The Performant: The mourning after

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Explorations in the language of the living at SFAI and NOHspace

Long before I moved to San Francisco, there were already certain things I’d learned to associate as being quintessentially San Franciscan via some kind of cross-cultural osmosis: the Castro, the cable-cars, Critical Mass, and George Kuchar.

True, the prolific filmmaker was himself a transplant, but his influence was indelibly stamped on San Francisco’s filmic underground. And unlike some heroes, who live impossibly removed from their admirers, George was accessible to his as a teacher, a neighbor, a legend, and a friend. Six months after his passing, a thoughtfully-curated tribute to his legacy opened at the San Francisco Art Institute — where he  taught absurdly-monikered classes in filmmaking such as “Electro-graphic Sinema” for 40 years. 

Since the hallmark of a successful memorial is to celebrate in the company of the living, a string of heartfelt eulogies and screenings of clips took place in the SFAI lecture hall, presented by friends and family, elders and youth. United thusly in our pleasant memories of the man, we entered the Walter and McBean Galleries, which had been transformed into a monument to the myth — a gleeful hodgepodge of photographs, set dressing, racks of cheap costume pieces, sketchbooks, choose-your-own screenings of the over 200 films in George’s oeuvre, and playful, personal ephemera.

Down the hall, an interactive studio installation encouraged visitors to get dressed up in a costume and “star” in their own straight-to-video blockbuster. A veritable Rosetta Stone on the language and legacy of Kuchar’s no-budget filmmaking, the exhibit runs through April 21, and is free to the public: adoring fans and the unconverted alike.

Part memorial for the dead, and part fundraiser for the living, the nationwide, one-night only performance series Shinsai found San Francisco stage time at both NOHspace and ACT. Directed by Theatre of Yugen apprentice Nick Ishimaru, the NOHspace edition opened with a trilogy of monologues penned by Suzan-Lori Parks that begged the question “where were you on 3/11”? Similarly themed play-lettes followed, including an introspective monologue on grieving by Phillip Kan Gotanda. Mixing dance, classic noh, and a quixotic bit of performance art (Jose Navarrete’s “Found and Lost”) into the evening put a distinctive stamp on the event. 

What most tied the disparate disciplines together were the expressive nuances of the hands, mimicking in certain ways the purported intricacies of the language of fans, secretive yet overt. In the dances of Las Japonesas Flamencas, each finger held its own position, extending the arch of an elbow or the turn of a wrist, a gestural eloquence. In contrast, the extremities of Nick Ishimaru and Meg Theil in a comical excerpt from kabuki drama Vengeful Sword, remained actively poised yet perfectly still as they each portrayed Manno, a wily Madame. The event ended with Heather Law’s graceful Hula ’Auana, hands fluttering like startled birds and 1960’s Go-Go girls, hearkening to an era of popular dance “moves” like the hand jive with the subtle grace of her more refined art: an expressive, whole-body sign language which spoke of life. 

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