She's a rebel

With 51802, choreographer Erika Shuch looks in from the outside at the impact of the California prison system
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kimberly@sfbg.com

"See the way he walks down the street / Watch the way he shuffles his feet / My, he holds his head up high / When he goes walking by / He's my kind of guy-ai-ai-ai." The agony and the ecstasy of the Crystals echo through the humid second-floor rehearsal space at Intersection for the Arts, bouncing off the pine floors, streaming out the open window, and pinging off the scaffolding propped on Valencia, above the construction bustle and everyday hustle of the Mission District. The Gene Pitney song originally soared, with so much heart-pinching, giggle- and tear-inducing bittersweetness, from the diamond pipes of Darlene Love, at the time the chosen femme surrogate of Wall of Sound architect Phil Spector. But today that sugar-high, lonesome-in-the-crowd sound is emanating from choreographer Erika Shuch, our Fall Arts Preview cover star, who's leading her dance company through an a cappella rendition to close out the afternoon's rehearsal. As Tommy Shepherd holds up one wall of the studio, beatboxing out the rhythm, the rest of the Erika Shuch Performance Project — Dwayne Calizo, Jennifer Chien, and Danny Wolohan — fall in line, their righteous harmonies echoing through the space like those of a juvy hall teen-angst gospel choir.

"When he holds my hand I'm so proud / 'Cause he's not just one of the crowd / My baby, oh, he's the one / To try the things they've never done / Just because of what they say ..."

And then they drop into a shambling routine echoing those executed by the sharp-dressed singers on The T.A.M.I. Show or Ready Steady Go! Intersection staffers enter and immediately exit their impromptu stage, sidling through a nearby door like silent visitors from a forgotten slapstick who lost the joke but can't quite cease their loop through the space. But nothing breaks the group's concentration as Shepherd strolls over to the rest of the ESP and Shuch continues to wail, "He's a rebel, and he'll never be any good / He's a rebel, and he'll never ever be understood ..." The entire company breaks into an improvised dance, grinning and whirling off into gentle mashed potatoes or frugs of their own.

Comfortingly familiar yet terribly resonant enough to bring tears to one's eyes, "He's a Rebel" isn't the obvious song choice for 51802, a dance theater meditation on the impact of incarceration on those left behind on the outside. Somehow, in Shuch's poetic framework, it slides in among the original blues-imbued songs perfectly, like leather clinging to flesh.

"I'm just ... way into kitsch!" Shuch says with a girlish laugh after the rehearsal. Pale streaks shoot through her dark pigtails, and freckles race across her cheeks. "This piece has such a potential to be dark and self-important, and I feel like if I have a really hard day, I really like to listen to loud pop music in my car and, like, sing it dramatically. So I think it's a very natural, very real way of dealing with difficult situations, to sing these cheesy pop songs. That's a very real kind of relief that people seek and find."

With "He's a Rebel" and another song from 51802, Little Anthony and the Imperials' "I'm on the Outside (Looking In)," "you just have permission to be dramatic. You just have such permission to be such drama queens!" Shuch exclaims. "And I just love that. I don't want it to be like ..." Suddenly she breaks into a deathly dull, pretentious robot voice, " 'Oh, subtly expressing my feelings abstractly ...' I just want it to be so dramatic and so devastating and so the end-of-the-world kind of feeling."

It might have seemed like the end of the world when Shuch watched a loved one enter the California prison system three and a half years ago, the same year she won a Goldie for dance from the Guardian.

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