By Michelle Trauring
Merce Cunningham’s last words to Jonah Bokaer were three short, declarative sentences.
“You’re a theater man,” he told the adolescent dancer in 2009. “You’re strong. Keep going.”
The legendary choreographer, who was one of the leaders of American modern dance for a half century, had recruited Mr. Bokaer when he was just 18 years old, making him the youngest hire in the company’s history.
“All I can say is that it formed my body in a very rare away,” Mr. Bokaer—whose “Platform” project opens Friday at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill—said of his training with Cunningham in a recent email interview. “Merce has changed my life. I owe him a lot. After I left to begin my own work, we remained friends, and I visited with him at his apartment during his last days. We had an intimate artistic connection.”
Mr. Cunningham’s advice would turn out to be a prophecy as Mr. Bokaer’s career soared. Like so many artists, his journey began as just a child. But, not as often, he was born into a legacy of performing arts.
“For me, watching my grandfather, who was a great gymnast in Tunisia, appeared to me as something spectacular. He put a trapeze in our living room and taught me how to point my feet, and stabilize my body with my arms,” he recalled. “My maternal grandfather, Arthur Lithgow, was a theater director and producer. I believe I got this sense of making a ‘show’ from him. Growing up in a small town, but flanked by these two grandfathers, was a particularly intense contrast.”
He gravitated toward movement, song and role-playing, and his training only intensified as he got older. He pushes both himself and the spaces he creates within, he said. “The projects also give museums a real workout,” he said, “but I’m a sweet guy at heart.”
He drew the eye and attention of major players in the dance world—including Merce Cunningham—as well as critics, especially when he branched out on his own at age 20.
“At first, the New York Times said I was the ‘Renaissance man of contemporary dance,’ and then later, ‘the mystery man,’ which is very flattering. Both were in reference to dance, whose critics are often without the tools to write about visual art or museum work,” he said. “The exoticism of dance and the mystery of my background can easily provoke speculation, but I must say that I take it as a compliment when the Times said that.
“I believe this is a good thing to be a bit mysterious as an artist. I am here to deliver an aesthetic with a certain degree of messages, images and codes that should remain very open to public audiences,” he continued. “Mystery also implies the idea of curiosity, and is quite narrative. I am happy to intrigue people if that happens, which means that they will have to discover, uncover and maybe come back again. As a result, the relationship with the work is more dynamic.”
His piece, “Neither,” which will be the focus of his “Platform” project at the Parrish, has been a decade in the making—ever since he discovered Samuel Beckett’s eponymous, 86-word libretto coupled with Morton Feldman’s musical score in 2006.
“Neither” explores light, space and, most famously, the concept of an “unspeakable home,” Mr. Bokaer explained, as does his fresh take on the 1977 opera: a fusion of choreography, visual art—122 drawings, to be precise—film and artistic research.
“After its premiere, Theodore Adorno analyzed the opera line by line, note by note, and speculated about the disappearance of peoples connected to Feldman’s family,” he said. “What I’ve done is carefully cast performers, friends, family members and architects who were staged inside the architecture of the Parrish Art Museum, and I’ve tried to sublimate their presence within this ‘home,’ or landscape. It may be interesting to share that the performers have backgrounds hailing from Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, but have never been there. They were born in America and grew up without any knowledge or context of their parents’ home.”
For the past few months, Mr. Bokaer has visited the Parrish to explore the site and meet with Andrea Grover—“who is quickly becoming my favorite curator in America,” he said. They first crossed paths in 2012, when she expressed interest in his work, he said.
“Andrea was like a mermaid, this perfect human being out in Hamptons—alarmingly intelligent, a good listener and excellent at embarking on adventures with artists,” he said. “Last spring, I was officially invited by the Parrish Art Museum for this year’s Platform. And I had been slowly thinking of the concept of the work since I first saw the space.
“Of course, all my works echo each other, and most of the work installed this summer is loosely inspired by recurring themes that can be seen in past creations,” he continued. “I’ve now authored 55 original works, but who’s counting?”
Mr. Bokaer isn’t a stranger to the East End—he has collaborated on six operas with Robert Wilson of the Watermill Center—though his upcoming projects will stage far from Long Island.
“Rules of the Game,” which has snared headlines for Mr. Bokaer’s work with Pharrell Williams, Daniel Arsham and David Campbell, will stage on the Howard Gilman Opera House stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November, and Mr. Bokaer is fielding invites from institutions including La Biennale de Lyon, the Brisbane Festival, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. He also has a “colossal project” underway with Toyo Ito’s new architecture in Puebla, Mexico, he said.
“It’s a full house,” he said. “I’ve never been happier.”
“Platform: Jonah Bokaer” will open on Saturday, July 9, at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, and will remain on view through October 16. The artist will perform a living installation, “The Disappearance Portraits,” on Friday, July 22, at 6 p.m. Admission is $10, or free for members, children and students. For more information, call (631) 283-2118, or visit parrishart.org.