The future looks bleak in choreographer Jonah Bokaer and visual artist Daniel Arsham’s dark and often opaque Occupant, which had its world premiere over the weekend at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
But while the innovative duo’s latest collaboration packed a powerful final punch, it didn’t have the playful wit or, more importantly, the wondrous union of concept and visuals that made their two previous Miami presentations so striking.
Saturday evening’s performance at the Carnival Studio Theater had the same stark white palette for set and lighting (by Arsham) as the men’s previous works. It also had a similar sense of the stage as an otherworldly place suspended in space.
That impression was heightened by seating the audience on two sides of the black performance area, which was filled with small chalk sculptures of old-fashioned cameras, recorders and the like from Arsham’s Future Relics series — crumbling versions of discarded technology laid out in a precise grid.
Occupant takes its title, and part of its root concept about how objects and symbols pass from importance to irrelevance, from an Edward Albee play about Louise Nevelson. The iconic sculptor (1899-1988) was represented by dancer Valda Setterfield, 79, an elegantly ironic presence who is herself a kind of legend in the post-modern dance world. The Albee play also hovers over the first half of Occupant in the form of a barely audible recording of Setterfield and Bokaer, like a not-quite-remembered conversation, with a more stressful, insistent rhythm from Riyoji Ikeda’s soundtrack of clicks and beeps.
The 70-minute work was divided into two sections that almost seemed like separate pieces.
In the first, Setterfield and the spare, intense Tal Adler Arieli interact closely and almost constantly, but in a tense and somehow disconnected manner, as if imitating each other without understanding. Setterfield strikes faintly comic, melodramatic poses, arms and chin uplifted in a kind of ‘ta-da’ motion, mock-dueling with Arieli. He clasps her in the opening of a tango, hugs her leg, lays his head on her shoulder. Meanwhile, CC Chang scuttles and stalks around them.
All three move within the grid marked out by the chalk objects, like an arbitrary map, and while their movements seem freighted and symbolic, they’re also dry, inscrutable and seemingly interminable. That section ends with a bang as Setterfield hurls a chalk camera to the floor and the stage goes dark.
In contrast, the second half feels almost breathlessly urgent. Instead of grappling with the aging, living symbol of Setterfield, Chang and Arieli wrestle with the archaic objects. They roll, lunge and sweep their bodies wildly around the floor, drawing arcs, circles and squiggles with the chalk objects, a primitive, unconscious iconography. Setterfield lies down in the middle, an exhausted icon amid increasing chaos.
As the lights dim, Chang clears the broken chalk pieces off the stage, leaving it empty except for the inscrutable scrawl. Arieli hurls one last camera to the floor in seeming frustration, as if to say, "What is this thing!" and then curls around its remnants.
Setterfield puts her foot on his hip and strikes her triumphant “ta-da” pose, but there is no sense of elation or even meaning in the gesture, just a sudden, overwhelming feeling of desolation — she’s presiding over emptiness. It’s a powerful sense of coherence and emotion that comes with a sudden inevitability. If only the first half of Occupant had something of the same, meaningful power.