REVIEW: Choose Something Like A Star

'Closing In' on good ideas

Rachel Howard\ | SF Examiner | April 2005

Venue 9's latest "Women on the Way" installment is titled "Closing In," but what it really does is creep you out. Monique Jenkinson, Shona Curley and Erika Shuch are the evening's three emerging choreographers, and what they share, aside from relative inexperience, blind ambition and a commitment to the broad genre known as dance theater, is a spooky fascination with death.

For both Jenkinson and Curley, this morbidness can look like something straight out of "Tales From the Crypt." It's a peculiar aesthetic to share, and we can only hope it's not catching on among other impressionable young choreographers.

Curley's overlong "Tale of the Six Red Stones" involves three witch-like women, among them the always-riveting Angelina Vasile, casting diabolical spells with painted rocks. After that, Jenkinson flogs herself about on the floor like a raised-from-the-dead swamp woman in her solo "Sometimes I Take a Great Notion." Both pieces rely on spare, almost occultish soundtracks and economy-sized jars of green body paint.

Good aim

But none of that Halloween dress-up is nearly as spine-tingling as the pivotal moment in Erika Shuch's "Choose Something Like a Star." Jessica Fudim holds a dartboard against her chest; Jesse Howell pulls out the darts and -- as the audience shields its eyes in fear -- starts shooting. He's a good shot, of course, and doesn't miss. But then he steps back and takes aim again, and steps back further still. Your body shivers every time he raises a dart and squints, a reckless gleam in his eye.

This is simply great theater. It wouldn't necessarily be so if Shuch hadn't carefully built up to this instant of physical risk and this metaphor for the arbitrariness of death. Her characters are armchair metaphysicians, portrayed by an eminently intelligent cast that includes the ingÈnue Fudim, the tender-yet-hunky Howell, pixish Kira Smith and surly, earthy Rowena Richie.

Their contemplations are college sophomore-level; some business about looking inside your skin to find your soul. But Shuch is aware of the naivete and uses it; her characters are vulnerable and earnest but not pretentious, and their simple, dread-filled inquiries are ones we all sloppily ponder, even if we learn to hide it.

Shuch appears to have learned a lot from good experimental films.

"Star" begins with evocative snippets that flash by, like a movie quickly cutting between scenes, then flow into a longer audience-participation segment that ought to be experienced and not given away in print. But there's plenty of inventive dancing to flesh out the careful structure, and it always has a theatrical, narrative impulse. The performers are always daring one another; Fudim slams Howell against the wall then climbs aboard him there. Earlier in the piece they balance against each other, standing on opposite arms of a couch, and then collapse in a heap.

A “Star” is born

You can tell "Star" is a work-in-progress only because it has so much promise to be fulfilled. It will be reprised next month at ODC Theater and premiered in October at The Store, in the Mission. Already it shows more thoughtfulness than many young choreographers' completed pieces, and its evolution is worth witnessing.

Jenkinson, who practically monopolizes the show with three pieces, is strong on ideas and weak on movement invention. "Mimicry and Flaunting," her often hilarious send-up of Maria Callas — and what Jenkinson, judging from the scholarly program note, would probably call "the social construct of diva-hood" — will be replaced during next week's run with the premiere of the loquaciously titled "It's Going to be a Fine Night Tonight, It's Going to be a Fine Day Tomorrow." But "Mimicry" shares the same limitation of "Needles and Seams," a collaboration with Kevin Clarke (the two call their duo "Hagen and Simone") that opens the show.

That piece draws on Jenkinson's well-known obsession with all things sartorial as she and Clarke squirm in and out of shirts sewn together in various re-imaginings: two shirts stitched as a harness, one shirt with many others attached across the armspan, like wings.

Jenkinson wields scissors and at one point cuts off Clarke's underwear. The best episode comes when they huddle around candles and square-off in a scissor-shadow-puppet duel. But the connection to the movement is limited to an overly clever, overly repeated running motif of arms and legs criss-crossing like scissors.

Granted, the stage space is cramped. But even the in-place movement feels static. Jenkinson's work has a delightful intellectual spark and flashes of great wit. Surely if she goes back into the studio and spends as much time investigating movement phrases as she appears to have spent investigating her ideas in the abstract, her work will reach a new level.

Performance Reviews

Choose Something Like a Star
Copyright ©2011 Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project. All rights reserved.