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Jonah Bokaer, Curtain
Photograph: Pascal Gely Jonah Bokaer, Curtain

David Hallberg and Jonah Bokaer talk about CURTAIN at Jacob's Pillow

David Hallberg—before his injury—and Jonah Bokaer talk about creating CURTAIN in advance of Jacob's Pillow

By Gia Kourlas

Jonah Bokaer and David Hallberg—a contemporary choreographer and a ballet star—join artistic forces for CURTAIN. Even though a recent foot injury will prevent Hallberg, a principal at both American Ballet Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet, from performing, the pair talk about their artistic process in advance of CURTAIN's Jacob's Pillow performances.

It may not always seem so, but dancers are only human—even David Hallberg. Just after finishing American Ballet Theatre’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House, Hallberg broke his foot, sending his summer plans into a tailspin. One prized project was CURTAIN, a collaboration with Jonah Bokaer scheduled to be presented at the Avignon Festival and Jacob’s Pillow. For Bokaer, the period since has been one of crisis management. He has reconfigured the evening, which originally consisted of a solo for Hallberg (CURTAIN); a solo for Bokaer (SORRY); and a 30-minute duet, Les Innocents. This weekend at the Pillow, two solos will be performed by Bokaer (but instead of SORRY, there will be Sage Phrase); Adam H. Weinert and James McGinn will join Bokaer in an altered version of Les Innocents. “It’s been a sleepless two weeks,” Bokaer says from Avignon. Hallberg, clearly, is devastated that he won’t be able to perform. “I am usually so process-oriented, savoring the work put into my craft; the time with [Bokaer]  in the studio was so satisfying,” he explains. “To not fully bring the work to the stage is heartbreaking. I fully believed in what we were creating.” The following interview, conducted before Hallberg’s injury, offers more than background: For Hallberg, especially, it magnifies the curiosity and bravery of one of the most important performing artists of his generation.

Time Out New York: How did you meet?
Jonah Bokaer:
We met in a coffee shop in 2009, very randomly. I think we were both in sweatpants.
David Hallberg: And I had on a National Ballet of Finland hoodie. I don’t know if you remember this?
Jonah Bokaer: I do.
David Hallberg: I was reading the paper and you were like, “Excuse me, are you a dancer?” I knew who you were; I had seen [Bokaer’s] Replica at the New Museum a week earlier, coincidentally. And, then we just kept in touch.
Jonah Bokaer: In 2010, we spent a little bit of exploratory time at CPR [Center for Performance Research]. Just getting to know each other without the pressure of a production.
David Hallberg: There was mutual interest. I have a huge appreciation for what he does and vice versa, but we didn’t want to just completely dive into something right away. Sometimes things are best seen from a distance, and we didn’t know whether it would be harmonious or not. So we got into the studio with no final directive or anything, which was good to let us figure things out. But from the get-go, it was ideas bouncing off of each other.

Time Out New York: How did you begin?
Jonah Bokaer:
We put a 30-by-30-foot square on the floor and as a first step we said that we could both introduce anything into the square that we wanted. We had two periods of about a week where it was just getting to know each other—artistically, physically, in terms of our backgrounds.
David Hallberg: As a ballet dancer, you’re in the studio a lot of the time being told what to do, and rarely are you given creative input. This was a moment for me to really think about or bring what I deemed worthy into the box. It was interesting to see how Jonah worked because he’s used to that; that’s his métier. It flows a little bit more easily. And I don’t have choreographic inclination, as of yet.

Time Out New York: Did you have to really push yourself?
David Hallberg:
I had to not be afraid. I had to drop a sense of judgment. Is that essentially right?
Jonah Bokaer: I think so. We loosened our assumptions.
David Hallberg: It took time, though.
Jonah Bokaer: And for me too. Another thing is that we just spent a lot of time creating a safe environment for exploring. That was our baseline.
David Hallberg: We took the studio and the building, so no one was around. It was really quiet, very cool. You have those beautiful air conditioners that are environmentally friendly. It creates a serene atmosphere.

