Critical Dialogues: Rachel Howard and Pearl Marill

By Rachel Howard

October 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 second installment, actress and choreographer Pearl Marill, director of Modern on Command, met for coffee with critic Rachel Howard to talk about the August 11, 2014 performance of Marill’s Some Bodies Confessional, which premiered at ODC Theater’s Music Moves Festival.
[At the beginning of Some Bodies Confessional, audience members were directed, via voiceover, to write confessions on slips of paper. Anyone who turned in three confessions was rewarded with a glass of wine. Then another pop song played and the audience had three more minutes to write confessions, and the dancers went through the crowd collecting them.]

Rachel Howard: This was one of my favorite shows that I’ve seen in a long time. You framed it so smartly. Giving us so much time to turn in the confessions and staging that as a game in itself gave us a lot of buy-in. Because by the time that was over we had all turned in several confessions and that gave us enormous suspense, wondering when our confession would come up, and how other people would react. Whether our confession would fly or fall, or actually be touching to people.

And some of the ways you were playing with posturing and authenticity and some of the ideas at the core of the jokes reminded me of Miguel Gutierrez.

Pearl Marill: Oh. I haven’t seen his work in a long time. I went to the American Dance Festival and he was teaching there, maybe more than 10 years ago.

RH: I also haven’t seen his work in quite a while. The last time his company visited—maybe six years ago?—he did that crazy piece in which he used a song by Kate Bush—

PM: And he lip syncs—

RH: Yes, he lip syncs—

PM: With the candle—

RH: He has a candle under his ass!

PM: So, I was just in a piece by Erin Mei-Ling, Stolen Moments, Borrowed Memories, that made reference to that work, and I had to talk about it for Erin’s piece—but I had never seen it. I had to talk about Miguel Gutierrez lip syncing Kate Bush with a candle under his ass.

RH: I guess a lot of people never forget that! Well, some of the moments in your show—like the woman in the dinosaur costume, and she’s holding a plank while singing to the stuffed dinosaur—and you’re over on the side in a backbend.

PM: Oh, that was Caroline—

RH: Oh, so Caroline’s upside down. And she’s lip syncing to Christina Aguilera with sunglasses on. And the man [performer] next to her . . .

PM: Joe Messchede.

RH: He’s in that black cloak, and he has that thick beard, and he has on a turban. So all of a sudden, I gotta say, your show was going into creepy territory because it’s reminding me of the photos of the prisoners who were tortured at Abu Ghraib. So then there’s deep discomfort—but a vague discomfort. For me, the way those elements were layered—that became a candle-under-the-ass unforgettable moment.

PM: That’s interesting. Am I allowed to talk?

RH: Yeah, yeah.

PM: That in my mind was a place where the show switches gears in a big way. It is vague somewhat intentionally, to allow people to project their own meaning on all those symbols. But at the same time, for me that scene was about death, and holding on to something you don’t have control over. The turban Joe wore could recall a lot of other things. The outfit I just loved—it was black, with an amazing shape—

RH: And with his bare legs under it.

PM: I’m really attracted by visual elements. I have a visual art training background as well. So it was like a death music video parody combo. And the song lyrics, “Say something, I’m giving up on you”—the action being so minimal forces you to listen to the lyrics more.

RH: There was also the great physical tension of—the woman in the dinosaur costume is holding a plank for, like three minutes.

PM: So, right, yeah, that was about trying to embody the idea of holding onto something that you ultimately will fail at.

RH: And if it had been just the plank on its own, that would have been too simple.

PM: Yeah, I got great feedback on that moment. And then—my mom had a lot to say.

RH: Really?

PM: She wanted to see more struggle from the dinosaur. And I heard what she was saying. But I think, like you say, in the show there’s an interplay between acting out an emotion and just being in that state. And I was really interested in [Esmeralda Kundanis-Grow] truly just struggling, and less about acting like she’s struggling. And then I wanted to keep adding layers. So I had the other person come in with the rose to suggest a funeral.

RH: Your mom’s comment points to another thing I wanted to talk about. You’re playing with the line between genuine drama and melodrama. And that’s rich territory because it’s often mysterious to us ourselves—when are we being dramatic and when are we being melodramatic? Often when others think we’re being melodramatic, it’s real to us.

PM: Yeah, very much.

RH: And in that scene you actually kept it dramatic and not melodramatic. And then that’s playing off the melodrama of the music.

PM: The music [A Great Big World/Christina Aguilera, Say Something] is so melodramatic!


RH: Exactly. That brings me back to: I loved how you started with the line of dancers each reading a confession and then doing a total spoof on melodramatic dance.

PM: I love interpretive dance!

