Monday, September 22, 2008

Judy Williams on OYWPP: An Audience Member Looks Back

Judy Williams attended all 16 performances of OYWPP! What a wonderful gift to us for her to have participated as witness of this process! Following she recounts her experience of OYWPP, adding to the levels of documentation to this performance experiment.

One Year Wissahickon Park Project
Upon first hearing about the One Year Wissahickon Park Project, it struck a chord in me. Back in 1999 I did a piece for the Women’s Theatre Project which came out of my walking to work every day, noticing the world around me and how every block had a different character, dressing appropriately for the changes in weather and temperature throughout the seasons, zooming in on the sounds, the traffic, the people, the buildings, the trees and flowers, the birds, the air. When I read that Merian’s intent was “to shape a number of performance experiences in nature in order to experience their evolution over time, the seasons, temperature, and weather,” I felt a kindred spirit and knew I had to check it out. My boyfriend, Charles, has many fond memories of growing up exploring, mountain biking and rock climbing throughout the park, so I thought it would be a wonderful experience to share with him.

So, on a summery Sunday morning in October, Charles and I drove to see the first installment of OYWPP, at Livezey Falls. He knew where to park so that when we got out of the car the dance was right there. The dancers were situated on and around a stone wall across the creek that had broken away in the middle, so that some dancers were on one side and some on the other, but even though they were separated by the creek, the dancers were all a part of one whole. I immediately felt myself slowing down, listening, concentrating, giving in to the sensations of being out in nature. Charles and I walked alongside the creek, down a ways, and sat for a few minutes on a downed tree lying partway across the creek, talked for a few minutes to the couple who were fascinated by the unexpected scenario in front of them. Then we headed back the way we came, passing the dancers and walking up a ways, getting another view of them from a different perspective. Though I wasn’t working with a branch, I felt connected to the dancers because I felt like we all were observing, listening and being open to our surroundings.
I knew I would have to go to more performances of OYWPP. My curiosity was aroused. How would each location change the dance? How would the weather affect the dancers? I liked that the performances were all on a Sunday morning. I felt like I was going to church, was participating in a sacred ritual, connecting to God/myself/others/nature/the universe.

The second performance, in November, was along Forbidden Drive. It was definitely fall weather now. A lot of people were out and about, walking/running/biking/riding horses. Some looked confused, others looked amused, some paused for a few minutes before moving on, mostly I got the sense that the performance added a little extra something to their day. But there was one obnoxious woman on a horse who insisted that the dancers move out of the way, which they did slowly while continuing the dance, and then she complained the whole time she was riding through. And then she was gone and the dance continued to the end.

There were two performances in December, still part of the fall cycle but they both felt like winter. The first one was at Blue Bell Meadow, a very different space than the previous two, much bigger and open. The cold really kicked in, with a light sprinkling of snow on the ground and slight sleet-like precipitation in the air. I marveled at the dancers’ focus and concentration throughout the piece and felt connected to them through the challenge of trying to stay warm. Shavon afterward said icicles had formed on her eyelashes.

The second December performance, along the Mt. Airy Ave. path, was also cold and damp, though no snow. A friend joined Charles and myself. First we heard Toshi’s music, then we saw one dancer, then another and another, by the pond, at different spots along the path, high up on the bridge. With them being all spread out, there felt like more layers to the piece, more surprises. I got a smile from Merian – she realized I’m a regular.

The January performance started the winter cycle at Livezey Falls again. It was cold with some ice (Merian’s son was sliding around on it). This was my first time by myself; I was on the opposite side of the creek this time. Started up top on Forbidden Drive, slowly zigzagged down the steps. It was cold, but wonderfully sunny. At the bottom, I maneuvered around Toshi, then carefully made my way on the rocks downstream. Slowly, slowly, centering and balancing myself with each step, I didn’t want to slip and fall in the water. When I stopped to listen to the stream, feel the breeze and bask in the glorious sun, I felt connected to the dancers and at one with the environment around me.

The first February performance was on Forbidden Drive. Charles and I were running late. There was no parking in the closest lot so he dropped me off and went back to another lot. I hurried along the Drive, heard Toshi’s bells before I saw the dancers. Oh good, I didn’t miss it. I rounded a corner and they were slowly, slowly walking towards me, I slowly, slowly walked past them, turned around and ended with them. Though I missed most of the piece I felt at one with them for those few minutes.