Time Out New York: And far away from Lincoln Center, right?
David Hallberg:
Jonah Bokaer: So that was spring of 2010. We kept in touch and continued to see each other at performances. Then David shared his news with me about being invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet in the fall of last year. A couple of weeks later, I received an invitation and a commission from the Avignon Festival in a very particular way. They commission eight encounters every year, so there are eight commissions, called Sujets à Vif, which means the burning topics—or the topics on the edge or the hot topics. They commission these encounters, and they can be from any discipline.

Time Out New York: How much time have you spent together rehearsing?
Jonah Bokaer:
We’ve been planning this since October. Rehearsals began in April.
David Hallberg: It’s made for absolutely no social life. But totally worth it. I don’t know—I find that especially doing nine works in eight weeks [at ABT], sometimes things are thrown on, inevitably. When you’re creating something as specific as this—and as delicate, really—it’s not just dictating movement and putting it onstage. There are so many things that we experimented with that haven’t made it. And so it has taken a huge commitment from both of us and the other parties that are involved.

Time Out New York: What is the evening made up of?
Jonah Bokaer:
The production is called CURTAIN. Within that, there are three sections. And there’s a mirror structure to the piece. David’s solo, which is 15 minutes, is called CURTAIN. I have a solo that shadows his called SORRY. Then there’s a brief pause and we have a duet called Les Innocents, which is 30 minutes.

Time Out New York: Did you create the solos together or separately?
David Hallberg:
The solo was created on me. Jonah created his solo, and the duet was kind of created in collaboration with other people as well.
Jonah Bokaer: We realize that for this duet we need our eyes probably more than ever before, and we don’t have our eyes. So there are two people, Adam and James who shadowed us [in the choreographic process] and who really tried to bridge us physically and give us feedback and information—really being our eyes and ears.
David Hallberg: We have also stepped back and watched them as well, which creates an outsider view of what we’re doing. I’ve never worked like this.
Jonah Bokaer: There’s a large scenic element to the piece. [Visual artist] Daniel Arsham won the Hermès Foundation Commission; they present four a year, and it’s the first time an American has gotten it. So in addition to these three parts of the work, there are three large-scale stage installations on the stage. Sometimes we have to step out and actually say, “How does this look when the figures interact with it?” There’s a very impressive sand statue, which may shatter on the stage. We watch other people do this so that we can understand what’s happening in the space.

Time Out New York: Could you describe the structures?
Jonah Bokaer:
Daniel has a large, human-size statue made out of a sand and plaster composite. He has a floor sculpture, which is an indentation of the body in pure sand—a thousand pots of sand. [Laughs]

Time Out New York: Really? Does he have to make it every time?
Jonah Bokaer:
Every night. The piece produces a statue.

Time Out New York: Are either of you the statue?
David Hallberg:
I think it will bounce off—part Jonah, part me.
Jonah Bokaer: This process of creation is a part of the piece.

Time Out New York: So Daniel is present in the work with you, like he was in Replica?
Jonah Bokaer:
Yeah, he’s a presence—not in front of the public, but it happens during the show. He also pours a wave of a substance from 25 feet above, and it forms like a CURTAIN. This substance hovers between solid and liquid. He calls it a “non-Newtonian substance.” It has mass, but it moves. And then it dissolves. It’s pure white. So we realized that we sort of had to step out to observe the choreography, but also to see it all fits together.
David Hallberg: We didn’t want it to be three different entities—musically, structurally and movement wise. So that was important to us as well, because Daniel had such strong ideas; it was important to integrate us as well into what Daniel, especially, presented. The score is gorgeous, but structurally it was so strong that we had to find a unity. A lot of the times you see collaborations that are just two artists creating their own work, and they happen to be in the same room or have on the same piece of clothing. As an outsider, the collaboration between Daniel and Jonah—why it’s so harmonious—is that they both coincide so well. As I’m imagining it, what will happen onstage structurally is significant, so there has to be some sort of flow between the dancers.

