer, just 29, was chosen to inaugurate the Ferst Center’s ARTech residency program, created to encourage artists who blend art and technology, because he integrates choreography, lighting, set design, sound and video images, some obtained through motion capture and computer animation. The program’s second work, “REPLICA,” exemplified this approach and was a highlight of the evening.
In this piece, dancers Bokaer and C.C. Chang moved with fleet speed, hypnotic and visually arresting, in front of, through and inside of artist Daniel Arsham’s giant cube structure, as holes in each of its faces were broken through. Video images on the cube’s faces replicated dance images to create enjoyably puzzling tricks of the eye.
“FILTER,” the new commission, focused on Anthony Goicolea’s set design, Aaron Copp’s lighting and Bokaer’s choreography. Chris Garneau sang and played some of his score live and appeared on stage as one of four boys who resemble one another. With a natural grace, he blended easily with the trained dancers, navigating a changing landscape as they journeyed from boyhood to manhood.
Garneau’s soundscape set moods, blurring lines between nature and technology. Electronic sounds oddly evoked childhood memories — white noise like roaring wind, randomly struck chimes like a music box that’s slowing down, just before it stops. A soft melody played on a metallic-sounding keyboard that recalled a toy piano. Near the end, somewhat fearful knocking sounds evoked an old steam radiator beginning to heat up.
The visual landscape suggested winter: eight leafless trees lit in cool shades of purple and white. The boys were dressed in winter sleepwear: simple cotton, button-front long johns, two in black, two in white. Gold light often gave them a crystalline luster, and strangely, after a time, they no longer looked like boys but appeared as men.
The four performers’ movement was often slowed and dreamlike, sometimes uncomfortably static, then weightlessly fast. There was a sense of boyhood and brotherhood, with resistance and dependence, mirror images and flip sides: different aspects of the same person, duplicated. One pair walked as if contained and contemplative; the other sliced the air around their twisting, turning bodies. At times, an individual would meander as if the head were being pulled through a gyrating wind tunnel, as if venturing into a turbulent, unpredictable unknown.
On the floor under a soft white spotlight, Adam Weinert ran through a complex solo with weightless speed. Limbs bent at sharp angles. Lying supine, he clasped an arm across his solar plexus, pulled it away with the other hand, then braced the arm against the floor and angled his body upward like a plank. He swiveled around, crossed one leg behind the other, and folded his limbs into complex configurations that looked like a succession of symbols, without organic body logic or emotional line. They flashed by like a video recording on fast-forward, or as Bokaer suggested, a dream.
Each dancer held in his mouth what looked like a thermometer, recalling the connection a child has with his mother when he’s sick. Garneau’s high-pitched singing intensified the love. His lullabies gave way to a sense of yearning, loss and letting go as he repeated, “It’s not that bad… I will miss you… and we’ll see.…” It was a passage, a transition, a journey, a sad parting, a venture into the unknown, a meandering exploration of self-discovery.
A mobile phone application that enabled the audience to vote on light board controls broke down not far into the performance. Fortunately not integral to “FILTER,” it was another paradox that would have made Merce smile.