In this interview, Jonah Bokaer discusses that no artist is an island.
What stage in your career would you consider yourself to be in?
Just the beginning! I like to think that there is much to come. I have a lot of projects that I still want to develop. Artistically, I have many longer- and shorter-term missions to come.
Will you help me to understand the beginning of your timeline a bit better? You became a member of Merce Cunningham’s company at eighteen, but also studied at Cornell University, The New School, North Carolina School of the Arts, and Parsons School of Design?
My degree is in Visual and Media Arts. I studied motion capture, animation, and design at an early age while I was also dancing at the Merce Cunningham company. I did a few different programs at Parsons, The New School, NYU, and at the North Carolina School of the Arts. The fact that I have a diverse background helps me every day in my art practice. I am very grateful I had this educational opportunity.
You’ve been a body in other people’s vision and worked in collaborative efforts as well as created your own projects; I’m curious as to what you’ve taken away from each of those production methods. Where do the aspects [of] any method strive or fail?
Before any “method,” there is a human component in any production. For me, working with composers or designers has been an asset. I have learned from every single collaborator I have worked with. I am lucky to also work with producers and curators who are backing up my work, along with two longtime representatives I have in Los Angeles and Paris.
I feel as if one question that those entering their careers don’t ask themselves is who their audience [is]. Do you find that there are certain spaces or opportunities that wouldn’t suit the work? Or that the space/opportunity/audience navigates what you do? Getting others to support you can be quite a feat. When you transitioned to producing your own dances, was it a challenge to communicate, market, raise funds, secure performance space, and things of that manner?
In different manners, Robert Wilson and Merce Cunningham have taught me a lot about the industry and how performance is produced at different scales; I discovered the economics of performing arts. For me, it was a very enriching experience. Eventually, I decided to continue my own path, and back in Brooklyn I created a nonprofit organization, which allowed me to start raising funds and producing new choreographic work. This was fifteen years ago. Since then, this company has grown, and I am proud to offer employment to some very international and diverse individuals. This nonprofit has extended to a studio space called Chez Bushwick, which offers affordable facilities and residential programs to the community.
I am also the co-founder of CPR – Center for Performance Research. This space provides rehearsal space and a small theatre also dedicated to the next generation of artists.
You founded Chez Bushwick and co-founded the Center for Performance Research—two nonprofits that foster the development of new dancers and new works. What were the motives for those initiatives?
The motive was simple: I knew how hard it was to be a performing artist, tying to make it and to live in New York City, so I wanted to do something to help the artists’ community. This was my first motivation. The longer-run goal for me is to contribute to the development of a new choreographic center for creativity. By providing affordable space and residency programs, I am hoping to enhance the creativity and the excellence of our art.
Has Chez Bushwick and CPR given you new perspective on the economy of dance?
Definitely. It requires a lot of creativity, energy and focus to achieve those goals. Through the years I had to put a considerable amount of energy into business development. The production of my own work was blessed with many commissions, now seen in over 30 countries. My team and I often have to juggle maintaining two facilities [and] running and producing my own work, which also includes touring.
When you reflect, are there things that you wish you knew as you were developing? Do you have an “I wish I knew then what I know now?”
This is not really the way I see things, because I am constantly learning and discovering. I am surrounded by incredible people and I must say I am astonished every day by all these individuals, be they artists, designers, collaborators, colleagues, or philanthropists. All of them are equally inspiring to me, and I am very grateful.
Jonah Bokaer is an internationally respected modern dancer, choreographer, and conceptual artist, who has been crowned “contemporary dance's Renaissance man” by Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times. He has been the recipient of the United States Artists Fellowship in Choreography, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellow in Choreography, the Foundation of Contemporary Arts grant, the Ford Foundation grant, and a several time recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many other accolades. Bokaer has collaborated with such visionary artists as Merce Cunningham, Robert Wilson, and Pharrell Williams. His interdisciplinary works and collaborations have been presented at such institutions as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, MoMA PS1, New Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Bokaer is the founder of Chez Bushwick and co-founder the Center for Performance Research, both established in Brooklyn, NY.