Dallas — “What is the stage? It’s a place, baby, you know, where people play at being serious, a place where they act comedies. We’ve got to act a comedy now, dead serious.”
This quote from Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author might just be what runs through choreographer Jonah Bokaer’s mind when he is creating his works of meta-theatrical dance, of which we witnessed three examples on Tuesday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House for the opening of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s second annual Soluna International Music and Arts Festival.
Two older pieces, RECESS (2010) and Why Patterns (2011) were exercises in patience and futility, respectively; moreover, both were experimentations in absurdist theatrical tropes. Comedic moments were blended with task-orientated maneuvers that balanced the line between playfulness and meaninglessness. So much so that Bokaer’s aesthetic feels like a return to old forms. I even heard an audience member utter behind me, “Did I just enter a time warp to 1960?”
In truth, maybe we did, as Bokaer’s works were ripe with references to Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, John Cage, and Jackson Pollock. Cunningham’s influence was ever-present since Bokaer began his professional career dancing for his company at the age of 18. It would do a disservice to not call out the impact that training had on Bokaer’s subsequent style and career, especially in Why Patterns which seems to be a contemporary display of Cunningham and Cage’s chance operations. And much like Cunningham’s noted style of nonrepresentational choreography, Bokaer also chooses to emphasize movement, while eschewing narrative and emotion, to reach a point of futility in that movement.
But Cunningham’s authority came most into play with the world premiere of Bokaer’s Rules of the Game, a collaboration with longtime creative partner Daniel Arsham and pop music legend Pharrell Williams, and a commissioned work for Soluna. Choreographically, the Cunningham effect is strong, but Rules of the Game recalls a more historical sense of the avant-garde and the absurd; thus, returning me to that quote from Pirandello.
This isn’t the first time Bokaer’s work has been connected to the playwright’s, but this is the first time the work has been directly influenced by it. It’s not a surprise though, since the ideas and concepts that Bokaer is seeking to explore are the tenets of absurdist theater—the questioning of identity, the reality of existence, and the authenticity of life. With this new work, he reached out to Pirandello, pulling source material from the playwright’s 1919 work, The Rules of the Game. Under a similar title, Bokaer distills core points from the classic work to create his own rules, games, and roles.
In Pirandello’s play, a man attempts to avenge a perceived insult to his wife. In Bokaer’s, we join the action in medias res as eight performers deal with a contentious issue through 12 sections of a dance. The issue at hand is unclear, but in terms of absurdist theater, we don’t always need to understand the content, characters, or conflict. What we need to understand is the context. And the context in Bokaer’s Rules of the Game is relatively straightforward—the dancers live within a world of ritual; between the worlds of Nietzsche, Dionysus, and the concept of sparagmos, where the body must be deconstructed to be rebuilt again. The work echoes such themes, as well as referencing contemporary concepts of gender equality or gender neutrality.
We see this personified in the casting—eight dancers, four men and four women; in the costuming—every dancer wore the same salmon-colored unisex multi-layered ensemble; and in the movement choices—everyone in the company would perform the same movements, no matter their gender or the quality of the movement. We also saw the idea of deconstruction in the sculpture and video work of Daniel Arsham.
Arsham, who also crafted the scenography for Recess and Why Patterns, created a video piece that could stand on its own as a work of video performance art. Stunning in its simplicity, the large-scale projection developed an atmospheric landscape that worked to produce a sort of surrealist effect. Dismembered arms, heads, basketballs, and microphones fell from an unknown and unseen place to slam into each other, breaking into a million tiny pieces in space.
Yet, as powerful as the video was, the constant onslaught of images distracted from the live movement. Where was the eye supposed to go? What were we supposed to be focusing on? Maybe this is a point for the artists to revisit and reconsider as this work takes on a second life on tour. However, the video was successful in pointing out dramatic moments, such as in Section 10, a duet between Szabi Pataki and Sara Procopio. The antagonistic stillness between them was interrupted by a slowly falling hand that as it shattered, sparked action from the performers, and pulled the audience out of the melancholic state they had been placed in throughout the beginning sections.
The video also worked in Sections 1 and 12, acting as an intro and outro to both the choreography and the musical composition. In fact, Section 12 was a coda in the very regard—a return to the beginning structure of the choreography (the dancers returned to their beginning positions on stage), a return to the musical movement and orchestration, and a return to the same cycle of videoed images.
Section 11, a duet between Albert Drake and James McGinn, marked what seemed to be the climax of the piece. Odd that it would come so late, but then again Bokaer was playing with form and structure. And even though this felt like the climax, and was choreographically designed to be a punctuated moment—a battle between the petit Drake and the taller McGinn, an almost David and Goliath episode—the action as too restrained. Drake gave an earnest and athletic performance, but seemed to overshadow and too easily overtake McGinn, so much so that the willingness to suspend disbelief didn’t even have to occur.
That seemed to be the fundamental flaw in the performance—a mismatch in energy from the performers. Some were bursting through the fourth wall, emoting and calling forth attention, while others were more subdued and restrained in their display. Which is better? That is still to be determined, and while the artists continue to rehearse and work on this piece, maybe that balance will be discovered.
What worked well, pushing the piece forward, was the collaborative nature of the performance and the combination of each individual element. The music, an original composition by Pharrell Williams that was arranged by David Campbell, who also conducted the Dallas Symphony, animated Bokaer’s choreographic style. Arsham’s video work and sculptural pieces gave the work a sense of tangibility and object-ness. At the points where all the elements came together in sort of serendipitous effect, was the point when the Rules of the Game was its strongest.
PHOTOS Copyright Sharen Bradford of The Dancing Image
SEE MORE Go to our comprehensive Soluna schedule, which has links to reviews and individual listings