Exclusive: Chez Bushwick's Jonah Bokaer Gives New York Dance Some CPR

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Making it as a choreographer has always involved a certain amount of struggle. But here in New York, the age-old quandary of finding and keeping affordable space has boiled over into a full-blown crisis as rampant development pushes out the very artists who helped make their neighborhoods desirable in the first place. You know we’re in real trouble when even a major institution like the Paul Taylor Dance Company can lose its home of 20 years to Banana Republic.

Enter Jonah Bokaer, a young dance maker whose Brooklyn-based Chez Bushwick and the aptly named CPR (Center for Performance Research) have arrived on the scene just in time to administer some much-needed resuscitation.

Chez Bushwick, an artist-run organization founded in 2002, has emerged as a haven for choreographers and other artists, who can rent its spacious studio for five dollars an hour. In addition to the ultra-cheap work space, Chez Bushwick also hosts a weekly salon where artists are given carte blanche to present experimental work.

CPR, which opened its doors in Williamsburg in February, has a broader mission. Housed in the first L.E.E.D.-certified green building of its kind in Brooklyn, CPR aims to provide a new model for arts infrastructure that’s both environmentally and economically sustainable. Bokaer co-founded CPR with choreographer John Jasperse.

As if all that weren’t enough, Bokaer is also a first-rate dancer and choreographer. At 18, he became the youngest dancer to be hired by Merce Cunningham, for whose company he performed for eight years. More recently, he’s made a name for himself as a choreographer whose work uses digital technologies to stunning effect. His hectic schedule includes producing a solo and duet work each year, as well as working on collaborative projects with artists across many disciplines, including avant-garde theater artist Robert Wilson and poet Anne Carson.

We recently had the pleasure of meeting the charming and soft-spoken Bokaer at Chez Bushwick, where he described his many ventures and shared the secret of his remarkable productivity: “I don’t sleep.”

Flavorwire: How did Chez Bushwick come about?

Jonah Bokaer: In 2002 I located a raw space, which we built out in collaboration with other artists and opened as a dance studio. The idea was to work with many artists from other media — theater, video, design, performance art, music, and really just everything in between. It seemed an unlikely area for people to travel to in sweatpants and rehearse, but very quickly it exploded. We created a five-dollar-an-hour subsidy program … and pretty soon we were serving hundreds of people, mainly dance artists, but also performers of all kinds.

FW: How did you get involved in CPR?

JB: We were approached by a developer and a choreographer [Jasperse] about building a permanent space. And we didn’t even really think about it — we just said, “Sure!” And it was great but also kind of a nightmare. We spent the last four years campaigning, designing, collaborating, building out, fundraising and securing a mortgage.

FW: Was the process affected by the economy?

JB: We started looking for a mortgage in May of 2008 and we got turned down, and then in September we found a lender that would take us on. But we know what happened in September. So from September until January there was a very protracted negotiation with our lender, but we did get the mortgage. And the lender has been fantastic. They’re a nonprofit called Seedco Financial Services.

FW: Why did you choose this route instead of, say, founding a company of your own?

JB: What’s different about spaces like this is they’re very community-based and very inviting. I wanted to pursue that kind of a laboratory model rather than a dance company, because right now, and especially in New York, I think it’s more relevant to be doing that sort of social-based or social enterprise-based pursuit. Every dance company I know of is really struggling. To align dance with space is a good long-term project. It serves a lot of people’s needs.

FW: Do you think more artists are going to head in that direction?

JB: I hope so. I hope that CPR can be a sustainable center, and I hope that people will adopt that if it’s something that works.

FW: Capital B is another community-oriented project you’re working on. What’s that about?

JB: In a nutshell, it’s an alliance of arts spaces in the Bushwick area that are uniting around issues of common concern: real estate, community, safety and sustainability. It’s really looking at how to keep the neighborhood thriving and avoiding traps that other artistic neighborhoods have seen in the past, like gentrification and displacement and oblivion to other creative classes, other working classes, other demographics. We’re asking what a community can be or look like now.

FW: You mentioned that you teach at a local elementary school. How did you get involved with that?

JB: I’ve always done a lot of volunteering. I used to work with the East Harlem Tutorial Program, and I’ve done a lot of HIV/AIDS advocacy, so it just seems relevant. Shortly after moving here I realized … there’s crime and drugs and artists, and oh—and there are kids! They’re two blocks away, and once a week I teach them a class [in 3-D animation]. They’re fourth-graders. This year’s students are very, very focused – silent, almost, which is surprising. Although I’m getting them at the end of the day now, so maybe they’re exhausted.

FW: When did you know you wanted to become a dancer?

JB: I knew very early on that I wanted to dance and be involved in performance. My mother was a director, and my dad was a filmmaker. It’s also a huge family of six kids, and most of them are artistically inclined. And I’ve been lucky in that way but unfortunate in others because we were always broke and crazy. I started training pretty young and was hired at 18 by Merce Cunningham, and I think that gave me a professional work ethic that I try to stick with, which involves just working very hard.

FW: How did you get into working with technology?

JB: Working with Merce was a natural lead-in to learning about animation and technology. He worked a lot with motion capture and a program called DanceForms 1.0, so that kind of ushered me into being really curious about that. My third year in the company I started studying in the New School media and visual studies program. Having a dad who was in film, working with Merce, studying media, and being a little eccentric is probably what led me down this road.

FW: Can you describe your process?

JB: Often I animate in 3-D, and after building an animation figure I’ll try and replicate the movements. So it starts on another body and after it exists in another format, I’ll go to the studio and try to mimic it or mutate it. The idea is that it’s a disembodied process becomes and embodied event.

FW: What are you working on now?

JB: The National Academy of Sciences has a cultural programs department, and they have commissioned a dance, which they haven’t done before. I’m working on a duet with a Cuban dancer named Judith Sanchez Ruiz. It’s a duet about memory, memory loss, amnesia and how memory relates to movement and patterns. We’re doing that in collaboration with the artist Daniel Arsham. It will premiere in July in DC, and then it’ll go to Helsinki, then probably to New York in some way, shape or form.

FW: How do you balance everything?

JB: I make a solo and group work every year… and that’s the amount of productivity that seems comfortable. But on the periphery of that, there’s a lot. I’ve been working with theater artist Robert Wilson to choreograph his operas. And we’re starting a new project in April, so that is a big part of my time. The work that I make usually tours or has some kind of a life outside of New York. And administering is not small. I’m usually up very, very, very late balancing all of it. Actually, it doesn’t feel so much like a balance; it feels more like uneven bars.