Dance Review: Jonah Bokaer and His Father, Tsvi, Dance at Gould Hall

May 11th, 2013

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Jonah Bokaer Mr. Bokaer, left, and his father, Tsvi, performing in “The Ulysses Syndrome” at Gould Hall.

At the start of “The Ulysses Syndrome,” Jonah Bokaer and Tsvi, his Tunisian-born father, take their places at the back of a stage illuminated by six fluorescent tubes, arranged in a hexagon, each dangling like a low swing. Sitting on the floor, the men remain still, leaning against the wall with one knee up.

Within this realm of nonchalance, their bodies shift in shape and emotional tone. They are living friezes: arms wrap around bent legs, an elbow settles on a knee, and a hand rests on a shoulder.

Jonah, the choreographer and director, unshaven, with his hair cut close to his skull, is as striking as ever, while the presence of Tsvi is earthier and more robust. Jonah is all lines and precision; Tsvi moves like a languid tiger.

What happens when a choreographer lets down his guard? In “The Ulysses Syndrome,” performed on Thursday and Friday at Gould Hall, Jonah reveals his Tunisian roots and more. Imagine introducing your father to your friends; now imagine creating an hourlong dance featuring your father to show to your friends. Yet within this intimate landscape, Jonah deviates little from his normally cool, steady resolve.

Presented as part of the French Institute Alliance Française’s World Nomads festival, “The Ulysses Syndrome” is a movement meditation based on cantos written by Tsvi about the time he lived in Tunisia. (He moved to California in 1965 and now lives in Ithaca, N.Y.)

This methodical 12-part piece is titled after the condition of dislocation and isolation that immigrants experience; Jonah was partly inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia that helped usher in the Arab Spring. The score, by Soundwalk Collective, features sounds recorded along the shores of the Mediterranean basin. Soundwalk refers to it as “Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ in the form of a sonic fresco,” and from lapping waves to distant radio conversations, it blends the ancient with the everyday.

A sense of trauma and loss permeates “The Ulysses Syndrome,” but its formulaic pacing rushes the drama; the line between meticulous and fussy is often too thin. There are enticing bits of choreography, as when Jonah performs a jerky crawl across the stage or stands with his hands held behind his back while his toes flex and curl vigorously.

Other movement phrases are sustained in their repetition. A hand reaches behind the base of the skull to pull the head forward — meaningful, perhaps, but as task-based as a well-oiled machine.

The silent, soulful connection between the two men, which opens the show with such promise, is rarely revisited; instead there is a sense of stoic drama, especially from Jonah, who takes the idea of alienation so seriously that we can read it on his face. Jonah has said that he views the work as a solo, and it is; still, his father is too much of a silent partner.

Even as Tsvi watches from the shadows, you yearn to see more of him. It’s no surprise that one of the most memorable moments in “The Ulysses Syndrome” occurs when the pair sit on the floor and play a game with their rings. It’s tender; finally, there is an idea of time passing and more: Tsvi heats up the stage with his warmth; Jonah accepts it. The connection is deep.

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