If you ever wondered if mentoring in the arts works, Erika Shuch's performance of her latest work "one window" at Intersection's tiny theater last Friday answers with a resounding "yes." While Shuch still doesn't know quite when to wrap up or what makes a completely satisfying arc to a 90 minute work, and though she still lets her subject get away from her like some slippery amphibian, the choreographer spawned an evening of dance theater full of wit and forlorn beauty.
The 30-year-old who recently finished a mentoring partnership with Joe Goode as part of CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange), is a native of San Jose and former theater student at UC Santa Cruz. Her father is an avid UFO follower and her Korean-born mother until recently ran a liquor store in a poor section of the East Bay. Shuch, who resembles Pippy Longstocking with a Manga twist, stands out for her dark, offbeat sensibilities. In fact, her work swirls with the gothic undercurrents of life in California, where the apparent glory of the landscape and the state's siren song of freedom are belied by bizarre cults, inexplicable shark attacks, landslides and deadly earthquakes, not to mention the harshness of life on the poor side of town. This is dance theater that happily trucks in hunger and emptiness, beauty and destruction, knowing and the vast unknown.
At times, Shuch's productions can seem naïve, and the naivete can rattle dangerously close to the sophomoric, as it did in "All You Need," a look at cannibalism and love. While that foray was made literal with blood and saws, this production hinges on the far more supple image of a window. Shuch takes a window's complexity—for starters, is it an opening to something or a void?—as a point of departure for ruminations that most of the time remain aptly paradoxical. As a result, the artist succeeds in retaining a grip on the ambiguity at the heart of human experience while holding on to an open-hearted innocence that captivates us. Whatever she and Goode did together—and from the look of things, the partnership has helped Shuch better structure her work and deepen the links between text, sound, set and movement—it has been a boon.
On the last Friday of the four week run, I was the first member of the audience in the aquarium sized space and got to take in Sean Riley's set design naked and unlit. Riley, who is one of the most gifted designers to come on the scene in many years, built a set of three walls glazed in plastic comprising many Mondrian-like rectangles, all adding up to an array of "windows" within walls. Once illuminated, these perimeters with their milky barriers of polyurethane, offered a sense of a different dimension or world beyond. Late in the work, the performers built another of these walls, rectangle by rectangle, unglazed, with Danny Wolohan assembling the pieces on the floor with a drill and the help of his superb team (Melanie Elms, Jennifer Chien, Tommy Shepherd, and Vong Phrommala) and then erecting the barrier in front of the audience. It tersely and humorously underscored the dual relationship that windows carried all night long-that of obstacle and portal, demarcation of outside and in.
Wolohan, a beefy, open-faced actor with Campo Santos, launched the existential drama with the kind of poetics of the banal that the Joe Goode Performance Group has made famous. Rather than the biting irony that colors Goode's dance theater, though, Shuch drew from Wolohan an inviting, slightly desperate earnestness. "I'm making something," Wolohan intoned like a manic eagle scout as he arrayed small objects like a stapler and a tiny radio, tape in a rectangle, then rattled off the number of people on the planet (6,514,675,721). That act of creation-from making a perimeter of things, naming, or shaping the body—became the solid bedrock that held the production and the experience in a tight embrace, even in its vaguer moments.
The one window of the title refers to the both Buddhist and loopy hope that there is a tiny portal in the tiniest portion of a molecule through which we can go to become one with the universe. In other words, by going as far inward as is conceivable, Wolohan assured us one could connect with the 6 + billion people of the world. Maybe. But the banal constriction that is at the heart of being human pushes us in the opposite direction as well. That tug of war is what impelled Wolohan to make a construct things—squares, words, walls—providing self-definition and freedom through the creative act in the concrete world.
Among the night's highlights were the array of duets and solos, especially between Wolohan and the beautifully expressive, lithe Melanie Elms, who repeatedly shared and shattered his square of isolation and unity, light and dark and he hers. Chien haunted the space, appearing and disappearing with spectral quiet, or blankly tuning a radio. Phrommala softly impelled himself into the space then retreated. The group formed a chorus to chant small melodies, to become witnesses, or shadows. Tommy Shepherd was the beat boxer, accordionist and violinist. III is credited with video, which beautifully heightened the air of accretion that made the night so affecting. Yvette Jackson was responsible for the great sound.
Intersection for the Arts has done the dance community a wonderful service in allowing residencies and extended runs to artists like Shuch, and Margaret Jenkins, who launched CHIME, should be warmly thanked for getting artists of different generations together to share their valuable lore.