The central character in Jonah Bokaer’s “Occupant” is the modern dance equivalent of either Mama Rose in “Gypsy” or Nurse Ratched. Hard to say. The cryptic new work by Bokaer, a former Merce Cunningham dancer, premiered Friday at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The next stop is the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, where “Occupant” was commissioned in conjunction with Art Basel. There are more multimedia collaborators in the piece than there are dancers, including “scenographer” Daniel Arsham, sound designer Jesse Stiles, dramaturg Gavin Kroeber and composer Ryoji Ikeda.
The resulting piece is intricate in concept but minimalist in execution. At the Atlas, the audience sits arena-style, with a roughly 10-by-30-yard stage laid out in between two seating platforms. Thirty-six small white objects are arranged in neat rows of four; they are, on close inspection, mostly chalk casts of obsolete devices such as VHS tapes, Polaroid cameras and (RIP) BlackBerrys. For the first half of the show, three performers dodge the objects like landmines, and as would logically follow given the clutter, there’s movement but very little dancing.
The three performers include Valda Setterfield, the septuagenarian English dancer and actress who also danced with Cunningham, albeit three decades before Bokaer. Much of her interactions with Tal Adler-Arieli resemble a dystopian interrogation. Sometimes they face each other in chairs. Briefly they two-step. Sometimes they caress each other. Three times she pauses, raising her arm like a flamenco dancer, and he falls over. All three performers wear white Oxford shirts and geriatric tennis shoes, casting a psych-ward pall on the proceedings.
Observing Adler-Arieli and his older, domineering partner is CC Chang, a dancer who does little until the second half of the piece, when she methodically clears the stage and begins scrolling with the chalk objects. Most memorably, she makes a snow angel, tracing arcs of white with her arms. Once the floor is clear, Adler-Arieli finally begins to move with the deliberate, angular gestures that echo Cunningham’s cerebral choreography. There’s little partnering in “Occupant,” which is disappointing. (Bokaer’s canny ability to link bodies together is on display in the current arthouse film “Five Dances.”) Yet these characters are connected, and when the piece ends eerily with the shatter of a chalk camera lens, Setterfield appears to have beaten the others into submission by merely raising her hand.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.