Pharrell Williams, Daniel Arsham & Jonah Bokaer
How a Grammy-winning musician, a top choreographer and an esteemed scenic designer are making the ultimate power play in collaborating on ‘Rules Of The Game,’ a groundbreaking production that will debut at Dallas’ SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival in May. It’s a Saturday in late winter, and Bokaer, a celebrated modern dancer and choreographer, is seated at a nondescript table in an airy workspace in Long Island City, Queens.
This was once a gallery home for dealer Jeffrey Deitch—artist Matthew Barney apparently does Matthew Barney things next door—and now it’s the studio of visual artist and scenic designer Daniel Arsham, Bokaer’s friend and frequent collaborator. Late-afternoon sun pours through a string of skylights. A small documentary crew huddles over a shot. And at another table, taking a break and eating a quick fast-food lunch, sits Bokaer’s and Arsham’s co-conspirator: Pharrell Williams.
At first glance, they seem an unlikely team: Bokaer, the eccentric dance visionary with Guggenheim and Ford Foundation grants; Arsham, the imaginative Miami-raised artist stretching boundaries of sculpture and design; and Williams, the Grammy-winning producer and singer perhaps best known for his ebullient anthem “Happy” and his role as a talent judge on NBC’s music reality show The Voice. But Williams, 43, and Arsham, 36, have known each other for a decade—not long ago, for an exhibition, Arsham made an astonishing replica of Williams’ childhood Casio keyboard from volcanic ash—and Arsham and Bokaer, 34, have been friends for nearly the same amount of time, having met as wunderkinds in the company of modern dance legend Merce Cunningham.
Today, the three polymaths have assembled in Queens to work on their first project as a trio: a performance piece called Rules Of The Game, which will make its debut at the SOLUNA International Music & Arts Festival in Dallas on May 17 and according to plan will move on to New York City in the fall. “A new frontier” is how Williams describes the project. He’s dressed in a green jacket, jeans, gray Timberland boots and a navy hat that says PLANT.
A crucial element of Rules Of The Game is its sweeping score, composed by Williams and arranged for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra by David Campbell, who has worked with Adele and St. Vincent, among many others. The final pieces of the score arrived overnight in Bokaer’s in-box close to 2:30 a.m. Today, Williams, Arsham and Bokaer are listening to the most recent arrangements for the first time, which explains the doc crew and the palpable ripples of anticipation in the room.
The trio take their seats at the table behind a pair of laptops linked to speakers. Bokaer clicks a button, and the space fills with a flutter of instruments. It’s an orchestral arrangement, with full strings and interplay with woodwinds, and the vibe is unmistakably Pharrell—warm, soulful, upbeat. It’s easy to recognize the signature sound that has defined a generation of Williams’ work with artists from Daft Punk to Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z. Williams originally submitted the compositions for Rules Of The Game as demo tracks, and Campbell (fun fact: He’s also the father of alt-rock star Beck) has brought it to soaring, symphonic life.
“It’s amazing,” Williams says after listening to one track. “You liked the ending?” asks Bokaer. “I liked it—it leaves it open,” says Williams. Bokaer clicks on another track. “We should release this as an album,” Williams says. Nobody disagrees. (Who is going to disagree with Pharrell about releasing an album?) On his laptop, Bokaer inputs Williams’ minor suggestions for adjustments—a tweak to a percussion part, a thought to add a stand-up bass—which will be relayed to Campbell. On another laptop, Bokaer, whose dance company is based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, opens a video file of his dancers, who are already in rehearsal for Rules. Williams and Arsham watch a series of choreographed moves; in another clip, a solo dancer performs a combination of quick floor twists.
“Reminds me of Brazilian martial arts,” Williams says, watching the routine. Bokaer, who is also a longtime collaborator of the acclaimed avant-garde director Robert Wilson, has been working with Arsham on dance projects for years. “Daniel and I share a goal of doing things for the stage that have never been done,” he says. Enormous swaths of paper getting torn by dancers on the stage, ping-pong balls dropping from the sky and bouncing everywhere—Bokaer and Arsham both have experimental taste and a sense of humor, not to mention an eye for style. (One recent Bokaer/Arsham partnering, a dance piece called MOVEment with dancer Julie Kent, was costumed by Calvin Klein.)
Rules Of The Game is based on Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, and a promotional release for the piece says it “explores the relationship between authors, characters and the actors who portray those characters.” Arsham was already in conversations with the SOLUNA festival about an orchestral work when he hit upon the idea to tap Williams. Usually “it’s been me creating things for him,” says Arsham. “This was a chance for me to say, ‘Do you want to do something on the music side for a project I am working on?’ ”
On the table is a model of Arsham’s staging for Rules—a stark set with a large video screen in the back. Not far away lie the broken arm and bust of a Greek-like figurine. Arsham, who has also become known for making haunting sculptures that appear to show life-size, curtained bodies disappearing into walls—there’s one suspended above—has begun recording video backdrops for Rules, including a series of slow-motion shots of the Greek figures dropped and shattering on the floor. “Daniel’s so precise,” Williams says with admiration.
There is still tinkering left to do, adjustments to be made, more back-and-forth before Rules Of The Game makes its premiere. Bokaer has already declared the piece to be “the most ambitious and demanding to render” that he’s been involved with, but all three agree that that’s part of the anticipation and fun. The show is coming, and the lab is humming with the magic of three unusual brains.