CRITICAL DIALOGUES: Rachel Howard and Scott Marlowe

By Rachel Howard

September 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
What if, rather than writing a review, a critic sat down with a choreographer to have a two-way conversation about the work? That’s the experiment behind Critical Dialogues. For this first installment, LEVYdance associate director Scott Marlowe met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the June 26, 2014 performance of his first work, Soar.

RACHEL HOWARD: I’ll start with things that appealed to me about Soar, and then you can share the things that you were happy with. And then I’ll share my reservations, and you can tell me where I’m off the mark and what your intentions were. And then, I have this burning curiosity about what a choreographer wants in a review. I think, of course, they want publicity, but . . .

SCOTT MARLOWE: Right. It’s always interesting to me to see that some choreographers will not share the negative reviews. And other choreographers will share every review that comes in.

RH: I liked the wholeness of the work—an evening-length work with one clear structural concept. You had a complete commissioned score [by Ben Juodvalkis]—

SM: I’m so happy with the score. I listen to it on repeat on my iPod.

RH: And I thought you did a great job making the theater in Z Space into an alternate reality. The costumes were great. LEVYdance costumes always seem to be hip clothes you could find at H&M or Forever 21, and for Soar they had a nice soft palette. And I thought the dancers were strong and loved their diversity. Interesting personalities.

SM: Which side of the theater were you on? [Note: For Soar, audience members sat on stools arranged on the floor, with the dancers first performing in the center and running through the rows of seats. Audience members were then asked individually by the dancers to choose “red” or “blue.” A curtain was drawn to divide the stage space in half, and each audience member was led to one side of the other.]

RH: I chose blue, so I was on the north side.

SM: With the coffee table.

RH: Yes. And the woman in that duet—Angela [Rollins]—she was out there in her connection with her partner, no inhibitions. So what about the work were you happy with?

SM: I was happy and shocked that everything we were trying to do in giving the audience agency seemed to transpire without hiccups. We thought, what if everyone in the room chooses blue? We had backup plans, but every night was about 50/50. The feedback was that people found personal investment. They said, I wanted to vault off the table with you guys.

RH: So here’s where I am going to admit something that will make you hate me. It’s embarrassing.


RH: (curling into a ball of shame) I decided to leave the theater at about the 45-minute mark. Obviously if I were reviewing, I would never, never leave before the end of the show. But now I’m relying on you to tell me what happened.

SM: (remarkably gracious) So at the end of the piece, we invited the audience to move to the sides and they created a corridor. And we then launched into really dancey material. Then we took tables and nested them against each other and one by one the dancers ran up the tables and took a big belly flop into the air, and the other cast members caught them. They did it over and over and over—that was the crescendo. And what I loved was that so many audience members said that they wanted to hop up there and do that with us. So I knew that they felt connected, that we reached them as humans and not as performers separate from the audience.

RH: What time mark did that happen at?

SM: Around 45 minutes—

RH: About right after I left. OK. Let’s say your dream review came out. What specifically would you like to hear the critic say?

SM: I would love to hear the critic find a personal relationship to the work, and to put that out there, to expose themselves.

RH: Hmm. I always walk into a work wanting that to happen. But if doesn’t, it doesn’t always mean it was a failure of my openness.

SM: No, but if and when that happens, it points to the success of the work.

RH: Right. But let’s say—the critic’s job is also to analyze the aesthetics of the dance, and how it works. What piece of analysis would you hope for?

SM: Hmm. I would hope they would point to the honesty and the vulnerability in the performers. That human connection is why LEVYdance produces work. So to think about how it would be analyzed is hard—because ideally I wouldn’t want someone to be sitting outside of it to analyze it. Even a critic.

RH: Even a critic. That’s interesting. I feel that analysis is still an important role. The critic has to think about how art works, why art has its effects. I think, speaking also as a writer, that sincerity can get you a long way. But there’s something beyond the sincerity that is the artfulness that channels the sincerity so it can cross the divide. And has to do with how the work is structured, and the form—

SM: That creates the access—

RH: Right—and so I feel that the critic’s job does need to be thinking about how the art is working, because otherwise . . .

SM: Well, then in this case it would be amazing to hear the description of the audience around the critic as well, because the audience interaction was so much a part of what we were doing.

RH: So that sounds to me like pure descriptive criticism of the kind that Jill Johnston and a generation of writers in the sixties advocated. No aesthetic judgments.

SM: And actually reviews in that vein really do irk me. I don’t care to read a beautiful description of what a person saw. I want to know what they felt.

RH: So then, if a critic—me, for instance . . . well, in Soar I appreciated the dancers, but I didn’t feel emotionally moved. So if that’s the case—If I had ended up reviewing for the Chronicle, it would have been a very tough review to write. Because I like you, I think your dancers did an excellent job—and my honest reaction was that I was disappointed. It couldn’t have been a positive review.

SM: And I think that’s what a review is supposed to do.

RH: So in that case, a critic can’t be purely descriptive. So here are my reservations. In the opening I felt, this is promising, the dancers are swirling around us, it’s exciting to feel the wind ripple as they run by, it’s setting me up for a multi-stage story. I like the intensity of the dancers directly interacting with me to choose “red” or “blue.” But then when the curtain fell and the dance was cut into two sides, I started checking out. One big issue for me was that I didn’t really care what was happening on the other side of the curtain. And given that the whole concept of the piece was about which choice did you make, and did you regret it, and what would the alternative reality have been—I felt it was a problem that I never got a teaser from the other side. There was no element that gave me any indication that what was happening over there was any different than my side. And what was on my side, though I liked the intensity of Angela—I got that they were playing games and that’s about chance, there’s a thematic connection there. But I didn’t have any musicality to hang onto—you were using the score basically as a movie soundtrack—

SM: Right.

