MTV Goes to the Theater

It is said that the MTV generation doesn’t know how to make theater like they used to. But artists like Pearl Marill show that they do, and perhaps better than they used to.

Marill’s Remotor Control is a 45-minute dance theater piece about social conformity created for a generation stuck on the idea of being unique. It is the live, performative equivalent of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” for 21st century America. It is comic relief from the frantic and utterly exhausting journey of trying to keep up with what the screens expect of us.

In the beginning of the piece, a man with a gigantic remote control – a God-like character programming the stage (i.e. television) or the universe itself– screams “Go!” Six babies then proceed to “grow up” to the aspirations that society sets for them.

As newborns, clad in nude tights and diapers, they discover their bodies to the tunes of Lil’ John. This hilarious sequence is comprised of series of unintentional dry humps and overly saccharine smiles. As they grow older, they frantically compete for the white work shirts that fall from the ceiling, and fight back sleepiness at office jobs. The characters are driven mad by the urge to copy, but are too busy trying to copy the life they see on TV to really think about whether or not that differs from their own life, or whether that even matters.

The piece is ultimately a chronicle of the MTV generation’s quest to be, as the recent line of Dos Equis beer commercials, “The Most Interesting Man Alive.” But unlike the life of the Dos Equis hero, the lives of those onstage are full of awkward moments.

In fact, that’s the only kind of moment there is.

Attempts to connect are a series of meaningless, ill-conceived interactions. The awkward teenage sex ends with disgusted, horrified faces, and making everyday small talk is akin to pulling teeth. Halfway through the show, ensemble dancers Rebecca Wolfe and Marill herself (who dances in the show), see each other on the street, and in overly emphatic surprise, one yells, “Bekkie?!”

With equally excessive glee, the other responds, “Barbara!!”

After twenty seconds of incredible anguish of not knowing what to say – or, worse, have nothing really to say - both blink, and yell “Well, bye!”

At a certain level, her dancers are acting as the dialectic “subjects” of their own lives: her 20-something dancers are on stage acting out the sexual malaise of 20-somethings and the existential squeamishness of those who dread the arrival of “adulthood” but also dread a seemingly interminable childhood.

The piece is a modernist one in that it is concerned with the tensions of the will of the individual vs. the will of society, but is postmodern in its re-mix of multiple theater languages. Marill uses the aesthetic indulgence of hip hop to accent the didactic affect of Brechtian theater techniques, and also utilizes sparse elements of Vaudeville and Cunningham.

Remotor Control is the work of a creative mind in full throttle, and it’s really fun to watch.

It is dance theater is its best form; it is theatrical dance, in the most effective sense of the word. As such, Remotor Control stands out from the hundreds of performance art and postmodern theater works that throw in movement, text, and images seemingly at will without concern or understanding for the very different aesthetic languages of the three mediums, Marill has an intuitive sense of what they are, and when to deploy them. She develops characters well, and also understands how to accentuate the abilities of her dancers as actors.

We don’t need dance to understand the acting; or the acting to understand the dancing. Marill has created a sort of bilingual aesthetic here, and it is as powerful as it is effective. This isn’t literature that accidentally became a theatre script, or a live art experiment that just happens to have an audience. It’s just dance theater, period.

Marill’s theatrical approach is generous in that it offers itself to the audience; it is very friendly and high-energy, just like Marill is. Her work is immanently understandable, and it’s nice to feel like that’s the point. That extroverted expressiveness might indeed be the defining characteristic of Marill’s PumpDance Theater, a San Francisco-based dance theater ensemble of which she serves as the Founding Artistic Director. Her six-person ensemble includes Jorge De Hoyos, Rebecca Wolfe, Alexander Steinhaus, PJ Johnson, Valerie Scott, and herself. The five of them – who met studying together at the Theater Arts Department of the University of California, Santa Cruz – share an easy chemistry, and dance well together.

The show ends with a brief, unexpected arrival of peace; its unanticipated arrival is both funny and absurd. For it, ensemble dancer De Hoyos sits under a palm tree with a ridiculous grin of surprise that is as endearing as it is ancillary.

Given the show’s direct engagement with the audience in the form of comedy, the audience finds itself, laughing, talking amongst themselves…entertained. (Imagine, being entertained at a postmodern dance show!) The audience feels spoken to, spoken with. If pundits talk about the “participatory media” of young people, Marill’s dance theater is participatory in that it involves the audience underhandedly. It offers a clown-like life mirror in which everyone can recognize themselves, and accept their own misgivings. People are affirmed by this type of theater; they are engaged, and interested.

This is populist theater without the politics; theater for the MTV generation. Should more avant-garde young choreographers and playwrights dare to create work like this, they might not have such a problem with audience development.

The ending scene, danced to “Hope There’s Someone” by Antony and the Johnsons, offers a particularly moving ending to a high-emotion show. At the end of their lives, right when they got comfortable in their white shirts and were startling to settle in, the Remotor Control gives them a red balloon.

Their time is up, the show is over.

The dancers - unable to generate either an answer or a solution – are then forced to dance with death itself. The sweeping and heartfelt dance movements are both musically and thematically appropriate, as is the dancers’ sense of awe at the crushing realization that the programmed generation cannot program their own mortality, and real life, unlike TV life, actually ends someday.

In San Francisco, at the end of a work week, these kids are dancing at the edge of a country, with the notion that their dances, like their dreams, mean something. And for those in the seats, as well for those as onstage, they do.