Photo by Hector Zavala
[ID: A diverse cast of seven college student performers wearing white jumpsuits crouch or stand on a lavender-lit stage with a torn paper backdrop. They examine large scraps of white paper, torn from the backdrop. Smaller torn up bits of paper are sprinkled on stage.]
Erika Chong Shuch interviewed by Rowena Richie
I’ve collaborated with choreographer and director Erika Chong Shuch on and off since 2001. Erika, Ryan Tacata and I have a social practice and performance group called For You. Through ‘deep hanging out’ we’ve gotten to know specific people, and then enrolled them as audience-participants in tailored performative responses. Whether performing in Erika’s choreographic work, or collaborating alongside her with For You, I feel challenged and inspired to channel my wildness. I call it “taking a strangeness pill.”
I recently revisited an In Dance SPEAK piece that Erika wrote in 2008. I discovered that her version of a “strangeness pill” is “funny little monsters.” I invited Erika to reflect on how her creative process and funny little monsters have changed since then. Here are a couple excerpts from her SPEAK essay:
When I was a kid, I had a dollhouse. I didn’t want dolls because I knew that there were REAL little people (that happened to be invisible), and that dolls would scare them away. I put food out for the little people on mini dollhouse plates. Every morning, I noticed that the mounds of food were smaller. This was for certain. [These days,] I need to start leaving food out for my little people; to feed the dark night where my funny little monsters can live without the pressure of defending their existence.
Frida Kahlo said in an interview once: ‘They thought I was a surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.’ What would it be like (and I’m not saying Kahlo’s life was like this) to have no filtration system between the things we imagine, and the work we create?
Rowena: I recently reread your SPEAK piece from 15 years ago and it read as so current. Can you summarize what you were trying to say?
Erika: Yeah, I can summarize what I was trying to say because I still feel the same way! I was trying to say I get scared that I can talk a talk but not walk a walk. Because so much of our livelihood as freelance artists is connected to how we talk or write about our work, there is the potential that words twist the raw intent of our work into something else. I feel the potential for that disconnect.
Rowena: Where does that fear originate?
Erika: We all develop our own rubrics for how to measure our successes and failures. My internal compass brings me back to questions of authenticity: does this creative choice, or grant, or article feel aligned with who I am, what I care about, what I’m thinking about? I try to consider grant writing, outreach and marketing as an extension of the creative process — it’s all part of building broader communities and conversations around the art. I have strong alarms that go off when I say something that feels off, and then I’m like, “Oh, fuck, that thing that I said actually doesn’t quite feel true.”
Rowena: Is there pressure to say something that doesn’t feel authentic to you?
Erika: I wonder if over the decades we’re just being asked different questions? These days we’re being asked, “How is the work relevant? How is it contributing towards the betterment of society?” I’m trying to remember if 15 years ago those questions were up as hard as they are now. I try not to get bitter about needing to “justify” why art is relevant. I try not to get sarcastic about being asked hard questions. I try to say, “How awesome is it that as the world changes, the needs change, and as the needs change, the art changes and so the questions change.” I guess the question is: as the questions change, does the work change to accommodate them?
Rowena: When I first met you you said performance making helped you process your own experiences with love, death and grief. Which feels like it dovetails with what you wrote about Frida Kahlo ‘painting her own reality.’ Fifteen years later, you started For You — originally a series of projects, and now our collective — that creates work in response to other people’s experiences. Why the flip?
Erika: I think that our work through For You still functions to process my own experiences with love and grief. But the things that I grieve have changed. My longings have changed. Even though this whole body of work that For You has been making is created in response to other people’s lives, it still feels like it’s driven by my own need—my need to connect, my need to fold into the life of a stranger, my need get weird with you and Ryan by making weird art. Because For You’s work is so intimate and personal, it’s been amazing to understand more immediately how our work moves and touches and inspires.
Rowena: Have your “funny little monsters” changed over the years?
Erika: I was awake in the middle of the night thinking that now my funny little monsters are in the form of a backache. A stiff elbow. Various ailments. I guess my funny little monsters have gotten more aggressive because I really like to sleep. But when I get a flash in the middle of the night, I grab my little pen beside my bed because things just come in. Strong hits of an image, or an idea, a song, a structure. I try not to get frustrated that they’re coming at me in the middle of the night. I try to say, “How cool is it that there’s something that I care so much about that it’s gonna keep me up. How cool that my subconscious is starting to fire and work out all of those problems that can’t be worked out through the logical mind during the day!” I try to meet the funny little monsters with open arms.
Rowena: What are your favorite kinds of spaces to create in?
Erika: I find myself grateful that there are a lot of opportunities in rehearsal rooms these days for a more transparent, less hierarchical process. There are so many structures in place to create a sense of safety and harmony. It makes me reflect on how I am holding space for performers now versus how I held space for performers 20 years ago.
Rowena: Are there elements you want to preserve from those earlier times?
Erika: I’m thinking about me and my friend, Evie. When we went to college together everybody around us was doing contact improv. But we decided that we wanted to do this thing called impact improv. Stand on opposite ends of the dance studio at UC Santa Cruz, and just run towards each other as fast as we could and crash into each other. Just see what happened. And, we got hurt. But that felt safe for us. We felt that we had the kind of relationship that could support that. And I think those are my favorite kinds of processes, where you’re like, “I feel safe enough to be unsafe.” And what do I mean by unsafe? I mean to just risk doing the wrong thing or being an asshole. And I think that’s why I love working in this collective with you and Ryan. We can say the wrong thing and move on. When people talk about safe spaces these days, I wonder, for what purpose? I would like to think that we create a safe space so we can be a little bit dangerous together.
Rowena: Has something been lost in creative spaces and processes?
Erika: It would be easy for me to make a claim that it used to be better when we didn’t have to talk so much about our feelings, or do so much checking in! I don’t always love being super process-y in that way. Sometimes I miss being in top-down, pugnacious processes! I appreciate the energy and heat in these heightened creative pressure cookers. I worked for a choreographer in Berlin who was so opinionated, so rigorous, so mean, so chain-smoking. It was fucking hard submitting to somebody else’s impulse that I didn’t always understand. But I believed in their vision. I’m happy to be dommed by somebody who I trust in that way. And so I think it’s really easy to say, “Things were better when….” But I don’t think it’s that simple.
Rowena: Can you say more about the complexity?
Erika: I think when we were younger, there was a sense that the older people were the masters. That’s really being challenged. When I work with younger people right now I try to put myself in the mindset of ‘younger person as master.’ I try to understand the specific wisdom and insight and rawness…When I reread that SPEAK article, I was like, “Oh, my writing was just so raw.” As a younger artist there was a rawness to my work and it was more impulsive. I’m just now getting to the point where I can appreciate that younger self of mine, as opposed to judging her. I can appreciate that rawness. I hope that within these rehearsal spaces and creative spaces, where there is so much communication and care, that there is also room for the impulsive and the raw. Yeah, room to be careful and communicative, but also messy and raw and dangerous.