RH: And that’s OK, that’s your choice. But then there needs to be another element hooking me. But the things happening—playing poker—that wasn’t an original enough situation for me to be hooked. And the dancers are interesting and young—but I felt like the work was leaning a lot on their sexiness to keep my interest.

SM: Part of what I was playing with on the blue side was a cinematic quality. I wanted to see if it was possible to create a live movie with multiple scenarios happening and cuts bouncing between different relationships.

RH: Hmm. I think the cuts didn’t really register. Maybe if there had been a harder lighting cue, or harder sound cue. There weren’t a lot of contrasts between the couples, either. I was watching the man and woman playing strip poker and the two women passing bottles. What kind of contrasts were you going for between the two?

SM: Well, there wasn’t a conscious effort to create contrast. It was about what the performers were bringing, what I was seeing inside them. My desire was to create curiosity about what was happening with the other couple in the time that we weren’t with them. When we start with the poker couple we see someone lose and take off an article of clothing. And then when they come back again, someone has stripped and is dancing on the table. So, how did we get there?

RH: But I think you would assume couples playing strip poker, probably someone’s going to end up dancing on the table. It’s not that much of a turn in the narrative.

SM: How did you feel about the length of that section?

RH: Well, to me it was too long because it felt like it was relying on the sexiness.

SM: I thought it was too long too, honestly. Even as a performer on the other side I was struggling with holding my own interest in the material. It was interesting to be inside of that and feel, I’m ready to move on!

RH: Right, right. There’s an equivalent in writing of creating a scene and thinking because something intense is happening it needs to unfold in real time—it’s the imitative fallacy. It takes a lot of development to realize—wow, that scene would be killer in one page.

SM: The next iteration, we’re looking at creating a film version. And with film you have the ability to take twenty minutes and make it one. And I’m excited to play with that, and to play with fast cuts and really changing settings.

RH: Are you more interested in being a filmmaker or choreographer, just out of curiosity?

SM: If I had to choose right now, filmmaker.

RH: I’m still curious—why make a full-length dance as your first work? Because usually it takes lots of experimenting, smaller works, to get the texture of your own movement vocabulary.

SM: It felt like it wanted to happen in the trajectory of the company.

RH: Interesting. Because I was an early big fan of [artistic director] Ben [Levy]’s work—and still am. But it seems LEVYdance started as a repertory company, but now it’s more about concepts, like the recent Exploratorium exhibition, rather than a well-crafted work of art.

SM: It’s about allowing the company to shift as it needs to, to create relevant work.

RH: But Ben’s work has never been irrelevant!

SM: You’d have to sit down with Ben to get his take on it.

RH: To me, good art is always relevant, but . . .

SM: Well, he feels this is the direction the company needs to go given the current ecosystem of dance in the country. The single choreographer company is not as viable as it used to be.

RH: And so you making your first work full-evening was fulfilling that model.

SM: Yeah. And the company’s trajectory of audience participation from Romp [from 2011] to the Exploratorium exhibit . . .

RH: So it seems like this model is working well for the viability of the company and audience development.

SM: It seems to be. We don’t have a lot of perspective yet. We had a lot of people concerned that they would be put on the spot. People are so conditioned to go to a show and be in the dark, unseen, anonymous.

RH: I like immersive dance quite a lot. My favorite work last year was Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On. Did you see it?

SM: I didn’t.

RH: Oh, you have to see it. Or really, you have to be in it. It ends up being about the audience, about how we all are a star in our own show, and here we are stars in our own show all together, isn’t that beautiful? So that leads me to the question of what other choreographers you’re interested in, because a lot of choreographers have done interesting work erasing the line between audience and performer. Anyone you’ve been looking at or thinking about?

SM: No.

RH: You’ve got to get on that.

SM: I know. I used this project to get artists I’ve always wanted to play with into the studio just to play.

RH: You brought in other choreographers to help give you source material.

SM: One of the choreographers created a lot of material that did end up in the work. Others, we played games and shared ideas.

RH: Have you seen much of Anna Halprin’s work?

SM: I haven’t.

RH: Hmm. If you get to know the history of how choreographers have erased the line between dancer and audience, then you can build on that, or put a new twist on that. But if you haven’t, you’re kind of trying to reinvent the wheel. So I think it’s worth looking into.

SM: Absolutely. I think that’s why LEVYdance is heading in the direction it is. For many years, like many companies, we were so insulated and private. And that kind of implodes, after a time.

RH: So tell me why you chose the title Soar.

SM: Actually, I chose that title in the middle of our spring season last year, because our general manager wanted to put something in the program about upcoming projects. Our board of directors and our donors—everyone got attached to it.

RH: OK. Because it’s general, so it didn’t really orient me.

SM: And I chose that word because every time we start a new work, and we talk about what we want to do, invariably I say I want to fly. So I knew if I’m going to make a work, I’m going to call it Soar.

RH: Aha, I see. Then connecting that idea of flying to the theme about choices—that’s where the challenge lies. Well this has been illuminating for me, thank you. Anything you want to rebut, or…?

SM: No, nothing specific. This has been illuminating for me as well.

Scott Marlowe is a dancer, actor, and director and has been working and creating with LEVYdance since 2005. In 2011, Scott assumed the role of LEVYdance Associate Director. He recently starred in the award-winning feature fi lm TEST, written and directed by Chris Mason Johnson.

This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of In Dance.

Rachel Howard has written about dance in the Bay Area for about 16 years. Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications. She also writes memoir and fiction.