"Rules of the Game" Is Pharrell Williams' First Foray Into Live Performance Pieces

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Choreographed by Jonah Bokaer and created in collaboration with Daniel Arsham, the new work fuses sport with the arts.

A basketball is tossed in a complex game of catch among eight dancers wearing pink “long johns.” The dancers are cast in a glow of light, and the ball-toss game, resembling something you might play to learn everyone's name on the first day of camp, soon devolves into an epic martial arts battle. It all takes place in front of a projection of ceramic basketballs and busts floating in slow motion before shattering spectacularly. A pulsating soundtrack propels the movements.

In its L.A. debut this past Friday at Royce Hall for the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, choreographer Jonah Bokaer, artist/architect Daniel Arsham, and musician Pharrell Williams’ highly stylized dance “Rules of the Game” teased audiences with snippets and vignettes of gamesmanship. Even the dancers were rigid and robotic, an invisible set of rules stifling emotion. It’s the dance equivalent of seeing the fluid motions that are very much a part of games like soccer and basketball being halted and smothered by a referee with an itchy whistle.

Williams is no stranger to composing music for film. He composed the score for Hidden Figures along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch and is nominated for an Academy Award for producing that film. The trio received a Golden Globe nomination for the score. It’s Williams’ second Oscar nomination after receiving a Best Original Song nod in 2010 for Happy on the Despicable Me soundtrack. And he was part of a group of composers making the music for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), also with Zimmer. But “Rules of the Game” is Williams’ first foray into live dance and theater.

Williams’ score, arranged and co-composed by David Campbell, was at times jaunty and jazzy. The singer Beck's father, Campbell has also arranged music for Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, and Aaliyah. The piece was originally commissioned by Dallas’ SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival last year, and was arranged originally for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

At times, the “Rules of the Game” score conjured Italian-car-chase movie music; other times, it sounded like the funky jazz of Gabor Szabó, and then instrumental hip-hop you could imagine Kanye West jumping on for a verse. But it always had Williams’ DNA all over it. It was foot-tapping, and one could imagine listening to it away from the theater. In fact, during a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Williams quipped, “We should release this as an album.”

Bokaer and Arsham have been collaborating on dance performances for nine years since meeting while working in legendary dancer Merce Cunningham’s company. Two of their previous performances, “Recess” (2010) and “Why Patterns” (2011), were presented before “Rules of the Game.” Arsham’s architecture firm Snarkitecture (with Alex Mustonen) designed the scenography for “Why Patterns.”

Similarly, Arsham and Williams have been working together for a few years. Arsham used volcanic ash to make a re-creation of the Grammy winner’s Casio MT-500 keyboard in 2013.

The trio’s collaboration continues a line of interesting dance performances involving musicians who don’t normally create music for dance or theater. For instance, in December at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel, Rufus Wainwright played his piano-driven songs for Benjamin Millepied’s L.A. Dance Project.

For Williams, it’s another daring move. The 11-time Grammy winner tried his hand at contemporary art and design when he presented a chair at Art Basel in 2009; he’s curated art shows like “This Is Not a Toy” at the Toronto Design Exchange in 2014; he’s made songs for films and TV shows; judged on The Voice; produced films, including the aforementioned Hidden Figures (he also produced Roxanne Roxanne, starring Mahershala Ali and Nia Long, which premiered at Sundance this year); and now this.


A photo posted by Daniel Arsham (@danielarsham) on