Arts / Performing Arts

The Rule Benders

A Rap Superstar, a Dance Genius and a Daring Artist Collide in Dallas for the Soluna Festival — Let’s Look Behind the Scenes

BY Lee Cullum // 04.20.16
photography SYLVIA ELZAFON

What, exactly, will happen next month when Jonah Bokaer’s choreography, Daniel Arsham’s scenography and Pharrell Williams’ musical score collide for the world premiere of Rules of the Game during the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Soluna Festival? Journalist Lee Cullum spends time with the artists, getting a glimpse of what’s going on inside their rule-bending brains.

Betti Rollo makes her moves in rehearsal for “Rules of the Game”.

It’s one of those radiant afternoons in early spring when the chill of the morning is wearing away and people by lunchtime are searching for the sun. That’s what one of the dancers is doing on the ninth-floor terrace of the Wyly Theatre when I arrive in the rehearsal room, looking for Jonah Bokaer — choreographer, dancer and possible genius. Still wearing a taupe-brown snowcap and a red windbreaker over shorts, he seems to have neither time nor thought to shed either garment as the day grows warmer.

Bokaer has been with the dancers at the Wyly’s rehearsal room all morning and till 10 pm the night before, alone — creating the multidisciplinary program Rules of the Game, which is scheduled due to open this year’s Soluna Festival on Tuesday, May 17, at Winspear Opera House.

The Italian novelist, poet and dramatist Luigi Pirandello wrote a play called “Rules of the Game.” First performed in Rome almost 100 years ago, it deals with a treacherous triangle: a man, his estranged wife, and her lover, who winds up dead after a duel into which he’s maneuvered by the calculating husband. It’s also a film by French filmmaker Jean Renoir, Les Regles du Jeu. This is a brittle study of manners and moral ambiguity in France on the eve of World War II. It is Pirandello, however, who interests Bokaer more — though it’s the title he really likes. He spoke softly as he explained himself.

Betti Rollo and Sara Procopio in a contemplative mood.

The work he’s doing with eight dancers moves from mood to mood; each time, they “play the game in a different way,” posing the question: “Who are these people and what are they doing?” This I learn at a run-through of the work, watching the dancers among the troupe: Laura Gutierrez from Houston; Szabi Pataki of Budapest, who wears all black, donning a  beard and moving like a cat, coiled, ready to strike at any moment; the unstoppable Albert Drake of Dallas’ Bruce Wood Dance Project; and James McGinn from Brooklyn, whose face became the model for a classical mold made by sculptor Daniel Arsham and deployed in “Rules of the Game” as a part-plaster profile with curls that recalls Greece overtaken by Rome.

These heads, more anguished than any we remember from friezes at the Parthenon, are meant “as a fictional archaeology in my mind,” Arsham says. They appear also in a video projection with hands attached to long arms, delicate, seemingly untouched by work or war, until the fingers are shattered. To keep the games going, dancers deal not only with the residue of the classical world, but also with three basketballs, intact on stage but smashed in the video.

All this is set to music composed by Grammy Award– winning pop star Pharrell Williams, whose raw files Bokaer played during rehearsal and again for me the day we meet — only this time arranged by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s own David Campbell (an expert at such things) for 21 instruments from the DSO. By now, what had seemed wistful and solitary has a Gershwin quality to it — a sort of swing, as Jonah put it.

Suddenly, the basketballs and mournful classical heads take on a new perspective. This game might be fun — though not entirely.

Laura Gutierrez stands alone.

Bokaer said in an interview for Bomb that his work in general “takes on the idea of disappearance, often the disappearance of people. That gives it an austere feeling.” Maybe so. But when I speak with Arsham as he’s heading to DFW airport, driven by Uber, he explains only that his pieces “have erosion in them … It appears like they’re falling apart … but they are interpretations of everyday, not apocalyptic or negative.” He then adds: “If there are any rules, we’re breaking them.”

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