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Rules of the Game: a disparate mix of ping-pong balls, paper and Pharrell Williams

Ping-pong balls pour from the ceiling onto a dancer. Supplied

Rules of the Game: a disparate mix of ping-pong balls, paper and Pharrell Williams

Rules of the Game is a program of three works by celebrated American choreographer and dancer Jonah Bokaer at the Brisbane Festival. They traverse poetic highs and lows and make for a mostly engaging evening.

The audience’s theatrical experience is carefully designed from the moment of their entry to the performance space. Porcelain-like figures, hooded and pale, populate the stage and highlight a lone figure in black, patiently waiting beside a roll of long white paper.

This detail is carried through to the changeover between works; the music is considered and the movement of crew simply and effectively choreographed as they set up props. There’s a welcome sense of care and attention.

The first work on the program, Recess (2010), is Bokaer’s signature solo, and it’s easy to understand why. His pedigree as a performer is evident in his elegant, almost languid carving of space, with effortless leg and arm gestures informed by a beautifully controlled technique.

As he unrolls the paper across the stage, a cutout of his body shape is revealed. He fits himself into this space and then seeks to disrupt the clean white surface by sliding across it, disappearing under it and arcing it up through the space.

Courtesy of the Brisbane Festival.

Bokaer constrains his movement vocabulary to small precise hand and arm motifs alongside an awkward walking pattern as he moves across and through the paper. This throws the focus onto the white paper, the creation of negative and positive space. Topographic landscapes emerge as the paper is folded, crumpled and sculpted.

The ending is a little curious, with Bokaer standing, head cocked to one side as if to say “Did you get that?” or perhaps “Did that just happen?” Either way the work successfully draws you into its territory and explorations.

The second work on the program is Why Patterns (2011) with four dancers and hundreds of table tennis balls. Bokaer created this quirky work with architectural designers Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen as scenographers.

The black stage floor is outlined by see-through rods neatly loaded with white balls: all very proper, but this clarity is immediately disrupted by a lone ball thrown on stage. The process repeats several times until two balls are thrown, and the pattern keeps changing.

The dancers move through this animated space with balls ping-ponging randomly between legs, across faces and being caught and thrown between the dancers themselves.

The borders corral the balls, but not for long as a massive dump of balls from the ceiling produces delight and havoc at the same time. Some lovely moments of vulnerability are created when a single ball is gently blown by a dancer around another’s body, or delicately carried across the floor on the back of a hand. All up, it’s intriguing and spirited work – a poetic comment on trying to control excess.

Courtesy of the Brisbane Festival.

Bokaer collaborated with Daniel Arsham and Pharrell Williams to create the final work, Rules of the Game (2016). According to festival advertising it’s loosely based on Luigi Pirandello’s play of the same name, which examines themes of infidelity and jealousy in a marriage. (Although the connection seems tenuous at best.)

Williams, internationally known as a songwriter, singer and producer, makes this foray into theatre with a new instrumental score played by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. It’s reminiscent of 50s lounge music: very easy to listen to, but I suspect its insistent beat dampens the choreography rather than elevates it. The dance seems trapped in the presence of this filmic score.

A film of flesh-toned and gigantically oversized plaster basketballs and busts from antiquity slowly fall and rise in the background. They collide, shatter and reform in repetitive loops of action.

Unfortunately, the choreographic devices are too easy to read. Here a conversation is being set up through the relational aspects of body sculpture – a conventional exercise from image theatre – but the idea stops there.

Finally, it evolves into episodes, with one idea breaking into another all too easily. A sudden aggressive argument between two dancers does not emerge from any organic or metaphoric build in the work. It may have come from a loose relationship to Pirandello’s play, but it’s a lazy connection – meaningless and contrived.

There’s no symbolic power built into any of the objects or relationships in the work. Why are there ice-cream cones on stage? Or are they microphones? We can only guess, as they are never used intelligibly.

The dance vocabulary is remarkably unremarkable – no innovation here – and the dancers, while strong performers, have a mixed bag of ability. Some of the partnering is clumsy and some of the unison work is messy. Against the clean articulation of Bokaer’s technique, it shows.

Unfortunately there are just too many disparate parts. While the filmed objects disintegrate and reform to make a whole, this work has yet to aggregate its parts into an aesthetic and readable whole.

It has not yet realised its potential, and doesn’t live up to either the expectations set up by the first half of the program or the promise of these three talented collaborators.