Jonah Bokaer performs his The Ulysses Syndrome with his father, Tsvi Bokaer, May 9 and 10, during the French Institute’s World Nomads Festival.
Ithaca is the island in the Ionian sea that Odysseus (aka Ulysses) left when he armed himself for the Trojan War, and it’s the place he returned to after ten postwar years of wandering. Ithaca, New York, is the city where Tsvi Bokaer finally settled after roaming from his native Tunis to other Mediterranean cities, to France, and to California, where he became a screenwriter. In Ithaca, he married into an American family of Shakespearean actors, fathered six children, and set up a cinématèque, a concert hall, and more. One of his children, the choreographer-dancer Jonah Bokaer, has also become a wanderer of sorts—touring the cities of the world as a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and then as a choreographer. When Tunisia settled down after the uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011, the younger Bokaer visited for the first time all the places where his father’s family had lived.
In light of all the above, it’s not so astonishing that Jonah Bokaer should choreograph a dance inspired by the notion of journeys and dislocation and called it The Ulysses Syndrome. What is surprising is that he should conceive and perform the piece as a duet with his father.
Bokaer is not a choreographer who tells stories. Those who viewed the piece as part of the French Institute’s “World Nomads” Festival—this year focused on Tunisia—may have read that the six-sided installation of long, fluorescent light tubes, suspended a foot or so off the floor by ropes, was inspired by the hexagonal tiles and architectural shapes that he viewed in Tunisia, or that Soundwalk created the remarkable score for The Ulysses Syndrome by travelling 40 miles of Ulysses’s trip home via a sailboat equipped to receive and record distant sounds. At certain moments, we hear Tsvi Bokaer’s voice reading from the twelve parts of his memoir, Le Danseur Errant et la Méditerranée, on which the twelve episodes of The Ulysses Syndrome are based, but what he says remains a mystery; many are the languages he speaks. Equally enigmatic are some of the gestures that embed themselves in your memory.
Those mythic or remembered travels are not, I think, the only voyage that the duet acknowledges and reveals. It’s the voyage of a father and a son coming together for a period of time to create something. When the son is one of six children, such prolonged and purposeful intimacy must be rare. And it is a fine thing to see.
The atmosphere reveals itself in a leisurely manner. The two men enter and sit companionably, side by side on the floor, leaning against the gray back wall of Florence Gould Hall’s stage like resting fishermen. Rodolphe Martin’s magical lighting gradually warms them like emerging dawn. For a long time, they move very little—repositioning a knee, an arm. The sound of lapping water is heard, and a man’s throbbing voice. Is it hot? Perhaps. Tsvi lifts his face to the sun. The sound of waves gets louder, gulls cry, a woman speaks. Tsvi lies down for a nap.
Jonah embarks on a journey across the space and begins to introduce movement motifs that will recur through the piece. He crawls in a very idiosyncratic way, pausing intermittently to raise one hand off the floor and look back toward the bent leg he’s just lifting; it’s a fluid move, though. He almost looks as if he were throwing something behind him, perhaps covering his tracks. He circles a hand closely around his head the way a cat washes itself.
The choreography seems to be comprised of small events that stand for larger memories. Jonah, 31, with a nearly shaved head and a slight beard, plays down his dancerly prowess, while Tsvi, 71 and a non-dancer, extends himself to echo his son’s sharp, momentary cave-in or to join him in a repeating pattern (a few walking steps and three quick, stiff little bounces onto and off the toes). Even when the dancelike music providing the rhythm stops, the men maintain their synchrony.
Among the movement motifs is one that involves Jonah wrapping his arms around his body and twisting himself askew; another move that one or both men make has them stroking one hand slowly and firmly down the opposite forearm. The father watches the son much of the time. The sound score changes their terrain in dreamlike ways. Sometimes they’re on the sea, sometimes in a schoolyard, with children calling out excitedly, or in the hubbub of a souk. Voices whisper. A song is heard, the strings of an oud are plucked, drum beats speed up. And occasionally, silence falls.
Some events are evocative but mysterious. Tsvi takes a scarf from his pocket and blindfolds Jonah, who then gropes his way to the wings of the stage and leans there, holding onto himself, like a kid made to stand in a corner. At another point, Tsvi gestures like a conductor, and the fluorescent lights flash on and off in a sequence. Jonah stands on one leg, pressed against the back wall, and leans so far to the side that his face is upside down and his other knee points skyward. Is this an encrypted memory of his grandfather who performed gymnastics? Is could be. It could also be something entirely other.
Some actions are task-like. Jonah separates a central pile of papers into perhaps a dozen separate pieces; later he re-arranges them. But almost all the movements are performed calmly and deliberately, as if the emotions that may have accompanied them once have been cooled and veiled by memory. When the two pretend to shoot guns past each other, each signaling the shot with a different vocal explosion, neither man shows triumph or animosity. When they crawl together, lock shoulders, and try to push each other back, the very effort produces a semblance of emotional heat, but no obvious rivalry develops, although Jonah does make a slight I’m-done-with-this gesture as he stands and walks into his next activity.
It’s touching to see the two men collaborating. Once they stand close, their foreheads pressed together, blindly touching each other’s heads or shoulders or arms; they seem in an uncanny way to be merging. They sit on the floor and play an inscrutable game with rings they have taken off; we hear the metallic clink as the rings fall or strike each other, see the swoosh with which the men reach to pick them up to shake and throw again. They could be two guys in a remembered tavern, but on this particular evening, live before us, they are Tsvi Bokaer and Jonah Bokaer, father and son, vying courteously with the golden recollections that bind them.