A week later we were back at Blue Bell Meadow. It was another cold day made bearable by the sun. The light was bright, the sky was blue, the openness filled my spirit. There was an inch or so of snow that crunched with every step. It became part of the piece.

The winter cycle ended on a March day along the Mt. Airy Ave. path. Charles dropped me off, then went to look for some coffee. I meandered around, loving the different layers, checking out the dancers from many different angles, inching past Shavon high up on the bridge, then making my way down the steep, steep incline while holding onto the fallen tree to keep myself balanced. A little later, I looked up and there was Charles making his way towards me, down the hill among the trees. There were so many special moments.

Next, Livezey Falls again, the beginning of April. By myself again. It was starting to feel a little like spring in the air. I parked at Pachella Field off Henry Ave., had a good run down, down, down the long path to Forbidden Drive, then walked north to the site. It was a rainy day so I wore a poncho, so did most of the dancers. A fisherman on the stone wall was part of the dance – he was in purple, Noemi in red was next to him, they were a great contrast to all the subdued colors around them. As before, I zigzagged down the steps, past Toshi, south along the creek, then cut across the woods back up. Up top, I saw a large, single goldfish swimming down by Noemi and the fisherman. Another magical moment.

The end-of-April performance was along but not on Forbidden Drive, on the rocks at water’s edge instead. Last time I had offered to videotape; today Merian offered me a camera. Now I had to really slow down, I became part of the dance more intimately than before, slowly, slowly, slowly moving around and among the dancers, breathing, centering, every step a balancing act on all the rocks. When I neared Noemi, what a surprise, there was a little cove hidden behind her. A little later I was focusing on Olive when Toshi started throwing different sized rocks and stones into the water with great splashing sounds, but by the time I slowly turned the video camera to him, he was done. Darn. Charles had wandered off, later he told me he had run into Jumatatu, who was nowhere in sight during the whole piece.

There were two more spring performances, both in May. Charles and I biked to the first one, at Blue Bell Meadow. It was slightly chilly and gray at first, but then became sunny and warmer. I walked around, taking it all in, listening to the birds accompanying Toshi. The sound of the bat hitting the ball from two guys playing baseball nearby became part of the piece too.

The last of the spring cycle was along Mt. Airy Ave. path. The foliage was vivid and lush, I felt filled with the promise of spring. The anniversaries of both my parent’s deaths were within the previous week, so I meditated on them, felt their presence in the earth, trees, air. Afterwards, we visited the cemetery. It all was part of the dance.

The summer cycle took place four Sundays in June. Each of the last four performances was an ending. The last performance at Livezey Falls was on one of the most humid and hot days of the year, but it felt refreshing at the falls. I was on the far side of the creek (like the first time), never saw Merian because she was on the other side up on Forbidden Drive. Shavon and Olive were like goddesses, standing powerful and tall and full on the stone wall, welcoming and challenging the sun at the same time. I walked along the creek, talked to two young tattooed fishermen, they showed me a snake sunning on the rocks. I hadn’t seen a snake in years. Later, down by the water, I stuck my feet in – ahhhh… exquisite. I walked around in it, trying to keep my balance on the slippery rocks. Then, goodbye.

The next week, I brought my friend Cathy. The performance was along Forbidden Drive, on the rocks again. A lovely day, not so hot and humid as last week. We heard Toshi first (I always got a thrill when that happened), before we came upon the dancers. Juma and Merian were up on Forbidden Drive. Cathy & I talked briefly to a curious Asian woman who slowed down her walk to watch for a few minutes. I was telling Cathy about how slow the movement is and all of a sudden Merian made a sudden move, another, and then ended up moving a few feet away, that hadn’t happened before. I found out later some bugs were biting her. We walked down to the rocks where the other dancers were, took our shoes off, got our feet wet and walked around on the rocks and in the water. Again, Shavon and Olive stood out, this week they were water goddesses. The cutest curly-haired little girl was playing with her dad in the water. Little by little all her clothes came off as they had more and more fun. We were all part of the dance. Then, goodbye.

The following week at Blue Bell Meadow had the biggest audience yet. I had four people with me. The grass felt so good I walked around barefoot. There was an annoying car alarm that kept going off, but Toshi incorporated it into his music. He always amazes me. Then, goodbye.

