Rules of the Game: Jonah Bokaer at the Brisbane Festival

Brisbane Powerhouse, September 14.

Labels are always tricky. Jonah Bokaer is essentially a dance-maker but his deep immersion in the visual arts pushes his work towards performance art. But let’s not worry about what to call it. In the trio of works he brought to the Brisbane Festival – his first visit to Australia – Bokaer revealed himself to be an elegant, serious thinker.

As a bonus Brisbane also got to see him dance. Bokaer’s extensive CV may suggest a man of mature years but the American is still only 34 and a mesmerising figure onstage.

His 2010 solo RECESS started the evening, although with a new introduction of sorts. The audience arrived to see seven men and women arranged like statues. They would (with an eighth dancer) later perform the work that gave the whole program its title. The message was clear: the evening, gorgeously lit by Aaron Copp, was one event, not three.

The game was, of course, life, which these pieces presented as a constant battle against disorder and decay of all kinds. In RECESS Bokaer unfurled, folded, crumpled and tore a huge roll of paper until it wittily took on a life of its own. In the middle work, Why Patterns (2011), no matter how assiduously they tried to clear a space for themselves and create intimate connections, unpredictable cascades of ping pong balls kept assailing a quartet of dancers.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Why Patterns, choreography by Jonah Bokaer.

There was an appealing contrast between cool science – the exploration of space and the behaviour of objects within it – and alert bodies.

RECESS is a solo in much the same way Russell Maliphant’s Two, for a dancer and a light source, is a solo. White paper has rarely appeared so fascinating. Bokaer moved sensually, making beautiful curves with his neck and arms, rolling on the floor as if dreaming between the sheets and wrapping pieces of paper around him as if he were a living sculpture, or perhaps a gift. There was also an endearing whiff of the science nerd about Bokaer as he carefully arranged his material just so.

RECESS was followed immediately by Why Patterns, named after and responding closely to Morton Feldman’s music of that name. Here the materials couldn’t be arranged just so. The near weightlessness of the ping pong balls – 5000 of them, they say – made a mockery of control. The dancers managed to take charge when the balls were contained in long, clear tubes but not when they arrived variously and amusingly in singles, handfuls and at one point a torrent from above. They were like molecules or vibrations, impossible to pin down and disrupting whatever calm and certainty may have been achieved.

Bokaer’s movement language is concentrated and for the most part restrained in these works. His diamond-edged clarity is visually and intellectually appealing but there are also luscious departures from austerity and precision that give the works texture. Bokaer has a strong affinity with the work of Merce Cunningham, with whose company he danced, and theatre director Robert Wilson, with whom he has often worked. It’s also possible to feel the spirit of the great postmodernist choreographers of the 1960s, who revered collaboration between artists of all kinds and introduced task-based movement.

The satisfying impression was of a choreographer who knows his dance history well while still being very much his own man.

RECESS and Why Patterns are terrific. Thematically the new work Rules of the Game fitted right in while being less convincing overall.

Rules of the Game, Brisbane Festival 2016

Rules of the Game, choreography by Jonah Bokaer

If you were to make a Venn diagram of the key Rules of the Game creatives, Bokaer would be in one circle, pop/hip-hop luminary Pharrell Williams would be in another circle and artist Daniel Arsham would be where they overlap. This is the first joint project for Bokaer and Williams; Arsham has worked separately with both (he designed the scenography for all three works in this program).

Williams is something of a polymath, being a songwriter, performer and mega-star producer, but hadn’t previously written anything for a dance work. His celebrity has not unnaturally brought extra attention to the piece, which was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for its Soluna International Music and Arts Festival and was first performed in May. (David Campbell arranged Williams’s music for orchestral forces and conducted an ensemble drawn from the Dallas Symphony for the premiere. That performance was recorded for use in later presentations of Rules of the Game.)

Rules of the Game was devised on a considerably larger scale than RECESS and Why Patterns but the result was rather less powerful at this early point in its career – Brisbane was only the second port of call.

Arsham’s giant video images of collapse, disintegration and reintegration were initially lovely to watch but repetitiveness reduced rather than intensified their impact. Williams’s music bounced along agreeably and melodically with lush strings, smooth brass, insistently regular percussive beats and plenty of climaxes. The sound was bright and often sunny, irresistibly suggesting a 1950s romantic film caper in which a glamorous couple is seen driving gaily along the Corniche in an open sports car.

That’s not necessarily a problem for Bokaer of course. His Cunningham experience means he is no stranger to the idea that dance and music can exist independently. Nevertheless, the music had a self-regarding sheen at odds with the tremendously involving dance, performed by four women and four men with powerful gravitas and authority.

A square within the performance space – a stage within a stage – added layer upon layer of perception; the loose-fitting salmon-coloured costumes that made no distinction between the sexes played the layer game too. As Rules of the Game progressed dancers shed jackets and shirts, and a riveting clash between two men was performed with them stripped to the waist.

Occasionally Rules of the Game felt a little unfocused but for the most part its imagery was precise and evocative without being prescriptive. Bokaer draws from Greek antiquity and modern game-playing literally and metaphorically with a language that contrasts sculptural stillness with intense solos, sometimes desperate duos and striking group encounters. Here, in the imagery of observers and the observed, was a sense of the influence – “more a point of departure than a literal usage”, says Bokaer – of Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello.

Just as pertinent, however, was the classical Greek agon, or contest. And in this contest between music, visuals and dance, Bokaer came out a clear winner.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 16.