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Jonah Bokaer's The Ulysses Syndrome

By Wendy Perron

Florence Gould Hall, French Institute, NYC

May 9–10, 2013

 

How could two men, father and son, sitting together on a floor, be so beautiful? Same nose, same knees, but 40 years apart. Jonah Bokaer, the choreographer, with upright spine and arms wrapped around his folded legs, shifts occasionally. Tsvi, a filmmaker who grew up in Tunisia, is more earth-bound, face worn from a long life. They are human sculptures in a corner while a minimalist light sculpture takes center stage: six fluorescent bars hanging low to the ground in a hexagonal shape (lighting design by Rodolphe Martin).

 

Jonah lowers his head, curling inward, as his father raises his, looking into the distance. We hear the sounds of a voice speaking in an unrecognizable language, children in the street, a motor running (music by Soundwalk Collective). Thus begins The Ulysses Syndrome, choreography by Jonah based on a screenplay by Tsvi.

 

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome
Jonah Bokaer in The Ulysses Syndrome
Photo by Bénédicte Longechal
, Courtesy Bokaer

 

The energy is restrained, careful, delicate. Fingers and eyes seem to have special meaning. Tsvi sometimes covers his own eyes. At different times each makes a fist of one hand and covers it with the other. They place their rings on the ground and play a game of hitting one ring against the other. If the rings don’t clink, it’s the other guy’s turn. Did they make up this game? Is it a tradition in Tunisia?

 

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome
Jonah Bokaer (left) and Tsvi Bokaer
Photo by Bénédicte Longechal
, Courtesy Bokaer

 

Later their two hands meet in a fist bump. Other than that, they avoid symmetry or any sort of sentimental father-son relationship. But like any parent, Tsvi keeps his eyes on Jonah most of the time. When Jonah looks at his father, it is with affection. There is only the barest hint of strife here. At one point the two approach each other on all fours, foreheads nearly bunking but nuzzling instead (Jonah impulsive, Tsvi calm).

 

The most poignant moment comes when Tsvi places his hands on Jonah’s shoulders in the dimness, wraps a scarf around Jonah’s eyes, then leaves him in the dark. Jonah feels his shoulders to know that his father’s hands are no longer there. He has to find his own way. Later, though they have separated, when Jonah doubles over as if in pain downstage right, his father, in the opposite corner, echoes him.

 

Jonah Bokaer, The Ulysses Syndrome
Jonah Bokaer
Photo by Bénédicte Longechal, Courtesy Bokaer

 

Some of the sections where Jonah repeated a phrase were too long, but I admired how focused he kept the palette. Nothing was extraneous. There was no big fancy steps just to show how wonderful Jonah’s dancing is. When he twisted in on himself, it was with purpose. When his toes gripped the floor skittishly, it was to find the ground under him.

 

Because Jonah danced more than his father, it was gratifying to see Tsvi, from the back, moving his fingers in the light as though reading Braille. Was he conducting an imaginary symphony? Sorting through memories?

 

In the end, Jonah gently set the light strips into motion, to the sounds of lapping water. When the two men came to a stop, the bars of light were still swinging.

 

Pictured at top: Tsvi Bokaer, Jonah Bokaer in The Ulysses Syndrome; Photo by Bénédicte Longechal, Courtesy Bokaer