RH: You skewered things I see in concerts all the time. You were dead on in your satire.

PM: Cool.

RH: Someone did a bridge, pushed her pelvis up and then struck her hip bone—

PM: I bet that was Liz [Tenuto]. The girl in the green dress.

RH: And all those moments were improvised?

PM: Yes, and I think people were wondering which confessions that we read were real, which were fake. Those confessions were all real, and then informed the improv.

RH: I was guessing that one of the fake ones was when you confess that you just read a good book.

PM: Yes. Part of what was fun about this—Christy [Bolingbroke, ODC Deputy Director] asked if the show could be in a cabaret-like structure. And I struggled with that for so long. I went from “Cabaret Confessionals” to “Cabernet Confessionals.”

RH: From Liza Minelli to book club.

PM: Yes. So then how to incorporate both set structures and improvisational structures in this world? I needed some planted confessions to create a semblance of a through-line.

RH: I thought it was great. Because we [the audience] were trying to figure out which confessions were real and which were planted. And sometimes a deeper confession would be read, and there would be a tension of—“OK, can we put aside our humor and be compassionate for a moment?” And some others— like, “I worry that bugs have been crashed in the vat of wine”—

PM: I was in the wings straining to hear that one.

RH: And your use of the pop music. It sounds like that was something Christy was pushing you towards? But it reminded me of what Jerome Bel accomplished in The Show Must Go On—the way we’re all seduced by the drama of pop songs. Do you not usually work like that?

PM: Oh, I do. I think that’s why Christy invited me, because I tend to work with pop songs, sometimes interpreting the lyrics very literally. Like the Katy Perry song Dark Horse, and the refrain So you want to play with magic? I thought, how can we play with magic? We’ll make a really bad magic show based on diving into a good book and becoming the character within it.

RH: Oh! I did not get that at all. And I was going to ask you—the section reading the books—what is going on there?

PM: That’s OK.

RH: Ah, it’s the magic of entering into the world of the book.

PM: Mmm-hmm.

RH: Didn’t cross over to me.

PM: Which is interesting because it brings me to another conversation I had with my mother and aunt, who are the best critics. They’re so brutally honest. They said there were times they didn’t know what something was about, but the performers were all in the same world, so it was OK.

RH: So your mother was an actress, right?

PM: Yes, she was on Broadway and worked with [Bob] Fosse, Michael Bennett, Twyla Tharp.

RH: You’re very lucky.

PM: Yeah, my whole life she was always teaching me—just from me being around her.

RH: That brings me to another strength. The performers all being in that world, the logic of that world. Particularly the blonde woman—

PM: Caroline [Alexander]. I love Caroline. I mean, I love them all.

RH: She has this kind of Amy Sedaris quality. She’s a tiny cute little thing, and then so devious.

PM: I know, she’s a ball of fire. What I loved was the cast has such different training.

RH: And the casting of the man with the beard [Joe Messchede] and the tall skinny guy [Alexander Steinhaus], the physical contrast of them . . .

PM: And they’re actually a couple in real life.

RH: Ohhhh.

PM: So I was interested in how that played, too.

RH: OK, so I want to talk about their duet. Now when you pulled out the doll. [In the middle of the show, Marill pulls out a stuffed doll in exactly her dimensions, wearing the same clothes and a wig that matches her hair.] And then . . . [Laughing] When you first shook the doll head and she started singing. That was magical. It’s incredible that the human imagination fills that in so that we are totally seeing that doll speaking to you. And the show went to another new level from there.

And with you dancing with her and us toggling back and forth between doll/not-a-doll, and look her body moves just like the doll. It reminded me of that Ohad Naharin [Batsheva Dance Company artistic director] piece with the air-blow dolls.

PM: Oh, my gosh—yes—

RH: And the dancers blowing around like the dolls—

PM: Yes! I saw a Batsheva performance where the pre-show was just one of those blow up dolls standing in the empty spotlight and I said, yes. And that type of movement became a score—let’s be inspired by this—because it’s reminiscent of a doll.

RH: The relationship kept shifting between you and the doll. And the moment when you almost went down on the doll—


PM: That was more subtle than usual. I knew there were some kids in the audience. Sometimes I more literally look like I’m having sex with the doll but I took it down a notch.

RH: And again you’re so good at calibrating surprise. When every cast member came out with their own matching version of the doll, something that was over the top went over-over-over the top, and that was fantastically exciting. And the finale—swinging the dolls and the audience feeling that velocity as though the dolls were real.

OK, What would your dream review have said?

