"Stuart is a gifted choreographer with an eye for theatricality"

— Rachel Howard, In Dance

world premiere

Monkey Gone to Heaven

Dances, stories, songs and musings about primates and prayer.

September 13-15 and 19-22
Sundays at 7pm / All other shows at 8pm
at CounterPulse (1310 Mission at 9th St in San Francisco)
Tickets $20 | Buy now

Primates and prayer? They make an uneasy couple, but both give us ways to understand who we are as humans. Non-human primates share all but a tiny fraction of our evolutionary history and can provide a glimpse into our own animal nature. The act of prayer reaches toward divinity, telling us who we are through the lens of what we aspire to be. EmSpace Dance braids these subjects with a mixture of reverence and skepticism, gravity and play.

You'll see dances and movement, stories and songs about doubt and faith and our primate ancestors... the possibilities of submission... a transcendent encounter with a gorilla... meditation and the distractions that keep you from doing it "right"... a girl who loses her tail... and the ways we reach out for connection.

This show contains some mature content and is not suitable for children.

Conceived and directed by

Erin Mei-Ling Stuart


  • El Beh
  • Jennifer Chien
  • Kat Cole
  • Michael Mohammed
  • Rowena Richie
  • Christopher W. White

Production Team

  • Erik Pearson
  • Allen Willner
  • Marilee Talkington
  • Sonsheree Giles
  • Katy Adcox

Created with the generous support of

    CA$H, a grants program of Theater Bay Area in partnership with Dancers' Group, Zellerbach Family Foundation, Moving Words Grant, Cynthia Stuart, Anonymous, Jenny Isenberg, Wayne Hazzard, Ann Berman, Katya Min, Claudia Shiuh, PF Dumanis, Alice Webber, Lianna Stuart, Stephen Pelton, Christy Funsch, Praveen Sinha, Kathryn Cole, Maia Carriveau, Bekah Barnett


Read Erin's article for In Dance about the process of creating Monkey Gone to Heaven

The prayer part.

I didn't grow up in a religion, and now I think of myself as a bad Buddhist, which is actually an upgrade from my previous self-identification as a wannabe Buddhist. I meditate. Regularly sometimes. And I've been hanging around Zen Center long enough to get the feeling that Buddhism really is a religion and not just a philosophy or a practice, or whatever I thought it was in the beginning that allowed me to approach it in the first place. But even with all of this, I hadn't thought a whole lot about prayer specifically until a trip a couple of years ago to Germany, France, and England. Especially France. All of those big, grand churches designed to inspire awe. On one of many epic walking days, perhaps a little overwhemed, I climbed a big hill and walked into one of those big, grand churches - actually an abby built in the 14th century. I sat down, and it was quiet and peaceful (unlike, say, Notre Dame which is pretty much a madhouse.) It really felt like a sanctuary. So I thought I would meditate for a few minutes. Because, I thought, we're all pretty much doing the same thing. Meditating. Praying. Whatever.

But somehow the meditation wouldn't take. And somehow I ended up with my elbows up on the back of the pew in front of me.
And my hands were clasped.
And my head was lowered.
And there I was neatly positioned in the shape of western Christian prayer, at least as I imagine it.

And I started wondering. Are we all doing the same thing? When I meditate is that prayer? What is prayer? What is it for?

And since then I have been asking different people about prayer. And I am learning some things. And it seems that one way of understanding prayer is that it is something we use to connect to something outside of ourselves, something bigger than ourselves, and maybe that is our community, or the earth, or the universe, or god. And that prayer is something we use to understand and realize our own divinity and what is best in us. Anne Lammott says it's a light that helps us see "what is way beyond us and deep inside". Yes.

The primate part.

The beginnings of the primate part of the piece are a little less personal. It started with a book. Robert Sapolsky's "A Primate's Memoir". Read it. You will enjoy it. It's about his time in Africa studying baboons in order to understand the effects of long term stress on the body and brain. (Apparently it's pretty stressful being a low-ranking baboon). He describes the baboons' distinctive personalities (he gives them names from the old testament) and the complex organization of their society. And when I first read the book many years ago, I thought, I need to make a piece about baboons. But I didn't. Until now.

This piece isn't just about baboons, of course. We're thinking also thinking about chimps, bonobos, gorillas, all of whom are significantly smarter than baboons and even more like us. And that's kind of what the primate thing is all about in this project: how they are so like us. How they are not like us. How we have tried to learn about who we are by studying them, and how we have treated them in the process. Science has studied non-human primates to understand how our bodies work, but also language, relationships, learning, violence, fairness, mental illness, love. Maybe we're continuing in that tradition. We're also reminding ourselves that we are animals.

I think there is some sort of state of grace to be found here, hovering between our animal bodies and our reaching out into the way beyond.