The final performance was along the Mt. Airy Ave. path. As I walked down the path and neared the pond, I looked ahead, scanning for dancers spread out along the way. I didn’t see anyone and Shavon wasn’t at her spot atop the bridge. Then I saw everyone around the pond and the audience standing on one side watching. Oh, no. I felt disappointment, the piece felt changed, more static and presentational. Then I saw Jumatatu on the other side of the path and up the hill a little ways. Ah, that’s better. I decided to still do my exploring, down the path, up and over the bridge, saying my thank you’s along the way. I came back to the pond the back way and watched the audience watch the piece. When I got back to the path, Jumatatu started moving towards the others. As he was crossing the path, a woman on a horse stopped short. The horse’s nostrils flared. Instead of getting upset like the horse woman at an earlier performance, this woman got off the horse and calmly and firmly led the horse away. Jumatatu kept moving, and then the others joined in. They were all making their way to Merian, to honor and thank her for her vision and her grace. Then, goodbye.

Every performance was like a journey, an adventure. I was continually fascinated with everything. Always starting out by slowing down, feeling the elements, wondering if the dancers were experiencing their surroundings in similar ways. Finding my own challenges along the way. Feeling connected to the dancers and a communion with nature. Concentrating within and without. I loved it all.

Photos: Pepón Osorio

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lisa Kraus on OYWPP

This article was written by Lisa Kraus choreographer, writer, educator, and dancer extraordinaire. Originally published in her blog:

Merian Soto’s One Year Wissahickon Park Project

The Wissahickon Creek in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park is where my family comes for walks in all seasons, dog in tow. I have images of my then-six year old fording the creek, arms raised overhead for balance as the current buffeted him and sun glinted through massive foliage. We have caught falling golden leaves, and tramped over the covered bridge, passed joggers and mountain bikers and the occasional horse and rider. How enticing then to see this place anew through the lens of performances by Merian Soto, a series of performances that is, inhabiting the park through the course of a year. Of the sixteen performances in four locales, I chose to come to one performance each season in a different locale each time.

Like one of the parks grand trees, Soto herself is wizened now, from her years of creating and performing semi-improvisational scores, springing from dances from her Puerto Rican heritage and her coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s when contact improvisation and release work were the crucial languages to master. She is seasoned now; unafraid of risk, even the risk of going s-l-o-w.

Speed is what shifts most on entering the park. Ordinarily, in the kind of life where too many events and obligations are crammed into too little time, the park is a refuge for timelessness. Native Americans dubbed it the Wissahickon which means Yellow Creek or Catfish Creek and I can easily picture them still. Mills used to dot the banks, and a main thoroughfare, Forbidden Drive, was so named because it was decided in the 1920’s never to let cars drive along it.

November 2007
The first Sunday morning that I made my way to the One Year Wisshickon Park Project was in late fall. The rusty brown of fallen leaves contrasted with dark upright tree trunks. Strong as trees themselves, dancers were fanned out on and nearby a stretch of path far enough away from each other to each be in their own sphere but close enough to be linked visually. You could stand at one high point and see them sprinkled through the landscape – one by a small pond, one on a bridge and one sometimes hidden behind a tree. Five altogether, with caps and mittens and coats.

The shift of speed from the watchers who amble through, pausing for a time, then walking in a hushed, but still pedestrian way, contrasts again with the dancers who are in a super sensitized slow mode. This is how to place a human in this landscape and not have them be dwarfed I think – let their energy spread and pool by settling.

Layers of speed are multiplied – there’s the slow geological time of the evolving landscape, the faster time of the seasons’ progression, the stately, planted stretchings and balances and shapes of the dancers, the hushed, ordinary walk of the spectators and then the speediest layer - dogs galumphing through and mountain bikers whooshing along.

It’s this way all the time I think – everyone is on their own trajectory, some faster, some slower, all set to vanish eventually and make way for more, just as the trees eventually fall, and my little children fording the stream are now grown into tall teenagers, soon to be adults themselves. Other children will ford the stream too, and more leaves will fall next year. Soto’s silent meditation invites all these thoughts, anchoring us in this place to consider its meaning, and to be refreshed by remembering our own actual place.

January 2008
The snow I remember from childhood was frequent and welcome, and the chill sufficient to freeze skating ponds for months at a time. Though Philadelphia is just a couple of hours drive from where I lived then, global warming has eased winter; days of blinding snow on sun are too few. So finding the five dancers of the One Year Wissahickon Park Project stretched along a tree line in a wide snow- covered meadow was heart-quickeningly joyful. Knowing I would be watching a 45-minute performance meant “taking up residence” in this part of the park I’d never before seen.