What were your movement concerns for CURTAIN?
Jonah Bokaer:
I was interested in finding what I would call a “leveling” between David and me. There are three parts of the piece that have an open structure and that will change everything. David has ten events that he can choose every night. I have ten events that I can choose every night. I’ve written a large space for him and a large space for me. But then finding what is the vocabulary that can level between us? Also, how do we create passages for him that show and complement his abilities? What are my abilities and how am I in relation to them?
David Hallberg: It’s been interesting for me because my day-in, day-out job, especially now in Russia [with the Bolshoi Ballet], is very performative. It’s very theatrical. The way Jonah described this to me a couple of weeks ago made so much sense: It’s like being stripped of all your skin and having it be pure bone. And if you have that kind of imagery, I’m not really thinking about only the skeleton, but a very healthy kind of pure bone. And that has been, not a challenge, but something I’ve been conscious of the whole time. I remember when we were doing these ten improvisational structures, he would go and I would go and then we would bounce off of each other. And mine, at times, got very story-oriented almost—or theatrical. Nothing too crazy, but inevitably you can’t wipe away history. So that’s been what I’ve kept in mind during the whole process, because when I see him move, it’s so pure. It’s never selling to anything, which I can’t have enough respect for, because that’s a huge challenge in my field: What’s the line? Do you cross that line? When do you cross the line? You know, I just did Le Corsaire, for God’s sake.

Time Out New York: I was just thinking about Corsaire in relationship to what you’re saying.
David Hallberg:
I would be onstage doing that, or I would rehearse that all day and then I would come into the studio with Jonah.
Jonah Bokaer: From 7 to 10pm.
David Hallberg: And, you know, there’s that obvious ballet-modern thing, which we have made a conscious effort to avoid.
Jonah Bokaer: I think we’ve dodged that.
David Hallberg: Why is it important to you?
Jonah Bokaer: I think the aesthetic that we’re cooking up here and that you’re talking about is that, whatever the vocabulary is, we distill it. So we’ve talked about it like just looking at pure bone. We do these events, and we don’t put anything on top.

Time Out New York: How do you decide what you do each night?
David Hallberg:
There’s a set structure, but within each kind of structure there sometimes is an element of improvisation and an element of choice. So it’s not like we are rolling the dice.

Time Out New York: Do you do that to surprise each other?
Jonah Bokaer:
Yeah, a little bit.
David Hallberg: And it’s interesting to see each other’s choices.
Jonah Bokaer: I also think those passages are the ones that allow David to use his abilities and me to use my abilities, so that gives him a way into his virtuosity and me into mine without …

Time Out New York: Putting quotes around it?
Jonah Bokaer:
David Hallberg: There will inevitably be differences, but we’ve made a conscious effort to strip it as much as we possibly can.
Jonah Bokaer: To give you an example, six minutes into the dance we cross the stage together and we have 15 statues—highly specific—but then each night each one chooses to get to the next one differently. And what it does, I think, is that it exacerbates the differences between us. And that’s also another freedom that we have—how to get to the next thing.

Time Out New York: By statues, do you mean poses or positions?
Jonah Bokaer:
Forms that we designed—very sort of Baroque and twisted.

Time Out New York: Did you want to avoid ballet in this piece? Did it make you uneasy to do anything that might remind people of where you come from?
David Hallberg:
It was more organic than that. I feel like there is failure in someone being someone they are not. My attempt at trying to mimic Jonah’s history would be a failure. It’s middle-of-the-fence, really, because I’m not trying to imitate the other person. So it’s more about Jonah’s and my admiration for each other and respect for each other’s thought and input. It is more organic than me making a choice of saying, “Well, I’m at that point in my career where I should…” That’s total shit. And there’s this other thing that happens [in which a modern choreographer says], “I’m going to create [a work] on a ballet dancer.”
Jonah Bokaer: My motivation has been that this is a very unique point in your life, and when you let me in to your news last fall, I felt so honored and so touched by it. And soon after I was presented with this occasion to propose an encounter, so I felt like, Oh wow! I do feel really strongly that there needs to be something [created] for you at this point in your career. But again, it’s not that motivation of like, I will make it! And it’s not about championing anything; it’s about you and me and how that comes together.

