Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, DC; November 8, 2013

Carmel Morgan

Jonah Bokaer’s “Occupant” wasn’t on my radar screen until I got an email from the performance venue offering a discounted ticket price.  I usually jump at the chance to see something by a choreographer I don’t know (Bokaer, at 18, was the youngest dancer recruited to join the Merce Cunningham Dance Company), so I figured what the heck.  I didn’t go with the intention of writing a review necessarily, but in the end I decided to jot down my thoughts.  Here’s hoping funders and choreographers give what I have to say a little consideration.

I’ll cut to the chase – I didn’t like “Occupant.”  That doesn’t mean there was nothing to admire.  In fact, I did like the scenography (Daniel Arsham), costumes (The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia), and lighting design (uncredited).  I even enjoyed a bit of Bokaer’s choreography (in particular, the fast-footed dancing in Act II by CC Chang).  What I didn’t like was the work as a whole.

“Occupant” alienated its audience.  It baffled, and it went on and on and on.  The audience was seated, bleacher style, on either side of the theater, facing the center and each other as if ready to take in a basketball game.  In the middle were small white sculptures placed carefully in lines across the floor.  Three dancers (Tal Adler-Arieli, Chang, and the elderly, rather wooden Valda Setterfield), with ear monitors in their ears and wearing white from head to toe, moved between these roughly shoe-sized objects, sometimes sitting on, reaching around, or standing atop one of the few chairs that occupied the interior space or the perimeter surrounding the sculpture grid.

If I was to compile a list of Ten Commandments for choreographers, I think one might be “Thou Shalt Not Move Chairs Here and There and Have Dancers Sit and Stand on Them for No Apparent Purpose.”  I was in a piece as a dancer several years ago in which the choreographer demanded this (I think a lot of dancers have had this experience).  I stood on a chair, I jumped off of it, I dragged a few chairs together and put them in a pile.  Setterfield piled the chairs into a jumble in “Occupant.”  Chair manipulating wasn’t interesting when I did it, and it’s still not interesting.  I don’t understand why choreographers feel compelled to use chairs as props, except that chairs are easy and cheap to obtain and they fill a void if the choreographer can think of nothing else to do but rely on a prop.  I highly suggest choreographers avoid using chairs.

Another Commandment might be, “Thou Shalt Not Direct Dancers to Meander Endlessly, Especially to Repetitive Electronic Sounds.”  That commandment was broken, too (the music by Riyoji Ikeda and sound design by Jesse Stiles contained a lot of beeps and static and bug zapper noise).  “Dancers meandering endlessly” kind of sums up the first part of “Occupant.”  Yes, of course, there was more to it than that, but nothing really struck me.  I couldn’t figure out the relationship between the three dancers.  It seemed to me that Adler-Arieli and Setterfield might have been a pair of lovers quarreling.  They pushed each other and slow danced together, alternately.  Chang might have been their distraught child or a romantic rival of Setterfield.  She kept on the periphery a lot.

When the lights went to black after one of the sculptures had been picked up and thrown to the ground, breaking into shards, someone in the audience, hopeful the work was finally over, began to applaud.  But no, there was more.  While seated in blackness, we listened to an audio recoding, and I heard something about “Act II” and “35 minutes.”  No escaping the theater for at least another half hour!

Thankfully, Act II involved livelier dancing, and Setterfield pretty much retired. Chang and Adler-Arieli took broken fragments of the sculptures and drew on the floor with them, making chalk swirls and lines.  Shen Wei does the painterly thing far more successfully, but the chalk drawing did heighten the interest level, at least.  Yet I found no enlightenment, no clue about what was taking place in front of me.

Due to some recent disappointment caused by reading program notes before a performance, I refrained from reading the notes for “Occupant” until afterward.  If I had read the notes, I might have had better guesses about what was going on.  But maybe not since I was unfamiliar with Edward Albee’s play by the same name, Occupant, which is based on the life of an American sculptor named Louise Nevelson, who was also unknown to me.  The notes indicated that the dancers were listening to Albee’s play as they danced.  The notes also sounded very, um, scholarly.  For example, the notes informed me that Bokaer’s “Occupant” embodies “reckless anti-historicism” and “resists the preservationist impulse and amplifies disintegration.”  Huh?

This is where the alienation comes in.  I’ve got an advanced degree and I’m an avid arts enthusiast, and still I had almost no idea what “Occupant” was about, even after having read the program notes.  The work failed to convey Bokaer’s lofty, intriguing concepts.  Worse, I was bored.  Only toward the end of the performance did I realize some of the sculptures that littered the stage were older model cameras, and one was a rotary telephone (thus the name of visual artist Arsham’s “Future Relics”).  That realization, however, didn’t help me “get” the work.  I left not grasping what I had seen and feeling extremely frustrated by that fact.  I’m certain I was not alone because I took a good look around me during the performance and saw lots of literal head scratches, in addition to people yawning and checking their phones.  One gentleman ahead of me as I was leaving the theater proclaimed that he needed a drink and regretted not having one before the show.  I think by that he meant that alcohol may have made the performance more palatable.

“Occupant” was funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.  I’m sure they thought it sounded like a good idea on paper, assuming they understood what the paper said.  This is just the sort of work, though, that gives contemporary dance a bad name and makes right wing folks want to yank all government support for the arts.  I suspect “Occupant” may be more warmly received in Europe, where it will purportedly go on tour to some museum and gallery spaces.  Actually, “Occupant” seems far better suited to a gallery space, where the audience isn’t held captive.  It’s a work that’s best taken in doses, maybe, with some healthy walking and talking and art appreciating and even some wine and cheese in between?  As an “installation” versus a dance work created specifically for the theater, Bokaer’s “Occupant” didn’t seem the right fit for DC’s Atlas Performing Arts Center and the audience gathered there.