Jonah Bokaer's "Why Patterns." (Snarkitecture)

Call it performance art, call it modern dance or call it a weird social-science experiment: It’s been proved that given the opportunity, contemporary choreographers will spill ping-pong balls all over a stage, and dance patrons will try to pilfer them.

“I’m so sorry, but you can’t take those with you,” stage managers kept repeating Friday night, as people attempted to leave the American Dance Institute clutching one of the 3,000 ping-pong balls used in a performance installation created by Jonah Bokaer. And yes, there were exactly 3,000. “They made us count,” the stage managers said.

Bokaer is among the last dancers who worked with choreographer Merce Cunningham, a modernist giant who died in 2009. Other former Cunningham dancers have danced on Broadway, joined respected troupes and entered academia. And then there’s Bokaer, who has stayed busy choreographing independent films, adapting Luigi Pirandello plays with Pharrell Williams and, evidently, playing table tennis.

He is hardly the first choreographer to employ ping-pong balls as cheap and easy-to-clean-up props. (The Italian troupe Imperfect Dancers and local choreographer Christopher K. Morgan have also poured tiny spheres onto Washington stages, to better effect.) In “Why Patterns,” Bokaer uses the balls to create a moonlit world where four performers carefully execute sun salutations and other yoga-like moves. More interesting were the scenes where the dancers interacted with the balls like curious visitors from a planet without them. Most memorably, a male dancer gently blew a ball along the arm of a female dancer lying face up on the floor. Reaching her face, he nudged the ball onto her forehead. Slowly the pair rose, grasping each other’s forearms, while the ball stayed pressed between their temples. At more absurdist moments, an assistant launched balls at the dancers from the wings.

Cunningham famously used games of chance to structure his dances. Bokaer incorporates elements of randomness as well, yet also seems obsessed with monochromatic props. (In a shorter work on the program, Bokaer slowly unspooled rolls of white paper and, in his company’s last D.C. appearance, performers crushed statues made of chalk.) Cunningham was much more interested in manipulating bodies, and his dancers moved with a stronger sense of propulsion and intention. When “Merce” left viewers a bit baffled, that usually felt like our loss. Perplexity is much less satisfying in “Why Patterns.” Perhaps Bokaer envisions his process as art, but to truly embrace random beauty, he can’t expect to get all 3,000 balls back.