Erin Mei-Ling Stuart

GOLDIES 2008 winner: Focusing on the mess humans manage to create for themselves

When Erin Mei-Ling Stuart packed her bags to leave her hometown of Fresno in 1992, she included her viola — because she had won a scholarship to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Here, however, she played so much that she developed tendinitis and had to take a break. That's when dance kicked in. Big time.

The viola went into the closet, and Stuart started to study modern dance — she had dabbled in ballet as a child — first at City College and then in just about every studio she could find. She turned herself into a liquid, sensuously vulnerable performer who learned to work with anybody who piqued her interest. Some were choreographers who sought direct input from their dancers — Erika Chong Shuch, Jesselito Bie, Stephen Pelton, and Chris Black — while others, like Nancy Karp, Jennie McAllister, and Deborah Slater, created along more traditional, formal lines.

Stuart learned from both approaches and expresses no preference. "There is such freedom when you can make up movement, but also it's wonderful when you can just show up and dance," she explains.

Along the way, Stuart started to choreograph, often creating vignettes with casual looks that belie the attention to detail behind their making. These sketches and miniatures are frequently funny, evoking not a guffaw but a chuckle. They bring to life characters we probably have known or whose experiences we have shared. And Stuart does so without a word — she works purely through movement. Remember your prissy elementary school teacher and the know-it-all class brat? Stuart did in Continuing Education (2006). Have you ever been in an elevator with one other person so different from yourself that you felt creeped out? Stuart has, in Between Floors (2002). Do you walk in a neighborhood of lost souls who nonetheless furtively relate to each other? You'll recognize its inhabitants in Songs for You (2004). And do you live with roommates? She does in her most recent work Keyhole Dances.

Stuart freely confesses that her commitment to create formally cogent dances "rubs up against a desire to examine often overlooked aspects of everyday life," and that she likes to work with "the shared intimacy of daily experience." She knows that she is old-fashioned that way. "I can't help it," she says. "I like to make dances about relationships."

What she sees — on the bus, on the street corner, in the coffee shop — is us, more or less bungling our way through the day-to-day grind. That's where she gets her material. If there is a political component to her work — and I happen to think that there is — it is an implied criticism of the social institutions to which we commit ourselves or by which we let ourselves be trapped.

Stuart does skewer, but does so gently, focusing on the mess humans manage to create for themselves. For her recent excursion into a mess — Sara Shelton Mann's My Hot Lobotomy, which looks at the difficulty of staying sane given our environmental policies — the dancer took her viola out of the closet.

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