Cell phones will remain on at the U.S. premiere of Jonah Bokaer’s “FILTER” on April 2 at the Ferst Center for the Arts. The integrated media production, to be shown alongside Bokaer’s 2009 National Academy of Sciences commission “REPLICA,” is the culmination of the Ferst’s ARTech residency series, a new program designed to explore ways that art and technology (or art and science) intersect in creative process and in life. Composed through a collaborative process over the course of five residencies, ARTech’s first commission may show that people’s relationship with technology isn’t easy or simple.
Bokaer, a choreographer and media artist, is creating a buzz in New York and Paris. Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman recently cited him as one of the forward-thinking innovators who is furthering the art of dance. That speaks well for Ferst Director George Thompson’s foresight in commissioning Bokaer’s newest work. Thompson’s mission is to better link dance with technology — and better engage Georgia Tech with the Atlanta arts community — and he will lead a post-performance discussion with Bokaer and the dancers.
In a recent interview at the center, Bokaer explained that the title, “FILTER,” helps put into the foreground an unseen part of the artist’s process: the use of digital media to alter image, sound, light and movement. The word also suggests filtering out what is irrelevant to reveal something pure.
Such purity was evident during a recent rehearsal on the Ferst stage. Understated and elegant, dancer Adam Weinert made complicated movement phrases seem simple. With absolute clarity, to the sound of soft chimes, he glided effortlessly from one body shape to the next — each like a sculpture, or an emblem, subtly articulating the joints to create surprisingly beautiful and new configurations of limbs, torso, head and hands. Eyes, face and skin were physically present, imbued with an inner focus so strong that he seemed to glow from within.
The purity, abstraction and inventiveness of Bokaer’s work is influenced partly by Merce Cunningham, in whose company the 30ish Bokaer danced for eight years. But unlike Cunningham, whose artistic collaborators worked independently, Bokaer synthesizes media throughout the creative process — in this case, native Atlantan Anthony Goicolea’s art installation and set design, Chris Garneau’s newly commissioned score and longtime collaborator Aaron Copp’s lighting. The technological component is layered on top — as part of the ARTech residency, Georgia Tech graduate student Stephen Garrett will introduce “Mass Mobile,” an interactive mobile phone application that enables the audience to control lighting cues during the performance.
The 13-month creative process included yet another element, one of the main reasons Bokaer was chosen to be the first ARTech artist: the use of video projection obtained through motion capture technology. Bokaer was introduced to the digital technique when he saw Cunningham’s “Biped” in 1999; he performed that work the following year. He has since become known for integrating motion capture into his own work, notably “The Invention of Minus One,” with dancer Holly Farmer in 2008, and “REPLICA” with Judith Sanchez Ruiz in 2009. The latter involves dual video projections onto a white cubic structure, designed by Daniel Arsham, and plays with human perception.
In residency at Georgia Tech, Bokaer spent hours working out movement sequences in the motion capture lab for use in the new commission. But collaborative processes are often unpredictable. The strongest elements came from human sources, and the motion capture technology was filtered out.
Bokaer explained that technology isn’t what defines his work so much as artistic synthesis through collaboration, based primarily on visual components. Since 2008, he has choreographed four operas directed by Robert Wilson, who Bokaer says has influenced him more than Cunningham. Wilson is a trained architect, and in his work, Bokaer explained, the arc of the production is based in design. Sets, lighting and other visual elements come first; choreography is constructed within that framework. In other words, visual design shapes the performance.
This approach has paid off. Last fall, New York Times critic Roslyn Sulcas described Bokaer’s “Anchises,” which featured contemporary dance elders Valda Setterfield and Meg Harper, as “a subtle tour de force.” In December, Sulcas included “Anchises” among the top dance works of 2010 and The New York Times Magazine named him one of the “Nifty 50” of America’s up-and-coming talented people.
Bokaer explained that “FILTER” creates a visual landscape that shifts as four individuals navigate through it. Goicolea’s set pieces, photos, videos and drawings help create a world of childlike wonder. Bokaer described it as a childhood scene, a wintry landscape of trees, snow and candlelight that creates a curious play of inside and outside spaces. Within this magical realm, he explained, four male performers, who strikingly resemble one another, journey through a changing world that brings together natural and technological aspects and conveys a sense of youth … and youth’s passing.
Bokaer said he drew from experience as the oldest of four boys, each of whom struggled with growing up; each underwent a rite of passage. But the four individuals, he explained, could be seen either as brothers or as aspects of one person.
As the young men navigate the world, they encounter a three-level plank structure that is used at different times as a raft (shades of “Huckleberry Finn”?), a table, a roof and a small wall. The structure rotates, rocks and revolves. It destabilizes the figures, challenging them as they struggle to regain balance and orientation. By its end, Bokaer hopes “FILTER” will leave audiences with a sense of wonder, awe and, finally, resolution.
Of his decision not to include motion capture video, he said, “I realized that this could quite easily have become a three-ring circus.” Motion capture was one design element too many. At one point in the process, Goicolea sent video that included motion capture images: a constellation of data points, gathered from the body, which looked like stars, “as if the sky was dancing,” Bokaer said. “It was fascinating, but it also took things in more of a literal direction, and suddenly a lot of the imagery was very hard to resolve. So we decided to scale it back to the performance itself, to ‘Mass Mobile.’ Rather than broadcast the technology, we said, well, this will be evident in the app, and in the movement itself.”
So if the motion capture results were folded into the choreography, and “Mass Mobile” is the main technological component. How does it work? Please do not turn off your cell phone during the performance.
Once audience members have downloaded the app to their phones, they can vote on lighting cues during a pre-show set and in short interludes during the hour-long piece. These elections go to a server at Georgia Tech, which connects to the light board, which controls the lighting on stage. A bit of a gimmick, perhaps, but that’s beside the point. Bokaer believes it’s important to find new ways for audiences to interact with live performance.
“As a society we’re faced with questions about how live performance stays relevant when so much performance is occurring online, and also because moving images are supplementing so much of our interaction, day to day,” Bokaer observed. “What is at stake for creating a show these days? Continuing to have people remain interested in seeing choreography that’s designed and having a connection to that is something I’m very invested in. So, the more ways that people can connect with that, the better.”