For most academics, career advancement requires gathering proof of publications and honors. But UCSB professor of dance Jerry Pearson has found an unconventional way to present his case to the board. With Body of Work, an hour-long solo work of dance theater, Pearson uses monologue, movement, video projection, and props to make his point. The show charts Pearson’s more than 40 years as dancer, choreographer, and artistic director, spanning from his early years in New York through the founding of his own international touring company, his move to the West Coast, and his 20-year tenure as artistic director of Santa Barbara Dance Theater. Part entertainment, part argument, it’s a startlingly sincere production.
Rather than sticking to recent accomplishments, Pearson begins much farther back. He speaks of falling in love with classical music as a child, remembering the way he would put on a Beethoven record at full volume, drape himself in his mother’s jewelry, clamber on top of the sofa, and conduct with gusto. From there, he takes us on a journey through his performing career with modern dance greats Murray Louis, Alwin Nikolais, and Rudolf Nureyev, drawing together archival film footage, photos, and even text from New York reviews. He touches on the success of the Pearson Dance Company that he founded with his first wife, the dissolution of that company and his marriage, and the love affair with an Irish dancer that changed his course. Now and then, he zooms out to philosophize on the nature of dance, using video imagery drawn from Eastern art to illustrate his musings.
As with all autobiographical stories, there’s a danger here of lapsing into solipsism, a peril Pearson neatly sidesteps through self-directed humor. He describes his own body as both the source of his success (“I think of my body as an instrument … a temple … a vessel,” he announces early on) yet also as the limiting factor. Aging and weight gain are part of his story, and rather than skirting these issues, Pearson bravely drives headlong at them, bemusedly and unapologetically presenting himself — a father of two in his mid-sixties — as the slightly pudgy star of his own show. In one of the show’s most tender moments, Pearson swirls onstage in a voluminous white hoop skirt, then bends low and draws out from between his feet a tiny bonsai — a symbol of his artistic fertility.
It’s this unusual mixture of brashness and vulnerability that makes Body of Work work. Toss in a few ribald jokes (an Irish critic once referred to Pearson as “joyously raunchy”) and a clip of the time his dance was featured on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and you’ve got a beguiling autobiographical romp.
Oh, and yes, he got the promotion.