It’s an eerie glimpse of the past — or is it the future? Bluish light illumines a space strewn with chalky objects of vaguely recognizable shape: obsolescent cameras, reels of old-fashioned film, dial telephones. White-garbed figures move around and between the objects, which disintegrate a little on meeting a hand, or a piece of fabric, or the floor. The scene speaks of decay, but also of creation: The crumbling technology, the moving figures together beget a new pattern.
Audiences will encounter a vision along these lines at “Occupant,” the dance-and-visual-arts piece scheduled to appear at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre on Nov. 8-10. Retro-futuristic resonances notwithstanding, the production is not the brainchild of a science fiction writer: It’s the latest collaborative work by Jonah Bokaer, the daring contemporary choreographer who’s known for interdisciplinary experiments and especially for collapsing the distance between the dance and gallery/museum worlds.
In “Occupant”— which is receiving development and a preview engagement at the Atlas before a December opening at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County — the internationally recognized Bokaer has teamed up once again with his frequent collaborator Daniel Arsham, a visual artist with a taste for the surreal and defamiliarizing. Arsham devised the sculptures for “Occupant,” made from a mix of chalk and plaster; those objects, in turn, served as the springboard for Bokaer’s choreography.
“I start with the visual design as a fundamental principle for organizing,” Bokaer said by phone from Chez Bushwick, the Brooklyn artist-support nonprofit he helped found in 2002. “Instead of music, it really is the visual design that’s at the core.”
That truth emerges from even a cursory description of some of his past projects. In 2010’s “Why Patterns” — a collaboration with Snarkitecture, a design studio co-led by Arsham — dancers interacted with thousands of Ping-Pong balls. (The show’s credits include a listing for a catapult wrangler.) That same year’s “Recess” — also involving Arsham — relied on an enormous roll of billowing white paper. The paper in that piece “is the scenography; it’s the generator of the movement; and it’s also the score,” because the only auditory element is “the sound of the paper crumpling,” Arsham said by phone from Singapore, where he was installing an exhibit.
In 2012, Bokaer partnered with visual artist Anthony McCall to create “Eclipse,” a dance positioned within an installation of 36 light bulbs that formed changing patterns of illumination over the course of an hour. “He wasn’t interested in asking for a set, or lighting, or something of that sort; he was interested in a collaboration between two equals,” McCall said in an e-mail, recalling that, after he himself had devised the lighting composition, Bokaer installed 36 light bulbs in a rehearsal studio, to brainstorm kinetic responses to the brightness cues. (“Eclipse” inaugurated the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Fisher venue.)
Bokaer’s works have incorporated science and technology, too, with projects involving motion-capture, video and — in “Autograph,” a site-specific piece set in a historic aircraft warehouse — acoustic location devices. Harmonizing with the zeitgeist, he has choreographed and performed for an iPad app (2wice Arts Foundation’s “Fifth Wall”) and says he is interested in exploring further the possibilities that mobile technology may offer to dance.
One of Bokaer’s scientifically savvy projects had its roots in the District: When he developed an interest in mirror neurons — the neurological system that seems to allow one person to track, and empathize with, the experience of another — the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences gave him support to study the topic and create a dance work reflecting on it. The result was “Replica,” a 2009 duet that incorporated mirror-phrasing movement, improvisation, projections and Arsham design.
Bokaer “moves very effectively between ideas” and “doesn’t think about dance as an isolated endeavor,” says J.D. Talasek, the director of the D.C.-based academy’s cultural programs, who was instrumental in nurturing “Replica.”
“I’m very interested in moving dance and choreography forward but also not being limited to the traditional disciplinary boundaries that have been the container of dance and dance companies,” Bokaer says.
His personal background may have equipped him well to leap divides. The child of a Tunisian-born father and an American-born mother, Bokaer grew up in Ithaca, N.Y., in a household he remembers as a “swirl of cultures” and languages. He graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts in 2000, and, at the age of 18, became the youngest dancer ever recruited to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Over the course of its history, Merce Cunningham Dance famously collaborated with Robert Rauschenberg and other major visual artists. While performing with the troupe, Bokaer cultivated his own affinity to the fine arts and design, embarking on a degree program in visual and media studies at the New School in New York.
It was through Merce Cunningham Dance that he met Arsham, who was designing sets for the troupe. Bokaer also cites as a major artistic influence the director Robert Wilson, known for bridging the fields of avant-garde theater, opera, the fine arts and even furniture design: Wilson asked Bokaer to contribute choreography to a 2008 production of Gounod’s “Faust” for the Polish National Opera. “That definitely changed my life,” Bokaer says.
With this wealth of interdisciplinary teamwork behind him, it is no wonder Bokaer is helping birth “Occupant,” which is, on one level, a meditation on precisely the kind of boundary-leaping aesthetic that has been his signature.
“The meaning for the work, for me, is about how one discipline can ‘occupy’ another” — how it’s possible to have “a dance that hosts visual arts inside of it” and vice versa, he says.
On another level, of course, “Occupant” is a riff on impermanence and the passage of time. Arsham compares the crumbling of the piece’s chalky sculptures to “future archaeological destruction.” (For his gallery exhibits, Arsham has created comparable out-of-date technological devices in crystal and volcanic ash.)
“With ‘Occupant,’ this theme of the decay of media and of obsolete objects is definitely on our minds,” Bokaer says. So is the issue of speed: The dizzying velocity of cultural communication today (think Twitter, Instagram) has given him the urge to adopt what he calls a “slower vocabulary” for “Occupant.”
“The performers are moving more slowly and with more density in the way they perform. So there’s a greater sense of weight, a greater sense of gravity” and “a kind of sculptural power,” he says.
With his track record of giving dance a museum-and-gallery twist, Bokaer has indisputably earned the right to toss around words such as “sculptural.”
“The main focus of my choreography is how dance and visual art can come together,” he says. In “Occupant,” he points out, that focus is “on very, very plain view.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Devised by Jonah Bokaer and Daniel Arsham. Nov. 8-10 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE, Washington. Visit atlasarts.org, or call 202-399-7993.