Choreographer Jonah Bokaer and Artist Daniel Arsham have been collaborating for ten years and the results are visually stunning. Performing at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the company presented three works under the title of their most recent work, RULES OF THE GAME. When viewing these dances, what the rules are or what the game is, is not important. There are games of life, love, and sports. The two artists have come together and created works rich in texture that demand one’s participation.
Jonah Bokaer was a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for seven years. Clearly, he has been inspired by Cunningham’s collaborations with other artists, but he has discovered his own choreographic voice and vision. Daniel Arsham is an artist, a sculptor and a scenographer.
In RECESS (2010) Bokaer methodically unrolls a large roll of thick white paper with his feet, head and shoulders. The paper then becomes his partner as he folds it into large triangles, constructs glacier-like shapes and, observes it take on a life of its own. Bokaer’s movements were contemplative, introspective and mindful. His arm gestures encircled his head as if trying to capture the thoughts running through his mind. Light shifts as Bokaer swirls the paper over his head. He then leans in shadow against the proscenium wall to ponder his creation. RECESS was not about creating dance movements, but about creating movements of light, texture and secret hiding places within one’s mind. Bokaer’s concentration on detail and his clear execution of movement is enthralling. The music by Stavros Gasparatos helps visualize the sharpness of Bokaer and Arsham’s angles of light and sculptural texture.
Ping pong balls take center stage in WHY PATTERNS (2011). Here too, the focus on shapes, lines, textures and formations of objects inside light moves together with the movement patterns created by the performers. A large square is created with long, clear plastic tubes filled with ping pong balls. Four performers: Laura Gutierrez, James McGinn, Szabi Pataki and Sara Procopio shift the patterns by pushing the tubes with their feet or using them to create goal posts and other familiar symbols. Balls are tossed onstage ala 1970s New York choreographer Yvonne Rainer; first one at a time and then like machine gun bullets. The performers move pedestrian-like within the cordoned off space. They swing the plastic tubes and in doing so spray the balls out across the area. Again, light takes on texture as it strikes the tubes and sailing white balls. Beautiful unison duets flow into solos that melt back into unison. The large square area becomes small after a burst of violent ball throwing; destroying what was built. Calm returns and the process begins anew.
WHY PATTERNS is a work that requires the audience’s attention and involvement. Bokaer does not wow us with complex turns, leaps or lifts, but he reaches out to our intellect as well as our artistic senses. There are references to familiar activities such as a soccer game. There are relationships that develop between performers, but what is required is that the viewer mentally gets inside the work, looks around and questions what’s there. The score by Morton Feldman and Alexis Georgopoulos/ARP is beautifully layered with musical textures and lovely references to traditional Japanese songs. It soothes, then tests one’s aural limits. It is, nonetheless, infectious.
The newest work, RULES OF THE GAME (2016) adds the ingredients of film and sculpture. On film, large pale terra cotta colored clay balls float past the back wall or slowly shatter as they hit the floor. Disembodied heads, arms and hands of the same hue gently sail by and later smash into each other. Dressed in layers of clothing that match the color scheme in the film, the performers begin with repositioning large balls on a large white square set on the bias. The rules are vague, but it soon becomes clear that here, the word ‘game’ has many meanings. The performers get to showcase their dancing abilities in RULES OF THE GAME and they are excellent. As earlier, the performers are but one layer of a multi-layered environment. There are times when Bokaer lets us see just the dancing, as in the two duets near the end. A man and woman (Szabi Pataki and Sara Procopio) act out their differences in a dramatic, tension filled duet. She tosses a ball at him as if saying, “Ok! The balls in your court!” He throws it back and the challenge is on. Two men (James McGinn and Albert Drake) perform a gorgeous duet filled with references to the sport of wrestling. McGinn and Drake execute this duet with great power and grace.
There are times, however, when the movement in the film competes with what is taking place onstage. This is not a problem if one is familiar with Cunningham and post-Cunningham era works. If not, then one might become frustrated. Helping to gel these elements together is an original score by Grammy winner Pharrell Williams, as arranged and co-composed by David Campbell. Chris Stamp’s costumes are beautiful and add an additional dimension to Bokaer’s work. The simple layers give off a brushstroke effect at first and as the layers come off, there is hint at nudity.
The entire cast in RULES OF THE GAME are outstanding performers. One who stands out is Betti Rollo. She has a presence that demands one’s attention, and her dancing lives up to that call. And finally, Aaron Copp’s lighting is breathtaking. Watching the light bounce off and highlight what is onstage puts the finishing touches on an evening of rich, artistic indulgences.