Jonah Bokaer and Daniel Arsham
“RECESS,” “Why Patterns,” “Rules of the Game”
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
November 10, 2016
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel
His concert in tandem with artist Daniel Arsham celebrated a decade of collaboration, and their best works are the ones most like experiments: Arsham provides an environment and Bokaer, while exploring its ramifications and rules, creates a dance inside it. The rules of their game are collaborative; those tasks are probably not so cleanly delineated.
James McGinn and Wendell Gray II in "Rules of the Game” Photo © Stephanie Berger.
The environment Arsham provided was simple and portable: a roll of paper left discreetly on the floor near the wings. Bokaer unrolled it across the stage with his feet. Once unrolled, we could sense there was a hole cut out towards one side. Bokaer lay in that face down, and then rearranged the paper to a right angle. Walking along the sides of the unscrolled roll, Bokaer reordered and rearranged it.
Bokaer tore the roll and humped the pieces in huge mounds, which ominously began to move, animated by a person we never saw. It was a simple, transparently obvious effect, but perfectly timed for shock and mystery.
The music rumbled towards its end and Bokaer pulled a life-size paper cutout of a man from the wings and wrapped himself in it to close. In quick, economical strokes, the designer and choreographer created the same sense of an ordinary man in a large, uncertain and potentially hostile environment in the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton
The transition from “RECESS” to 2011’s “Why Patterns” was done in full view to music that sounded incongruous, as if we suddenly were at Cirque du Soleil, but the piece was everything a dance with props should be. The main shtick here was an environment of ping pong balls that were sometimes tossed onstage singly, sometimes in a trickle and other times in a deluge from offstage.
What made “Why Patterns” so satisfying was the fullness of the exploration. Like a terrier with a rat, Bokaer clamped on to the landscape Arsham provided and didn’t let go until he was done. The balls were everywhere, and the four dancers moved the balls in various ways: blowing, bouncing or tossing them; concentrating or dispersing them. Arsham also provided clear plastic tubes filled with the balls, which were used to demarcate the space, and occasionally to joust. From one side, if tipped the right way, the tubes dripped balls in a slow stream.
The rules and laws of this space seemed as externally imposed as in “RECESS.” At one point, the quartet cleared the space in what felt like an exercise in probability, racing toward the nearest ball, tossing them offstage as an occasional one got lobbed back on. Yet with all the overtones of unseen forces in “RECESS,” Bokaer remained poker faced in it, staying away from emotional connections. In “Why Patterns,” emotions popped up in strange ways. When the dancers bounced balls to one another, it didn’t feel like play, but conflict or even combat. The action and the emotion didn’t even always seem linked by cause and effect, but nothing did. When one man threw a ping-pong ball in the air, it let loose a massive store of balls that hailed down on him.
Bokaer crafted one pure dance episode with angular movements that reflected his tenure with Merce Cunningham. It was also the one time the dancers ignored the ping pong balls, and in its independence from its environment felt like a nod to Cunningham’s “Rainforest.” The dancers rolled a series of linked tubes to the back, clearing the space like a Zamboni. After their exit, a single ball got tossed back to close.
With a long score by Pharrell Williams recorded by the Dallas Symphony, this year’s “Rules of the Game” was the most glittery dance and the most ambitious, with a cast of eight and a length of around 40 minutes. Yet it was the least developed and he got the least help from his collaborators. The dancers were in peach-colored casual gear designed by Chris Stamp with layers by that looked like a luxe ad for American Apparel.
Williams’ orchestrated score sounded broad and jaunty like a 60’s film soundtrack – and it had little to do with what Bokaer did. When Williams switched his beat into a pulsing vibe, Bokaer continued on with little change in vocabulary.
Bokaer seems to develop and enrich his work in performance, and being the newest, “Rules of the Game” was the most cryptic. The designs only minimally affected the space. The most striking aspect was massive projections. Some items from those projections appeared onstage, including basketballs painted white as if they were blanched. On film, they were shown in close-up with parts ripped out as if someone had bit into them like an apple. The balls, along with clay faces and limbs faced disaster on the screen as they were filmed crashing and smashing to the ground.
But what felt the most off were all the trappings of emotion throughout the ballet with little of the actualities. Couples faced off, a woman shoved a man and yanked his face to the side by the chin. A man blew the group a kiss. Another danced a solo while other others crawled on the floor. The projections showed catastrophe avoided – things dropping almost to the point of collision – and then rewinding. The rest of the cast took the man, pushed him, knocked him down and carried him off. Two other men stripped to the waist and fought. One strangled the other and stood over him in victory, but moments later they were fistbumping.
Yet even with the dramatic situations of “Rules of the Game,” it felt as emotionally distant as the two earlier works. At its best, Bokaer’s coolness is an aesthetic. Like Cunningham, he resolutely avoids emotional displays, which may be why they seemed phony in “Rules of the Game.” But in Rules of the Game, the disconnect between the emotions displayed and the lack of emotions felt didn’t have a strong enough setting to make up for it. It was as if all the drama as just were just another experimental element added to the environment.
Bottom: "Rules of the Game” Photo © Stephanie Berger.
copyright © 2016 by Leigh Witchel