Love ONSITE: Finding Love Everywhere in San Francisco

Anyone lucky enough to be at San Francisco’s City Hall on February 12, 2004, witnessed something extraordinary: The legal marriages of same-sex couples as well as heterosexual ones—along with the jubilation that filled the rotunda, poured out the hall doors and flowed into Civic Center Plaza. Love was everywhere on that day and during the month of marriage equality that followed.

The six years since have brought heart-wrenching annulments, cultural polarization, and Prop. 8. But love returned to San Francisco on February 12, 2010, with Erika Chong Shuch Performance Project’s Love Everywhere, three days of site-specific performances meant to raise awareness of the fight for marriage equality, sponsored by the Dancers’ Group ONSITE Program.

Ground Zero

Fittingly, Shuch and her dancers kicked off the weekend in City Hall. An international crowd of nearly 1,000 gathered around the rotunda floor as real-life newlyweds came and went, happy but perplexed, and Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Jennifer Chien led three pairs of dancers onto the grand staircase. Representing lesbian, gay and straight couples, the dancers interwove pas de deux that evoked the arc of courtship with touching sincerity.

Courtship led to a wedding ceremony, during which dancers on the second-floor balconies recited vows contributed by members of the public. Hearing the vows in that space, and wondering whether the couples who originally spoke them had been separated by the law, it was poignantly clear what’s at stake for same-sex couples. (Can someone explain once again—convincingly this time—why we shouldn’t have marriage equality?)

A jubilant reception brought down the house. Bekka Fink and Cynthia Taylor’s spirited duet, with lyrics borrowed from more donated wedding vows, segued into a hora, a bouquet toss and, of course, a conga line. From the opening processional to the group garter-toss finale, Daveen DiGiacomo’s score, played by a 13-piece orchestra under the direction of David Möschler, recalled the warmth and charm of Nino Rota.

Shuch included first-timers as well as professional dancers in her 43-person supporting cast, taking a gamble that paid off in a performance abundant with emotion. “I wanted to make a piece that was all about love and joy, to authentically generate that feeling for both the performers and the audience,” Shuch said. “All the performers, regardless of their training, showed up knowing how to put their heart into something they believed in. They were very generous with their feelings.”

And how did she deliver such a well-defined message in a space so enormous and irregular? “City Hall itself was like a character that we created a duet with. I love characters that are conflicted and confused—and City Hall is definitely conflicted and confused!”

Taking It to the Streets

On Saturday morning, Shuch, her core dancers and a dozen volunteers reconvened for a day of guerilla love on the streets of San Francisco.

Dressed in their street clothes, wearing nothing to identify themselves as ambassadors of Love Everywhere, the group divided up and walked down opposite sides of Market Street. When the traffic lights turned green, they ran to each other in the crosswalks, where they hugged, kissed, bewildered bus drivers, frustrated a few right-turners and inspired smiles from jaded traffic cops.

Moving down the street, they staged a seven-minute smooch session at the Powell Street cable-car turnaround. They got strangers to pose for “prom” photos in front of a homemade “Love Everywhere” backdrop. They delighted lovers in Union Square by serenading them with Frank Sinatra ballads. Singing to the couples turned out to be Shuch’s favorite part of the whole weekend: “They were instantly happy,” she said. “It felt really good to have that immediate impact on people.”

At San Francisco Centre mall, the group turned the circular escalators into a Make-Out People Mover as they rode up, one couple after another, in romantic embraces. And on the Emporium’s top floor, they slow-danced under the dome, garnering both kudos and catcalls. “One man said that our male couple was going to burn in hell,” Shuch recalled. “As theater artists, we’re always aiming to do something unexpected, but on the street, we really are providing an unexpected experience; people won’t always respond the way we hope they will.”

But the day of flash-mob performance was as liberating for the artists as it was challenging for some of the unwitting audience. To Shuch’s surprise, even her own boundaries were stretched. “We’re used to approaching our work from a critical standpoint. But this wasn’t about whether it was ‘good enough.’ It made me question what I value about traditional theater.”

Amen, Friends

Reverend Cecil Williams, the leader of Glide Memorial Methodist Church, lives and works at the forefront of the social-justice movement. A voice for marriage equality throughout his career, he’s been performing same-sex weddings (whether legally binding or not) for 46 years. So Glide was a natural venue for the final chapter of Love Everywhere, which was incorporated into both the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday services on Valentine’s Day.

Allotted 10 minutes to perform, Möschler abbreviated the score while Shuch and her dancers edited the show down to its core message. “We went from a huge space to a little space,” she said, but the logistics of the transition was the simple part—they would simply perform the sections that fit on the Glide stage. The bigger challenge would be drawing viewers into dance’s emotional peaks and valleys without showing them the entire piece.

Love Everywhere got a helpful segue from an added performer: Janice Mirikitani, Rev. Williams’s wife and San Francisco’s poet laureate. Reciting a poem she wrote especially for the day, Mirikitani led the congregation into the story, positioning them at just the right emotional jumping-off point.

The audience took it from there. Filling the pews to beyond capacity, with over 750 at the early service and over 800 at the later one, the children and parents, teens and seniors, locals and tourists of every color and orientation cheered Stuart and Chien’s show-opening kiss, and by the time the performers left the stage to dance in the aisles, the audience was on its feet, ready to join in—no wallflowers in that bunch.

Glide was bursting at the seams with love. With acceptance. With a joyous sense that, at least for this day, at least in this place, we are free to be who we are and love who we love.

“A lot of people are fighting for marriage equality through protests, and with anger,” Shuch explained. “This is my way of expressing my feelings about this issue.” If only the opponents of marriage equality could see that love really is everywhere, and it’s a very good thing.

PUBLISHED April 1, 2010

POSTED IN In Dance

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