Have you ever caught a sudden glimpse of yourself in a mirror and thought, Who is that person? You expected someone younger or somehow different. Jonah Bokaer, until recently an outstanding dancer in Merce Cunningham’s company, has been exploring various sorts of simulacra for some time now. Through the processes of motion capture, photography, videography, and animation, his solo, False Start, and a trio, The Invention of Minus One, deal with the actual and the virtual, with presence and absence, in ways that invite questions about how we interpret what we see.
False Start, which begins the performances co-sponsored by Danspace Project, is the sole topic of the latest edition of the classy art publication 2wice, edited by Patsy Tarr and designed by Abbott Miller. If you riffle quickly through Joachim Ladefoged’s handsome, dark-toned photos of Bokaer on a mirrored floor against a concrete wall, the magazine becomes a flip book that conveys both the clarity of Bokaer’s poses and—if you’re dexterous—the flash of his head-over-heels tilts and dives.
Onstage, Bokaer’s sometimes a dark form, with a standing “ghost light” as the only illumination; sometimes he’s brighter, sometimes he has a shadow. He starts by walking backward toward us. You fear he might fall off the stage, and, in his precise falls and twists, parts of him do plunge over the edge. When he’s upstage, facing us, his moves slam against both the floor and the stage’s huge metal loading-in door, creating a loud, rhythmic clanking.
The door lifts, revealing a screen as full of colors as the Jasper Johns painting that False Start is named for; at its center, a spotted creature stirs. In applying motion capture to part of his solo, Bokaer has tried to convey an illusion of three-dimensionality, with disturbing results. His digital image appears reptilian, big-headed and tapering to tiny, spidery feet—weightless as he/it turns in the air to land subtly out of sync with the crashing noises in Christian Marclay’s score.
Digitization and animation also figure in The Invention of Minus One, but more fleetingly. Most of the imagery is provided by the intrepid video designs of Michael Cole (another Cunningham alumnus). Straightforward close-ups of the performers appear on the two small, flanking screens before they enter, although a face can morph into a series of flat pages being turned, and multiple choruses projected on Omi Okamoto’s rear “screen” of white umbrellas back a soloist. Everything seems subject to mutability, except the vivid onstage presence of Cunningham dancers Holley Farmer, Rashaun Mitchell, and Banu Ogan. Presumably, they have a choice of the costumes by Isaac Mizrahi that hang on three movable racks. Those racks become door frames, hold roll-down screens for projections, and, tipped, cage the three dancers while an offstage camera, helped by Aaron Copp’s lighting, projects their feet.
People and objects appear and disappear. Marclay’s score thunders, screams, crashes, then suddenly falls silent. The umbrellas that suggest a photographer’s studio flash when Ogan wields a camera. She, Mitchell, and Farmer do mundane things like move tripods and racks. They sit and toss coins (a reference to John Cage’s chance procedures?), then perform a rapid, graceful kind of conceal-reveal shell game with their hands while seated in a ring. But they also dance marvelously—articulate with their limbs, alert with their gaze, thoughtful in their demeanor. Some of what two or three do together, the long lines of their limbs intersecting in designs of startling clarity and beauty, makes me imagine that Bokaer has deconstructed sequences from False Start and given the dancers different moves to perform simultaneously in close proximity. I’m not yet sure what this daring, ambitious piece adds up to overall, but it explores its themes with bewitching intelligence.