PM: A lot of what you noticed. The individuality of the performers. The humor. Touching on the visual elements as much as the physical. I like when people are moved—I don’t need them to be moved, but it’s great to hear that they felt the full spectrum from laughter to sadness. And a comment on the anticipation of your own confession being read. I did use a lot of basic structures that I felt could contain the show in a strong way, so when you commented on that, that felt good. The simplicity was an intentional choice so that other elements could grow.

RH: So the next phase of our talk is places where I wasn’t as engaged . . .

[Near the end of Some Bodies Confessional, Joe Messchede and Alexander Steinhaus lay their dolls on top of each other center stage. The real Joe and Alexander then dance a duet stage right, while Caroline Alexander dances a duet with her doll stage left.]

The two men partnering each other while their doll versions were lying on top of each other on the floor . . .

PM: Yes.

RH: I was less interested in the men’s duet. I wasn’t sure what was happening, though I know you must have had an idea.

PM: Yes, that part needed filling in. And the dolls in the heap on the ground. There was an improv class I went to that used stuffed animals, and just showed one person standing up there talking obsessively, and asked what we were looking at—and always, we were looking at the stuffed animal. So I was curious—what will take the focus?

RH: I can see the potential in that. The other part I was not as engaged— you know if, I’m mentally monitoring being on the edge of my seat, or thinking, “is the BART train going to be late tonight” . . . [Laughter]

The part with the rap song, and the guy walking like [Rachel flaps arms and makes duck sounds].

PM: When we’re salsa dancing all over the stage?

RH: I think so. It was funny for a couple of bars . . .

PM: That comes right after the Katy Perry [song], and Esme and me fighting. Katy Perry was about magic, and felt to me more artificial, like wha! And ha! [Pearl makes wild fighting gestures with arms.] We’re believing everything we’re doing, but not actually feeling it in our bodies. So for me, Empathy, the name of the song right after, was about the aftermath of the magic show—now feeling it all in our bodies and being more self-observant and less performative. The score was very simple, just breaking down the salsa step around the stage.

RH: Aha.

PM: My score to the dancers was something like, “You’re in Miami and you’re on coke at a weird party.” [Laughter.]

The choice to have Joe do that—when the music cut, everyone would freeze except for Joe, he kept forgetting. So I said why don’t you be the only one to move there? If I revisited, I think I’d make a different decision every time the moment repeats itself.

RH: Exactly. You’ve got a pattern set up, so we want to see it develop.

PM: Yes, I would build on it.

RH: And my last question, at the end of the show I was asking myself, how do I understand confession differently now than I did when I walked in? We started with confessions and then . . . the stuff with the dolls seemed to be about self-love?

PM: Mm-hmm.

RH: And then you end with this confession: “I’m having a hard time . . .”

PM: “I’m having a hard time loving myself” was the confession right before my solo.

RH: Afterwards I was thinking, what is the connection between confessions and shame in making a confession, and self-love, and how does that all connect? And I’m not sure I got a strong connection.

PM: Between confession and self-love?

RH: Yes. I felt self-love dominated the end, and the idea of confession didn’t quite feed back into it. But that’s why I wanted to ask how you see the two things as connected.

PM: I think many people’s confession is that they have trouble loving themselves. So that felt like a relatively universal confession. I do think there are universals: love, loss, birth, death and the struggle to accept yourself. So that was a confession that was not just personal but collective. And expanding that theme from self-love to confession—the idea was that the bodies themselves confessed, in a way, by the way they moved. And became not just ours, but universal. They could be anybody, too.

RH: Ah, that suggests that the duet between the two men was really important.

PM: Yes, so that is the word play in the title, Some Bodies Confessional. We can confess verbally, but our bodies confess too. And the body double dolls become another route of confession. And also, the show as a whole, it’s a confession of how I handle confessions—which is that I feel I need to solve them.

RH: You need to solve other people’s confessions or your own?

PM: Both. Someone says they have trouble loving themselves— I’m going to find a song about how they can be their own hero. Problem: answer. So that’s my confession, too: How can we look for ways to deal with that impulse? If you have more questions, I can keep explaining, too—4

RH: No, no, I think it’s perfectly articulate. Thank you so, so much.

Pearl Marill is an actress, dancer and choreographer. Marill’s work has been shown at venues and festivals including ODC Theater, The Garage, The Women on the Way Festival, Traveling Jewish Theater, CounterPulse and West Wave Festival. She has worked with dance artists Ryan Heffington, LevyDANCE, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, Liz Tenuto and more. Marill won an Isadora Duncan Dance Award in 2013 for Best Ensemble Performance and was recently awarded a Lifetime Inspirational Award, from BayAreaDanceWatch and SafeHouse for the Performing Arts.

This article appeared in the October 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.