Speak: Sisters

By Megan and Shannon Kurashige


All Roads Are Lined With Teeth is a new evening-length show choreographed and directed by sisters Megan and Shannon Kurashige for their San Francisco-based company Sharp & Fine. Created in collaboration with London-based playwright Amber Hsu and Oakland-based composer Aram Shelton, and featuring five dancers and four musicians, All Roads Are Lined With Teeth is part dance and part play, a surreal story about a woman who flees a crumbling world for a journey on which she encounters memories transformed into teeth, slow motion long distance runners, and houses built from benches.

Megan on: Why We Work Together (and with others)

Some people seem baffled by the idea of sisters choosing to work together. They ask about sibling rivalries, about comparisons and confusions, about what it’s like to have known your collaborator for almost all your life (subtract 4.5 years for me), or all your life (for Shannon), and be so intimately familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses that we might as well shine floodlights upon them—few shadows, no mystery, so naked.

This is what we tell people: No, we did not pull each other’s hair as kids. Yes, we’ve almost always liked each other (at four, I was perturbed when the mystery I dubbed “Mittens” arrived as the reality of “Shannon”). I am shorter, but older. Shan is taller, but younger. Yes, we occasionally have a terrifying, raging, screaming fight. Of course we do. We are not the same point of view, doubled, and the places where we do not align are delicious frictions that spark ideas neither of us would have alone, anchored though they are in a vast expanse of common ground.

Sharp & Fine rehearsal, photo by Megan Kurashige
Sharp & Fine rehearsal, photo by Megan Kurashige

We like collaborating. It’s addictive and we’re greedy for it. Luckily, we find people willing to jump in with us, artists with rich imaginations and talent who make each project its own world, a place not necessarily serene, but trusted. That seems to be the trick, whether the world is just two sisters or expanded to a strange band of dancers, musicians, and writers. Being able to trust—to make ourselves vulnerable to silliness, foibles, surprises, tears—turns a collaboration into a conversation of overlapping, but different points of view. Our collaborators often surprise us or change our minds. They know things that we don’t. And that excites us.

We are both very enthusiastic about magic tricks. Stage magic, gracefully expert sleight of hand. We don’t like to know how the trick is done. The gap of not knowing does funny things to our imaginations. Collaborating feels a bit like this. We each have predilections and areas of expertise (whatever we’ve learned from our ballet training and similar, but different, dancing careers), and working with people who know things that we don’t, who might seem to be from a slightly alien world (we are convinced that musicians are sometimes aliens), bends our reality. It lets us step outside our habits and be surprised. It gives us the chance to see the things we know from a different direction entirely.

For our new project, we’re collaborating with playwright Amber Hsu and composer Aram Shelton. We thought it would be interesting to make a piece for which all the elements grow out of each other and turn into a story together, to mimic (to the best of our untrained understanding) what we imagine happens in the making of devised theater.

It has been nothing like what we expected. We say this about all our projects, but here we are, saying it again. I think that’s a good thing.

Shannon on: making All Roads Are Lined With Teeth, or, case #6 in being continually surprised.

Sometimes, logistics are hard. It’s okay to take the lead.
Over several telephone conversations with Amber (who lives in London), we decided that she would write the emotional structure or “narrative” of the dance and influence the movement by writing stage directions into the script. We workshopped ideas with the dancers. How can we turn a storm into partnering? Can it be beautiful? Can you make a phrase about breaking bones? We sent videos to Amber. She sent us drafts of dialogue and vignettes.

Just as we began work in September, Amber was asked to write a short for the BBC (if you’re curious, you can view Match Girl online via the BBC’s The Break through April) and was occupied with rewrites and filming. While we waited for the script, Megan and I luxuriated in a long workshopping period with our dancers and started getting nervous. By December, snippets of movement became chunks, duets and solos started to gel, and we found ourselves itching to put things together.

Amber was still swamped.

In January, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer. We pulled fragments of text from the drafts that Amber had sent and put them into a synopsis, matching each scene with movement that seemed to fit, and sent it to Amber. We worried about stepping on her literary toes, but she liked it. The scaffolding we devised in the synopsis gave her concrete ideas and themes to work with.

As I’m writing, it’s February and we’re still finding out what the words are and how they work with the choreography, but our conversation is moving forward. What was initially a logistical headache reminded us that conversations are best when you listen hard, but also have the confidence to start following a path when you think you see one.

Sharp & Fine, photo by Megan Kurashige
Sharp & Fine, photo by Megan Kurashige

Sometimes your collaborator wants to talk about refugees.
On one of our calls, Amber mentioned that she was planning a volunteering trip to the Calais Jungle (the nickname given to the migrant camp close to Calais, France) and that some of the stories of the refugees might be good for the piece. We balked. The refugee crisis is an issue with a capital “I” and one we didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about to discuss through dance. Amber is often political with her art. We are not. However, Amber is very good at telling stories with a lot of space. She lets the audience feel something rather than telling them. This was where we could meet. Instead of talking about geopolitics or pointing fingers, we tell the story of a person who, by circumstance, loses everything. Loss, fear, and violence are key to Amber’s idea and themes that Megan, the dancers, Aram, and I all have traction and experience with. The broad issue asks us to dig into uncomfortable places and, as a result, the work is turning out to be darker, more surreal, and more beautifully human than we expected.

Sometimes it is easy, and then you should enjoy the ride.
Aram is writing a “graphic score” for himself and three other musicians based on his sketched out maps of the dancers moving through space. It will carry the musicians through both set motifs and improvisation. Aram has been remarkably easy to work with. He watches. He asks questions. He makes musical sketches. We listen. We ask questions. He tells us that there will be two bass clarinets. We get excited. We generally see eye to eye. These musicians are expert artists and masterful improvisers. We trust their expertise and look forward to having them challenge the work we’ve done. Aram is rehearsing with the musicians separately and they won’t join us in the studio until later in March. Once everyone is in the room together, perspectives may shift and there might be a late storm of colliding ideas. The prospect of this makes us both nervous and excited. There’s the possibility of panic and misunderstanding, but also the likelihood that the piece will transform in ways that surprise and delight everyone involved.

Megan & Shannon Kurashige are sisters, dancers, and choreographers. We co-founded Sharp & Fine in 2011 to create narrative performance work that brings together physically exuberant choreography, emotionally nuanced text, live music, and multi-disciplinary collaboration. Our work is informed by the technical rigor of classical ballet, the human intensity of contemporary forms, and the conviction that telling a story built on personal truths is a powerful and communal act of communication and empathy. Collectively, we have worked with Liss Fain Dance, Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Alex Ketley, Christian Burns, Amy Seiwert, Ballet Pacifica, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. We studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, North Carolina School of the Arts, Academy of Ballet, and UC Irvine. Megan is also a writer. Shannon is also a graphic designer.