A bleak creative vision infused with scenic dazzle gave a distinctive edge to three works by young, New York-based choreographer Jonah Bokaer on Friday in Royce Hall at UCLA.
Cold and dark, Bokaer's action-plans often focused so intently on Daniel Arsham's mobile settings that dancing became replaced by task-oriented movement theater. In those pieces, Arsham's set designs danced and Bokaer's company didn't.
In the intense, danceless 2010 solo "Recess," for example, Bokaer manipulated an enormous roll of white construction paper into pathways, canopies, tents and mountains, creating imposing, ever-changing landscapes but staying just as overwhelmed by pain as he was at the beginning. An oppressive soundscore by Stavros Gasparotos and the unseen presence of James McGinn animating the origami structures from within helped to make a statement about how artists transform the world without ever vanquishing their own demons.
In the 2011 quartet "Why Patterns," the cast used long transparent tubes to wall off the stage floor. Then the cast moved inside those barriers for exploratory solos. Suddenly a ping-pong ball flew in from the left, then another, and, as the dancing continued, the balls began arriving in twos and later threes. Eventually the first of two huge overhead cascades of balls blanketed the stage and the piece became about coping with them and, ultimately, rebelling by flinging them into darkness. But they inevitably returned.
Obviously, the piece can be seen as a metaphor for the obstacles that life hurls at us. Or, if you like, you can think of it as the nightmare of someone who has seen the "Nutcracker" snow scene far too often. Either way, Arsham and his collaborator Alex Mustonen provided the dominant experience, with the music by Morton Feldman and Alexis Georgopoulos/ARP amounting to no more than an oppressive sonic wash and the dancers increasingly serving as faceless functionaries, except perhaps for Laura Gutierrez and Szabi Pataki.
Sustained dancing did turn up in "Rules of the Game" (2016), along with a terrific original score co-composed by pop star Pharrell Williams and David Campbell, who did the arrangement. But here Arsham was in apocalyptic decline-and-fall mode, with oversized images of sculptural faces, limbs and objects repeatedly colliding and shattering in his large-scale video projections. Perfectly in sync, Bokaer had his eight dancers progressively strip out of their layered pink Chris Stamp/STAMPD costumes as their choreography became progressively violent and combative.
As Western Civilization crumbled, James Koroni struggled effectively against the march towards barbarism, Pataki and Sara Procopio found love of sorts among the ruins, and McGinn and Albert Drake battled manfully.
Boaker and Arsham did offer a smidgen of hope at the very end — new Adam, new Eve — though given the prevailing pessimism of the program, we might have expected them to be pelted with another barrage of ping-pong balls. These collaborators don't offer much consolation — or dance — in their portraits of the zeitgeist.
Recorded accompaniments served all the pieces, as did resourceful lighting by Aaron Copp. Besides the dancers previously mentioned, the company also included Callie Lyons and Betti Rollo.
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