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Jonah Bokaer Charts a Voyage, Ancestors Aboard


In a recent interview for, the choreographer Jonah Bokaer generously acknowledged the many artists whose ideas have influenced him. His beautiful Anchises, which received its U.S. premiere the week before Thanksgiving, reveals most obviously the input of his collaborators, Ariane and Seth Harrison of Harrison Atelier, who served as dramaturges and created the visual design, and lighting designer Aaron Copp. But you can also discern the influence of Merce Cunningham, in whose company Bokaer memorably danced for eight years, and Robert Wilson, with whom he has been collaborating recently. From Cunningham, he inherited a certain lovely reticence and a desire to let every gesture, fully and simply performed, be itself (and also stand for whatever the viewer intuits). Working with Wilson seems to have sharpened his aptitude—evident in his sophisticated use of digital media in some of his own work—for a luminous clarity of design.

One of six children, Bokaer is evidently sensitive to the filaments that bind contented families together. The links and differences between the aged, the middle-aged, and the young interest him. He found his metaphor in Virgil’s Aeneid. Anchises was the aged and ailing father whom Aeneas carried out of Troy on his back, as the city fell to the Greek victors. Anchises may have died on the long voyage that ended, according to legend, in the founding of Rome, but I think Bokaer would like him to have lived long enough to see the beginning of this new enterprise by his son and grandson, Ascanius.

Against Anchises’s brilliant, blue-lit backdrop, nine movable white cubes form various landscapes, behind which a huge “basket,” hanging from a grid, encloses large white blocks. The basket is made of the clear plastic tubes used for intravenous drips, and the ends hang down like splaying flower stems. Near the end of the work, the structure breaks open, and the contents topple like the buildings and walls of Troy.

This mutable landscape is occupied by five greatly gifted performers, all wearing dark trousers and oddly tied white shirts. They were born in different decades. Bokaer himself is only 29, while Valda Setterfield is in her seventies and Meg Harper in her sixties (like Bokaer, both danced in Cunningham’s company). James McGinn is in his twenties, Catherine Miller in her thirties. The performers’ behavior, the freshness of the light, and the whiteness of the structures convey an atmosphere of open air and sea. These people are often scanning the distance or looking back to where they came from. When only a few of them are moving, the others rest immobile.

The choreography is very spare. The dancers rearrange themselves, or are arranged, in positions that, in their stillness, make you think of statues resting on columns and pedestals or bas-reliefs threading around a temple. Loren Dempster’s musical score—subtle and full of silences—enhances the bright air. But although the movements are precisely designed, they resonate with tenderness. The dancers—calm, yet wonderfully eloquent—lean gently together, assist, support, or carry one another. Three from a sandwich and execute a minimal ballroom dance; later four do the same. The simple act of Setterfield fixing Bokaer’s collar reverberates as much as a huge gesture would. In a rare moment, the two men dance riskily, just before a low rumble begins—presaging the fall of the suspended chunks of columns.

Inevitably you perceive roles. McGinn nuzzles his head through the space between Harper’s arm and torso. Harper is lifted as if on a bier. At some point, you become aware that the five also slip into one another’s roles. Setterfield reclines in a certain way; seconds later McGinn assumes the same pose. Both Bokaer and McGinn, at different moments, lie on their backs and “fly” Setterfield above them. All have moments of weakness, times of strength. Here a gesture hints, “What do you need?” or “Oh my aching back!” Here a move says, “I’m falling, drowning, dying.”

After the collapse of the “city,” the sky that they survey turns pink, as if from distant flames, and the music emits a deep, almost shocking twang. Gradually the five recommence arranging the blocks. They build structures, unmake them, build new ones. A ship. A city. They fit themselves into the new environments. At one point there’s a corbelled arch, within which Miller dances. Finally, to throbbingly sweet music, two tomblike white blocks are brought onstage and set in front of Setterfield as if to prepare her for a meal. Everyone gathers to watch while she bends forward, gazing into the distance. The two men hold out their hands to catch her head before it falls. Very slowly, the light fades.

Bokaer’s classical analogy is a quiet rebuke to a society that undervalues, shunts aside, and often mistreats its aged. In Anchises, respect for acquired wisdom balances youthful vigor, and love is the scales.