Time Out New York: You have always been searching for something outside of the ballet world, which I know you respect. But you’ve been making an effort to have an experience like this for a while now. Why? What are you so curious about?
David Hallberg:
I’m curious to have Jonah answer that question.
Jonah Bokaer: My experience is that David is curious. I was talking with a mutual friend of ours who reflected that David’s curiosity would bring him to Dance Theater Workshop or to see Sarah Michelson or to come to CPR; that curiosity is very inspiring, and I think it’s rare for an artist in your situation to have that appetite. I think it’s a part of who you are. [Laughs]
David Hallberg: I think it’s like that; I think it’s as simple as saying that curiosity just always gets the best of me. As I’ve gotten older in the ballet world, I’ve actually gained more respect for the ballet world and appreciation for it, but there’s so much out there. And sometimes work within my normal world can be so one-dimensional. I remember seeing Replica and reading the program [notes], and I was just so floored by what was brought to the table. It’s a hard balance to find, to be brutally honest, because people have their assumptions of this world and when people don’t know this world very well they have even stronger assumptions. I’ve seen a lot of what people create as an outsider. Jonah is just like me; he can talk about the classical world as much as he can talk about the world he inhabits and of other artists that I’ve never even heard of. So I think that’s where we’re on common ground as well.

Time Out New York: What is the score for CURTAIN?
Jonah Bokaer:
It is out of this world. The composer is Chris Garneau, but we also unearthed this treasure from the Jacob’s Pillow archive, which is a John Cage lecture to students from 1984 given on the porch. You hear crickets, you hear planes, you hear questions, you hear laughter and we haven’t gotten hung up on it, but it’s the Cage centennial. What do we think about learning? And then Chris actually put that document into a centrifugal speaker and then wrote over it and through it with a very luscious score, a very full score. I think he knew that we had two solos, and he’s made a huge universe of sound. Last night we realized, especially for David’s solo, it’s a very titanic kind of soundscape.

Time Out New York: Could you talk about your solos?
Jonah Bokaer:
My solo is in a diagonal relationship to his. We are finalizing it. We may flip the stage, but the lighting is set at 180 as a device to show contrast. It’s the same amount of time. I have a very kind of jagged vocabulary; while the score for David’s solo is a kind of vast, Olympian tone, the score for mine feels like winter. The temperature is very cool.
David Hallberg: For my solo, the movement came from Jonah. And I’m still getting a grasp on it—it’s almost there, but it’s not quite there. It’s nothing stamina wise, but the mental stamina is what is so intense for me. It’s movement that I’m not obviously used to doing, so it’s a challenge movement wise. But again, it’s so simplified, yet so specific. It’s been a real challenge for me to wrap my mind around it because nothing really repeats itself, so it’s 15 minutes of material. Jonah’s been extremely patient in that not only was it hard for me to get the sequence down, but for me to start to understand the simplicity of movement and the specificity as well—directionally shifting things expeditiously. It’s been a real challenge, and obviously challenges can be really fruitful. It’s awakened a certain sense that I haven’t really exercised very much in my mind, even physically really.
Jonah Bokaer: It’s a 15-minute solo, and he doesn’t leave the space, but it also doesn’t iterate at all. I describe it as a very intricate landscape. And it is simple—the aesthetic is very simple or almost like the number pi, you know; it’s, like, nonterminating, nonrepeating. [Laughs] No pattern, for 15 minutes. It’s challenging. I think we actually spent the most time on the solo.
David Hallberg: Yeah, it was a long commitment, longer than we had imagined. We had been in the studio maybe nine times and we had a huge sit-down and went through our calendars.
Jonah Bokaer: We tripled the rehearsals. [Laughs]
David Hallberg: Which I didn’t blink an eye at and neither did Jonah. At this point, what’s so nice is to just stand there, where I am about to start the solo. I feel in a completely different state than I do if I’m about to make an entrance on the Met stage or the Bolshoi stage or wherever. Because it’s so honest, and I have to remind myself of that honesty—not to say that what I’m doing there is not honest, but there’s always a character behind it. And here, there’s me. And it’s so pure, and it feels really clean. It’s a great feeling
CURTAIN is at Jacob’s Pillow Aug 1–5.

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