Jonah Bokaer makes dances. Daniel Arsham makes visual art, primarily sculpture. What they make together is a singular, startling fusion of physical and conceptual, human and object, movement and image. Even amid the flood of art unleashed during Miami Art Week, Bokaer and Arsham’s work should stand out.
The pair will present the premiere of Occupant, the latest piece in their seven-year collaboration and their third in Miami, at the Adrienne Arsht Center Friday through Sunday.
Their work differs from a mass of contemporary dance and visual art that is almost entirely conceptual, arising from or shaped by an idea. Without an explanation, the result is often opaque, and once the concept is explained, there often isn’t much left to get from looking at the work. The result is that whatever you get from actually looking is almost beside the point.
But for Bokaer, the experience you have watching his dances is the point. He aims for works that are visually striking and powerful to watch. And he wants you to understand them by watching them.
"I think we have to raise the bar for what’s visually present onstage in dance, but also for what the public can see and feel," says Bokaer, 32.
"I believe very much that what you see is what you get. You can’t invite the public into your ruminations. It has to be concrete. … I care very much not only about how it looks but what the public sees and feels."
Music has always been considered dance’s primary partner, but for Bokaer, the visual element comes first.
"My intention is not to discard music, but to forefront and intensify the relationship between dance and visual art," he said from his dressing room at the Teatre Licorne in Cannes, France, last month, where he premiered a collaboration with video artist Irit Batsy at the Cannes International Dance Festival. "We’re trying to make work that couldn’t just be a dance, or just be an art installation — it’s interdependent."
Bokaer is unusually well equipped to interact with the art world. In 2000, at age 18, he became the youngest dancer ever to join the company of pioneering post-modern choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was known for collaborating with visual artists. During his time with Cunningham, Bokaer also earned a degree in visual and media art from The New School and the Parsons School of Design.
Since striking out on his own in 2007, he has worked extensively with visual artists as well as new-media, technology and animation creators. His resume includes videos, mobile applications and interactive installations; for one project, Fifth Wall, he created dances for an interactive iPad app.
Bokaer met Arsham when the sculptor, who was raised in Miami and studied at the Design and Architecture High School, was invited to create a set for a Cunningham dance during the troupe’s 2007 Miami residency. Arsham, who is now based in New York, continued to collaborate with Cunningham until the choreographer’s death in 2009, a connection that helped propel his career.
Bokaer and Arsham’s Miami appearances come courtesy of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which last year awarded them a $105,000 grant to create and present work at the Arsht Center. Knight president and CEO Alberto Ibargüen, who was an ardent supporter of Cunningham, says the duo carries on the choreographer’s tradition of groundbreaking experimentation.
"This is a long-term collaboration and exploration, and challenge of one to the other, challenging in their joint exploration of movement in time and space," Ibargüen says. "Daniel’s structures do not sit still — they usually don’t remain intact. They are not what you expect to find, and neither is Jonah’s dance."
Unlike Cunningham, who worked separately from his musical and set collaborators, coming together with them only at the first performance, Bokaer and Arsham spend several months working closely together. Arsham, 33, says it’s impossible to separate the way their ideas evolve.
"It’s a chicken and an egg thing," he says, that is fueled by his other art-making. "Almost every year I’m making a new piece for Jonah, so in the back of my mind I’m always thinking of things I can use."
Part of what Arsham considers is whether those things can move, or whether the dancers can make them move — whether immobile objects can become mobile. Together he, Bokaer and the dancers create a kind of dance of images, with living bodies and mobile objects.
In Replica, which the pair presented in Miami in 2012, they used a giant roll of paper — unrolled, then rolled up around Arsham in crumpled, wiggling shapes. Why Patterns, on the same program, incorporated hundreds of Ping-Pong balls, rolling, bouncing, and flying through the air.
"I think of something with movement potential, things we can do things with, that Jonah can build a language around," says Arsham. "We’re also looking for things that have an arc or a transformative process."
For Occupant, Arsham brought Bokaer chalk versions of his sculptures of "antique" communication tools dial phones, reel-to-reel tape, old cameras — that he had used to clean out his molds. As the dancers experimented, the soft chalk sculptures disintegrated — a new way of evoking the ideas of evanescence and change over time that Arsham intended for the original sculptures. But the dancers added other layers of meaning, holding the phones upside down or trying to listen to the cameras, as if they’d forgotten how to use them. The chalk makes patterns on the floor — artworks created by the dancers.
Though Occupant is based on a 2001 Edward Albee play about the sculptor Louise Nevelson, the dance doesn’t offer a literal narration. One of the performers is Valda Setterfield, 79, a revered figure in post-modern dance, while the other two are decades younger, a difference that highlights Occupant’s focus on obsolescence and change over time.
In all Bokaer and Arsham’s pieces, change is a central theme. Because the dancers interact with Arsham’s materials — bursting through paper, dropping Ping-Pong balls, making a chalk camera crumble — the audience experiences and understands them very differently than they would looking at a static object in a gallery.
"If the balls drop they make a noise," says Bokaer. "If the paper crumples it has an impact. The body coming into contact with the art produces an image that is also very visceral. Dance allows for that in a way that a museum does not."