This year’s Soluna Festival opened big this week with a major premiere called “Rules of the Game.” It was choreographed by rising new avant-dance guy Jonah Bokaer – with new music by pop star Pharrell Williams played live by the Dallas Symphony. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks for his replay of the game. Our extended conversation.
Justin: Premiering “Rules of the Game” in Dallas with live music from the Dallas Symphony — before the show goes on a worldwide tour – that seems to me a smart way to signal the Soluna Festival has some serious ambitions.
JWDefinitely. The money and cooperation it took to pull off a new work like this – that’s a real commitment. To introduce a young choreographer like Jonah Bokaer to North Texas – and to other parts of the world as well – that’s a gamble. And then, in the bargain, to snag the chance to debut Pharrell Williams’ new music – that’s the kind of big move you want from a festival like this.
JWAnd here’s hoping they end with something better next time.
You didn’t like it.
Jonah Bokaer in ‘Why Patterns.’
JWIt was a disappointment — to be kind. As an introduction, the evening opened with two earlier pieces by Bokaer. And they demonstrated his indebtedness to Merce Cunningham. Cunningham’s a great choreographer, the master of randomness and small movements. His choreography was a kind of reduction and abstraction, he built intricate works out of little pieces.
So ‘Recess’ — which was the name of the first work — ‘Recess’ was austere, very simple. It was just Bokaer on a black stage with a huge roll of white paper to play with — roll it around, pull it up, tear it. Now, other dance companies would take this premise and just run with it — like sugar-crazed five-year-olds at playtime.
And it was called ‘Recess,’ right?
JWExactly. But Bokaer is more like the smart kid who’s easily bored. He’s not going to pursue the obvious. At one point, he twirled on the paper, and created this huge, wonderful, hoop skirt around him. Then – boom – walked away. Bokaer repeatedly pulled moves like this, started an idea – made a huge pile that suggested Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall architecture — and then never pursued it, never explored it. Just moved on.
That sounds like it’d get frustrating to watch. Nothing would … build or deepen. It would just sort of dabble on, one thing after another.
JWRight. It’s like a series of quick sketches instead of a completed work. But we’re frustrated because we have these old-fashioned expectations of development and narrative, expectations he’s not ordained to fulfill. As Samuel Beckett once realized, incompletion and failure were to be his inspiration. But knowing that doesn’t make watching Bokaer’s dances any more compelling. I’d almost admire his approach as Beckett-like or Robert Wilson-ish (with whom Bokaer has collaborated) — you know, the whole clean, spare, modernist, minimalist aesthetic. Almost. But those two artist pare things away, hone them down only to find the drama in a boot and a carrot or in a single door opening on an empty stage. Events do build or circle back. The little broken bits become momentous. Implosive. They do, ultimately, have human meaning.
Here, with Bokaer, the dances moved at the same, slow pace with the same robotic lack of energy, denoting a kind of willed purity. They were not going to provide any pleasures of athleticism or speed. There were tiny, tiny hints at playfulness in ‘Recess.’ And in the second work, called “Why Patterns,” Bokaer even had four dancers on stage and dumped hundreds of ping pong balls on them.
Designer Daniel Arsham (left) and choreographer Jonah Bokaer.
Ping pong balls?
JWYeah, it was fun! They flew and bounced everywhere. But trust me, Bokaer can make ping pong balls feel as solemn as a death march. The performance space was carefully outlined and made geometric (like a playing field — rules of the game) and everyone moved in a similar manner. If this was a game, it moved like the most obsessively pondered chess match.
I admit, there were, once again, occasional and wonderful, itsy bits of humor — like when the dancers threw the balls back as if they were starting a snowball fight. Or when it was clear the dancers’ attempts at organizing these rolling balls would go nowhere. It was like a Buster Keaton-silent-film comedy routine reduced to the wandering molecular level. Philosophical humor so minute and feeble, it almost didn’t exist.
Mostly, Bokaer halted anything too sustained. Or even too energetic. This was a very conscious art of diminution.
I have to say this, but none of this sounds like it would fit Pharrell’s music. I mean, say what you will about him as a rapper or a singer, the man is a producer, he knows how to lay down dance tracks.
JWI wondered the exact same thing during intermission – while waiting for ‘Rules of the Game’ to start. Pharrell is where dance pop meets hip-hop. His music is nothing if not appealing, exuberant energy — hand claps and cross-rhythms and short, break-it-down, singalong choruses. It’s almost ideal for sexy, lively dances. So how would all this stark simplicity we’d been seeing fit that?
But with “Rules of the Game,” Bokaer stepped up his own game a notch or two. Designer Daniel Arsham’s incredible video was the hit of the evening. It had huge images of clay-like busts and basketballs that looked like moons in slo-mo crashing together and shattering. And by the end, tension and energy took hold among the eight dancers. “Rules of the Game” was partly inspired by the Pirandello play, and this entire piece is about conflict and rules coming apart — the dancers during the course of the action peeled off various layers of clothing, like Pirandello’s characters unmasking. And here, at last, at the end, they erupted into some incredibly fast, synchronized martial arts moves. The whole, long deal finally got a little exciting. Events continued, physicality was extended and indulged, not curtailed.
But what about the music?
JWAnd that was disappointing as well. Maybe Pharrell thought this was what ‘An Important and Prestigious Dance Premiere with A Major Symphony’ should sound like. Yes, conductor David Campell’s orchestrations often made it lush and lovely, but too much of it just came across as soft jazz. I mean, where were the dance-funk rhythms? Where was any snap percussion? A drum machine? I kept hearing echoes of the retro soundtracks from supposedly ‘cool’ TV shows from the ’70s like ‘It Takes a Thief” or “The Streets of San Francisco.”
OK, so yes, it was pleasant stuff, but frankly I’d take the three minutes, twenty seconds packed into Pharrell’s ‘Come Get It Bae’ over the 38 minutes of ‘Rules of the Game’ any day.
Jerome Weeks is the Senior Arts Reporter/Producer for KERA. Previously at The Dallas Morning News, he was the book columnist for 10 years and the drama critic for 10 years before that. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, American Theatre and Men’s Vogue magazines. View more about Jerome Weeks.