Eight figures wearing hooded terra cotta-colored robes could be made out through a thick fog on the stage as patrons trickled into a nearly sold-out Winspear Opera House Tuesday night for the kick-off event to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's second Soluna Festival. They were clearly the dancers who would be performing in the world premiere of "Rules of the Game," a work of modern dance, art and music featuring a composition by pop star and Grammy winner Pharrell Williams, but for a good 15 minutes the dancers remained totally motionless — some standing, others sitting grouped together and a few off alone.
The sight was an uneasy one, reflecting the question churning in our minds: Would Soluna be so lucky as to knock it out of the park with another star-studded performance? It was a big ask, given the electrifying performance St. Vincent gave, backed by her hometown orchestra, during the festival's inaugural year. But the collaboration between Williams — who contributed his first composition for live dance and theater — choreographer Jonah Bokaer and New York-based visual artist Daniel Arsham proved that Soluna's strong first year was no fluke.
The initial inspiration for "Rules of the Game" was a 1921 Italian play by Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author. As the title suggests, Pirandello's play explores the relationship between creator and creation, and the independent will that art can sometimes seem to possess. "Rules of the Game" was saved for after the intermission, but the two older works that comprised the first half of the evening — collaborations between Bokaer and Arsham, just not Williams — also drew upon these themes.
In "Recess," a single dancer dressed in all-black rolled a giant sheet of white paper across the length of the stage. Bokaer danced this piece himself, and at first his relationship to the paper was calm and controlled. As he danced, he folded it in different ways, and then began to build the paper into a sculpture that was beautifully illuminated on the otherwise dark stage. Minimalist, industrial music by Stavros Gasparatos underscored the labor of the artist. As the dance continued, Bokaer began to wrestle with the material. Soon he was writhing underneath it, tearing it and rolling it out again until the sculptures he built appeared to breathe and multiply. The piece concluded profoundly with Bokaer revealing a piece of paper that perfectly outlined his silhouette.
"Why Patterns" heightened the spectacle, but also suggested the difficulties of controlling creative inspiration. The work began with a single dancer stepping inside of a golden rectangle delineated on the stage. A ping pong ball was then dropped from overhead. At first it was a curiosity, attracting the attention of other dancers until there were four, all dressed in tank tops and shorts. But one ping pong ball quickly turned into thousands of ping pong balls that spilled out onto the stage from all directions, sometimes in a hose-like stream, other times in a flood. The music by Morton Feldman and Alexis Georgopoulos turned dark and then swelled brightly as the dancers alternated between responding seriously and mournfully or playfully to the deluge.
For the first two works, the music was pre-recorded, building anticipation for the moment when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra would join in to perform Williams' composition, conducted by David Campbell, who also arranged "Rules of the Game." Campbell has worked on over 450 gold and platinum albums, such as Justin Timberlake's Futuresex/Lovesounds .
When the curtains finally did go up on the main attraction, the stage was cast in greens and oranges. The action was centered on a sort of court of play created with light, where the dancers would sometimes pass basketballs to each other. As images of clay basketballs and busts passed by in the background, the dancers cycled through the stages of human life: working as a team, pairing off in romantic duos and fighting with each other. The athleticism demonstrated in the fight scene was particularly impressive.
While thematically and visually "Rules of the Game" blended easily with the first two works, the music was a clear diversion from what had been heard earlier in the evening. Williams' music had a swagger to it that was unmistakable if you know his Top 40 work, but it was completely fresh in this context. The music he created was not at all pop music, but you could nevertheless hear the hand of the artist who made "Happy." More frequently than it sounded avant-garde, the composition sounded Marvin Gaye- or Giorgio Moroder-influenced.
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The musical notation for the orchestra was written after Williams presented demos, and at times during the performance we yearned to see the orchestra because the sounds emanating from the pit didn't sound like acoustic instruments at all. They sounded like synthesizers. As with "Recess" and "Why Patterns," the dynamics the dancers acted out seemed to exist outside of time and place, and the contrasts present in the music, which swung from familiar and soulful to futuristic, and the set design, which suggested ancient history with the busts but also had a Mars-like feel because of the color scheme, made that even clearer.
When the dancers took their bow at the end of the performance — joined by Bokaer, Arsham and Campbell — yellow roses were flung out at them from the sides of the stage. At first we mistook the flowers fore more ping pong balls, which was an appropriate final image of the evening, given the strong creative vision that had been displayed across the three works, managed beautifully by some of the country's best known and respected artists.
Soluna's way of harnessing star power, impressive given that it's such a young festival, is what makes it important — and not just because it's fun to see celebrities working in Dallas. Events like Tuesday's premiere, which was workshopped entirely in Dallas' Arts District, attract attention to the artists and art institutions that are already serving our community. In this case, the workshop process resulted in a local dancer, Albert Drake, being cast as one of the eight. Drake will now head out with "Rules of the Game" as it tours the world.
Hopefully some of the buzz surrounding Williams' debut in Dallas will also carry over to the other artists and groups Soluna will honor between now and June 5, when the festival concludes, such as the Allegro Guitar Society, Dallas Black Dance Theater and Avant Chamber Ballet.
To view the full Soluna lineup and purchase tickets, visit mydso.com/soluna.