A fantastically bejeweled bunraku/human/insect creature that makes Gregor Samsa’s cockroach seem as drab as plain-wrap groceries slithers on stage, like a visitor from an exotic lagoon. The phantom begins a slow dance of transfiguration, shedding a gilded chrysalis and donning another skin, gliding through a ritual cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
Inside this elaborate costume, bringing it to life and eventually emerging all but naked from its shell, is waifish San Francisco-based choreographer and sculptor Sha Sha Higby. She’ll present her latest costume-sculpture performance, “Tin Duck in a Box of Wind,” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) today through Saturday.
After six years in Indonesia and Japan studying puppetry, Noh and myriad other indigenous arts and crafts, Higby is back in the United States, where she spends up to a year fashioning each of her intricate costumes before presenting them via meditatively slow dance-performances.
But while studying abroad shaped the style of Higby’s work, her fascination with themes of death and rebirth predates her raveling.
“Death and rebirth have been the sensations that reappear, because my work takes so long to evolve, but (those ideas) were there before I ever left and went to the East.”
However, time abroad did alter Higby’s perspective on death and the way people cope with it.
“In the East, they have a lot of death that comes all the time and they take it very matter-of-factly,” Higby recalls admiringly. “I don’t really encounter that very often here. Death isn’t integrated into normal life in the same way.”
Higby says the difference is especially noticeable in day-to-day routines. Mourning, for example, is done collectively in Indonesia and it’s not as solemn an occasion as it tends to be in Western culture.
“The whole community will come when someone dies,” Higby explains. “They’ll wash the body and there might be laughing while they are washing it. They seem to be happy, and although some of them are sad, it is still a celebration.”
That, of course, is just one aspect of what Higby interprets as a stronger sense of community.
“All the neighbors are attached to each other and everybody hears about everything. They live and die together, as a group.”
It’s a village life, she explains, that’s inextricably tied to its sensual environment.
“The atmosphere is different,” she says, indulging in the rich memories that still feed her work. “Smells are more prevalent and the air seems to be impregnated.”
The crux of the experience, she says, is a different feeling about the relation of your body to the environment.
“In a very hot place like Indonesia, you’re very aware of those smells in the environment and what’s going on outside of your body,” she explains.
“The atmosphere seems to float off like smoke when you step from one place to another, with the heat of your body left behind,” she continues. “If I was to illustrate that aura, it would be by the costume left behind (during “Tin Duck”), giving design and form to my own heat.”
This connection between the body and the intangible parallels Higby’s concern with the life-death cycle. But she also argues that it applies, by extension, to the relationship of audience and performer.
“Intuitively, I feel that death and life connect, and if I’m really into my work, I can feel the sensitivity (on the part of the audience) to the cycles of rebirth.”
This sensitivity and her inner process makes the performance, both physically and emotionally, a cycle of rebirth, as Higby steps out of one costume, into another, and then in turn sheds that one.
“It feels like a prayer in the beginning,” she says of her performance state of mind. “Then there’s quiet energy, gradually increasing in intensity.”
That intensity can take any number of shapes, and she never knows which it will be.
“The energy can turn into humor, and then the playfulness might turn into intimacy. It recedes and withdraws in a spiral--you lose or gain control--then it collapses, the costume comes off and this rebirthing happens.”