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Dancing with Words 

Choreographer Erika Chong Shuch imagines a strange future.

Wednesday, Sep 3 2008
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Erika Chong Shuch and her much-lauded company, the Erika Shuch Performance Project, have been making dreamlike, profoundly theatrical pieces that toe a line between the esoteric and the visceral since 2002. Whether she's invoking cannibalism's tangible connection to love ("All You Need") or tackling the concept of attaining oneness with the universe ("One Window"), she always makes her work relatable to diverse audiences, no matter how subtle the subject matter.

This September, Shuch and company carry the choreographer's kooky populist aesthetic into a new piece, After All (Part I), a series of fragmented performances — interwoven with song, dance, and an original score — commissioned by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The vignettes take place in a mythical future populated by quirky characters, including a goldfish with a long-term memory, a homeless Santa Claus who "may have gotten that way because of melting ice caps in the North Pole," and a preacher delivering a sermon at the Apocalypse.

Shuch stresses that although the piece is set in the future, it isn't meant to be a parable or political statement. She describes her process with After All as similar to that of a collage artist ripping up images and piecing them together in a new context. "[I]t's not a commentary on the future and what happens in it," she says. "It is more about a series of characters who emerged from a brainstorm of images. The topic of the future felt more like a color than a theme — it was kind of like an optical illusion, something I could stare at for a long time and uncover the way different images and ideas could emerge around it."

After All is also a first for Shuch as far as the colossal nature of the production goes. Forty-five performers are featured in the September premiere — including 30 "chorus" performers, a character representing the ambient "crowd," and four core dancers.

It's also a first for Shuch in that After All entailed collaboration with three playwrights. Shuch is accustomed to choreographing for plays (particularly for Intersection for the Arts' resident theater company, Campo Santo) and shaping movement from playwrights' concepts. "This was the first time I was bringing playwrights into my process, and it prompted me to work with character in a totally different way," she says.

While the addition of a "story" certainly fosters Shuch's tendency to use spoken word as a way to connect with audiences who might otherwise be turned off by some of the more heady aspects of modern dance, the miniature plays within the framework of the piece are far from linear. She gave playwrights Michelle Carter, Philip Kan Gotanda, and Octavio Solis each a specific scenario to work with. After the three scripts were written, relationships and associations among the pieces formed of their own accord.

"A full piece happens when there is a convergence of bodies and tension is created between disparate moments," Shuch says. "So even though these are pieces that were constructed separately, bits of each story emerge over time, and [like the collage process] each playwright's work gets ripped up and reorganized to form this mosaic where new connections emerge — for example, one of the characters from a different play became the goldfish's owner, a connection that didn't exist until we pieced the plays together."

Considering the multidisciplinary, collaborative nature of the piece, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the YBCA show will be only Phase 1 of the project. In the spring of 2009, Shuch will be returning to Intersection to collaborate with Campo Santo artistic director Sean San Jose to spearhead a new incarnation of the project. It isn't clear yet whether the spring piece will pull from the current work in progress, according to Shuch.

"There is something intriguing," she says, "about following an idea that feels interesting and beautiful without necessarily knowing what the message is going to be."


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About The Author

Nirmala Nataraj

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