A 'Window' into choreographer's complex
Rachel Howard | Special to The Chronicle
| SF Chronicle | April 2005
Erika Shuch creates dances with startling,
Erika Shuch's freckled face washes
pale with embarrassment as she recounts her first work. "There were three of us, and
I imagined we had a chain around us and we were trying to break
out," she says. "I had people parading across the back
of the stage in roller skates and tutus. My friend played the
cello. We were all wearing black and we had on, like, lots of
She sighs and drops her head into
her hands. It's a rainy afternoon at the Mission District's Intersection
for the Arts, where Shuch
is taking a break from rehearsals with her Erika Shuch Performance
Project. "We played a Korean song my mom used to sing about
a rabbit," she continues. "It was completely like,
'What's in my head?' "
Shuch laughs nervously, but an interviewer
could be forgiven for doubting that first piece was really so
bad. Since arriving
in San Francisco five years ago, Shuch has been spilling the
contents of her head onto the stage in surprising ways -- with
startling and often moving results.
Perhaps her breakthrough came in
2003 with "Vis-à-vis," in
which her band of actor-dancers opened suitcases to find a knife,
a cross-bow and finally a gun, while Johnny Cash's "The
Beast in Me" played. Soon after, Intersection for the Arts
asked Shuch to join its multidisciplinary Hybrid Project. Her
next full-evening show, "All You Need," used a gruesome
case of cannibalism as a metaphor for desire and drew such enthusiastic
crowds that Intersection extended the run. Shuch's newest, "One
Window," will run four weeks, an extraordinary luxury for
a dance production.
Not that Shuch's work could easily
be classified as dance. "For
me, dance is always underlined by a story or theatrical impulse," she
says. "It's 'performance.' That's the word I'm trying to
use. The pressure comes when people say, 'Is it dance or is it
theater?' It all starts blending together toward the common purpose
of what the work wants to be."
One Window" uses movement, but also singing, acting, a beatboxer
and an assortment of power tools. The set design, by Sean Riley,
has the performers building their confines during the course
of the show. But as with most Shuch works, "One Window" began
with an unlikely image.
I kept thinking about that trash compactor in 'Star Wars,' " she
says. "The walls are getting closer and closer -- how do
you react? You panic in the face of this doom, but there's also
a moment of peace in the middle of the chaos. I'd like to believe
that we're able to arrive at a moment of peace before the end
Shuch's mental associations proliferated
quickly. She thought about the unfathomable number of people
in the world and about
an article she'd read describing bodies buried inside the Great
Wall of China. If the themes sound strikingly macabre, Shuch
has never been one to shy from the thought of mortality. "For
me looking at death doesn't seem like an infatuation with darkness," she
says. "It's just as much about being infatuated with life
and love and living."
Shuch, 30, has always lived with
an awareness of emotionally intense situations. She grew up in
San Jose, the daughter of
an American serviceman and a Korean mother who did not talk
about the traumas she'd suffered in war. At 17, Shuch dropped
high school because she was feeling restless. She hitchhiked
and camped on a Navajo reservation, and finally landed at UC
Santa Cruz. There she attended a workshop led by the renowned
San Francisco dance collective Contraband. And she saw that
she could put the images in her head out into the world.
She made a piece with dancers wearing
shredded prom dresses and banging garbage cans. A drama major
named Sean Riley saw it and
asked to meet with her, and they've been boyfriend and girlfriend
-- and collaborators -- ever since.
Riley's set design for last year's "All You Need" rendered
Intersection's tight space unrecognizable. Props lowered from
the rafters on a mind-boggling set of pulleys. The live band
sat on a tiny platform, high above the action. This year, Shuch
says, the set design goes even further. The folks at Intersection
are thrilled, and not just about the architecture.
I watched every single ESP Project show last year," says
Sean San Jose, a member of Intersection's resident theater company,
Campo Santo, "because you can't turn away from it. It's
Joe Goode, San Francisco's reigning
maven of dance theater, couldn't turn away either. He called
Shuch and asked her to partner with
him for the new CHIME -- Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange
-- program. He wanted someone to learn from, not just teach.
She's working with elements the way she wants, rather than some
prescribed way that dances are put together," he says. "That
courage can't be taught. And the space itself is almost a player
in the piece, and that's fascinating. This presents problems
in terms of touring and becoming widely known, and I want that
to happen for her. But I think there are presenters out there
who could understand the work and pull it off."
The word Goode returns to is "intimacy," as in "I
love that she insists on an intimacy with her audience." It's
a quality that seems to seep through Shuch's pores with every
hug she freely offers. At the end of rehearsal, she runs a section
of the show -- Vong Phrommala and Melanie Elms whirling wider
and wider as the lyrics, with characteristic Shuch irony, talk
instead of a space that is "too small." The dancing
over, she gathers the cast into a circle, holding hands. The
company does this after every rehearsal, sharing their thoughts
in a feel-good ritual.
I feel like Evette is a magician," a dancer says, referring
to one of the show's composers.
I feel like we're all magicians," another dancer says.
It's a magic factory," Shuch says with a giddy wink, and
the hug-fest begins.
Source | About