San Francisco International Arts Festival Features Performance Artist Sha Sha Higby: ‘Dance In A Sculptural Costume’


by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Sha Sha Higby is an artist whose work is difficult to describe. Is she a puppeteer? A dancer? An actress? A costumer? A fabric artist? A painter? A shaman? Well, she may be all that.

In her official website biography, she tells us, “I approach dance through the medium of sculpture.” Her gallery representative calls her work “ephemeral body structures.” Elsewhere, Sha Sha refers to “costume sculptures.”

Certainly, she is a dancer, but while most dancers stress the human form with little adornment, Higby dances elaborate other worldly costumes of her own creation.  The term “shaman” seems to apply as much as any. Although, when asked if she is a shaman, she responds: “Not directly. People have said I remind them of that, but that’s not my intent.”

Sha Sha Higby will perform “Dance In A Sculptural Costume” as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival in late May, 2018. Photo courtesy of Sha Sha Higby.

Still, a shaman is traditionally defined as a spiritual practitioner who travels to other, spiritual worlds, to bring back insight and healing to the people. To watch Higby in performance seems to produce a healing, meditative effect. It is other worldly, to say the least. So, is she or isn’t she? Like her work, it is not easy to pin her down with any description.

The path she has taken to achieve her unique artistic presentation is unusual. Although she has a more-or-less conventional BA in Arts from Skidmore college, a perusal of her resume makes her sound as exotic as Dr. Strange,  the Marvel Comics hero who is a practitioner of mystical arts and, according to his Wikipedia entry, is earth’s primary protector against magical and mystical threats.

Higby has traveled world wide studying the arts of mask making, dance and theatre:  Noh Theatre and mask making with traditional teachers in Japan,  five years in Indonesia (as the beneficiary of a Fulbright Grant) where she studied dance and shadow puppet making, plus six months in India on an Indo-American fellowship.

Seeing her in performance, anyone might quickly conclude that her cosmopolitan journeys are surely matched with an interior journey of unusual depth and breadth. How else could she achieve her amazing effects?

“The theme,” she tells us, “is that there is something beyond our own world.”

For this article, she kindly submitted to a telephone interview.

Charles: How would you describe your work?

Sha Sha: Well, it’s ephemeral, and it is non-linear. People don’t have to find a story in my performance. It is more like a poem, mirroring back what people see into it. I just pick many visual elements—I love to make these things. I craft the props and costumes, which are sculptures that I craft over a long period of time. The costume sculpture is a tool—each tool has its moment in the light when I perform. The tools come to life. It’s a sort of ritual, where the tools themselves dictate the performance. Instead of being shown in a gallery, they are shown in a performance. They are allowed to perform. It is like when a child takes up a prop and starts making up a story. I start with the visual aspect and develop the story from there.

Charles: Would you tell us something about your influences?

Sha Sha: Japan comes first. NOH theatre! That was 30 or 40 years ago. I was interested in puppetry and sculpture at the time. I was struck very much by the slowness of NOH theatre, and the transformation that happens when they put on the mask. I liked the ritualistic quality of it and the powerful emotions. The tea ceremony also impressed me, for the ritual qualities. Humans in all cultures do similar things, that reflects a need for finding unity and peace.

Charles: Could you describe your daily artistic practice?

Sha Sha: I’ll wake up and do some movement. Then I’ll do some drawing. Then I’ll try to make something.

Charles: I love that, just as it is!

Sha Sha: I can give you some more detail, though. I’ll try to work on some piece of a show—sound or costume. In the afternoon, I take a break, and I go back to it at night. I work whereever I am. I love to work in doorways. They are transformational. And I just feel at peace when I make things. It is for me that I do the work, although I want the audience to feel that peace, too. To experience that environment themselves, to forget their separation from each other. We need art. I need to to feel connected to my life and the people and the world around me. So I have to work every day, all the time.

Charles: What would you say to someone that wants to do what you do?

Sha Sha: You will have to do your own thing.  You may start out, maybe, trying to do what I do, but you will naturally  find your own way. It takes a long time to make something. Start by finding inspiration in what you see and then you will know what you need to do. Let everything inspire you.  Art is limitless.

In pursuit of her limitless art, Sha Sha Higby has become a much-admired performer on the international Festival circuit. Her travels have taken her to Australia for the Festival of Sydney, to the Hong Kong Fringe Festival, to Indonesia for the Bali Arts Festival, Singapore for the Festival of the Arts and many others. She has performed as well at art colleges and University programs throughout the world and is the recipient of many awards.

Reviewers and critics pull out all the stops to describe her performances: “A Higby performance is a wondrous event,” writes Ornament Magazine. “Her art seems to flow from her soul,” says the Bali Post. “Indescribably precious,” writes one reviewer in Singapore.

Sha Sha Higby will perform “Dance in a Sculptural Costume: Paper Wing 3” for the San Francisco International Arts Festival on May 25th, 26th and 27th.

Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) hosts these performances as part of the Festival, which runs from May 24, 2018 to June 3, 2018. The Festival features more than 60 performances by close to 40 different artists, ensembles, and companies. Get discounts on tickets to see multiple shows at the Festival by buying a Festival pass. More details HERE.

Sha Sha will also be performing at the Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley on June 10th. For further information, click here.


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