In the program notes for Pearl Marill’s Some Bodies Confessional, Marie Tollon relates confessions to works of art. Marill certainly does take the confession ritual as inspiration for her performance and transcends it to art. But these confessions aren’t just about catharsis, they are also about humor.
Thomas Hobbes, philosopher of “nasty, brutish, and short” fame saw humor as a function of inequality. He says, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but the sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others…”* In other words, it’s funny when someone falls down because it is not us. The work of Some Bodies Confessional, I suspect, would disagree. The humor in hearing audience confessionals is not in making fun of others, it is in the coming together in shared catharsis. The confessionals are funny because we share in honest embarrassment, blushing together in the dark.
Situations are funny when there are incongruent elements. Marill gets this, and the audience is invited into her world upon opening with the performers in formal gowns asking for the audience to share taboo secrets. They are saccharine sweet as they trade wine for forbidden thoughts. Beyond the confessionals, this incongruity seems to be a way of working for Marill, as she blends virtuosic movements with vernacular pop. The movements are never slapstick, in fact, the dancers relay a seriousness, which is made all the more humorous by the pop music, and the dancers’ exaggerated facial expressions and costumes.
The piece concludes with each performer dancing with a life-sized stuffed version of themselves. The tragic Fistful of Love by Antony and the Johnsons swells and the dancers move earnestly with… their wigged, floppy self-dummies. The incongruity is almost too much to take and the audience succumbs to the shared sweet madness of laughter.
* Hobbes, Thomas. “Human Nature.” The English Works of Thomas Hobbes. Vol. IV. Ed. William Molesworth. London: John Bohn, 1840.
Megan Brian is the education and public programs coordinator at SFMOMA.