"The Ulysses Syndrome"
Florence Gould Hall
French Institute/Alliance française
New York, NY
May 9, 2013
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2013 by Carol Pardo
Jonah Bokaer is a man of many parts, a co-founder of the artists’ organization Chez Bushwick, student of the use of technology in dance, a former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a compelling performer in his own right. But he is also a son, grandson and member of a large family with Welsh, Italian, Jewish and Tunisian roots. His Tunisian heritage is the subject of "The Ulysses Syndrome," a seventy-five minute long work (which felt longer) given its American premiere as part of the World Nomads Tunisia festival. Its other subject is the sense of dislocation and isolation experienced by immigrants, also called The Ulysses Syndrome (but without quotes). The two come together in the story of the choreographer’s 71-year-old father, Tsvi Bokaer, a screenwriter whose journey has taken him from Tunisia to France, to California (in 1965), and to Ithaca, New York now.
The stage space is divided into inside and outside by six fluorescent lights that hang from the ceiling to swing just above the floor, arranged in a loose hexagon. (The fact that metropolitan France—a stepping stone in the senior Bokaer’s voyage--is called "the hexagon" probably has nothing to do with it, but the association springs to mind given the venue). The accompanying soundscape by Sidewalk Collective, made up of sounds gathered around the Mediterranean, incorporates both the universally understood—lapping waves, keening bird calls, the general hubbub of a crowd—with human speech in French, Arabic or Spanish. Anyone not conversant in all three is, at some point during the evening, an outsider.
"The Ulysses Syndrome" begins with father and son seated against the back of the stage, an arm draped nonchalantly over a bent knee, with no need for words as they contentedly watch the world go by. The pose will reappear, like a touchstone, throughout the piece. Both men eventually stand up and move on and away from each other, often finding themselves on opposite sides of the stage, as far from each other as possible. Proximity may result in literally butting heads, the old lion and the young cub dukeing it out. When, midway through, the two meet at center stage, discreetly hand in hand, the tenderness sears the cool air of the piece. But that’s transient. Bokaer fils is not sentimental, never mind maudlin. Later, a long, companionable game with rings as dice interrupts the cycle of support, competition, dependence, breaking away and independence until the men depart, leaving the lights swaying gently in their wake.
"The Ulysses Syndrome" is called a solo, but both men share the stage throughout and both know how to hold it. It is true that only one of them is a trained dancer: Jonah can bend like a trombone slide while Tsvi, forty years older, stops, like most of us, about ninety degrees earlier. But this is fine, even as it should be. One of the most appealing things about "The Ulysses Syndrome" is the tact with which the son presents the father. One of the most disconcerting is the intimacy—and consequent vulnerability—of that presentation. "The Ulysses Syndrome" is at its strongest investigating the bonds that chafe and comfort between generations, cultures, fathers and sons, rather than the Ulysses Syndrome itself.