There was the same “downshift” on first encounter. The figures barely move. It’s easy to do a quick glance and think one has it, the lay of the land, the way the dancers are evenly interspersed with trees, the way they use branches, some wonderfully crooked, as support for tips off balance or stretches that seem to extend infinitely. The glacial pace of their transformations forces the viewer to disconnect from whatever momentum they blew in with, to settle.

Time being our most precious resource, how powerful to craft a dance that gives it back to us. Soto frames this meadow with her dance. We see the movement of trees, the entrance and exit of dogs, the radiance of winter sky through the simple mechanism of staying put and being attentive.

Choosing vantage points becomes playful – do I want to see the line of dancers stacked up on each other from the side, or spread along dotting the space from the “front”? I hang my head low, stretching my back and remember that looking from upside down used to be a frequent childhood game. Seen that way, the dancers hang from the sky, miraculously attached, not falling.

Toshi Makihara’s incidental percussive sound score in a similar frequency to “natural” sounds weaves almost indistinguishably with them. It likely provides cues; this installment of OYWPP looks to have more coordinated actions shared between the dancers. At one point they all commit their weight heavily to their branches, at another they stand fully on two feet. The ending is a slow trek away from the tree line, an expedition to new ground that ends as just an indication of a new direction.

In one part of Dreams, Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film was of men caught in a blizzard. The scenes were full of white, and men bundled against deadly cold. These dancers, in hats and gloves and toasty clothing had little to struggle against – entropy, aging, gravity perhaps. But they reminded me of the powers and beauty of nature. And the deep delight of a clear wintry day.

April 2008
Although it’s near April’s end, Sunday brought a chill. This time the dancers of the One Year Wissahickon Park Project were stretched from Forbidden Drive, the main thoroughfare through this northern section of Fairmount Park, down toward and across the Creek. Merian Soto was smack in the middle of the road, an invitation to unwitting passers-by to stop and look. She moved at a glacial pace compared to the horses (with black cowboys in chaps on them!), dogs, packs of riders on mountainbikes that passed. This performance of the Project inserted itself more obtrusively into the life of the park than the others I’ve seen, but for passersby it was still take-it-or-leave-it, some staying to take it in, others moving bemusedly past.

Noemi Segarra and Olive Prince were below the main drive in an arc on the wide expanse of the stones that edges the Creek. A cluster of small children played on the stones by the water’s edge for the duration with their mothers who watched, rapt.

My mother, visiting for the weekend, took one look at Neomi’s big backward arch with deeply folded legs and said “You’ve got to have knees for that!”

I explained to her that usually there were five performers plus Toshi Makahara making music. For the longest time we could only see three. Their clothing - brown with touches of green – melded almost completely with the surround. No wonder we nearly missed Shavonn Norris on the other side of the creek - her brown skin and hair and brown clothing rendered her nearly invisible. We never did spot Jumatatu Poe who had secreted himself somewhere among the bushes.

I come to these Sunday morning events full of inner chatter only to have it drain away like air seeping out of a balloon. I settle to watch, to listen, to feel wind and the slight touch of chill. Dancers move slowly, time moves slowly, the Creek rushes past. Shapes in the dancers’ bodies are stretched out to the max, full of energetic attention. Torques, twists, bends, morph from one to the next with the same simplicity as a plant moving toward light, it’s just the next way one needs to go.

The more I see this work outdoors, the more I experience it as a platform for viewing and contemplation. I thought about my elderly mother whose step walking down a slope is if-y as contrasted with those little 2 and 3 year olds bursting with life and adventurousness. The Creek has continued to flow past settlements and industry (there used to be many mills along it), past generations of Native Americans and later Europeans. Soto celebrates place, and the slow pace of evolution.

My mother noted the correspondence to T’ai Chi in some of the moves. Soto responded that the work is something she feels she has discovered, that moving in nature in this way is something she is tapping in to rather than “creating.”

June 2008
Hot. It’s the first time I’ve seen the dancers without their jackets and gloves. Noemi Segarra, on the far side of the creek, wears Kelly green – a top and leggings with bare midriff. The others lean more to softer greens and browns. Jumatatu Poe in his camouflage pants and brown skin and partially hidden by tree branches melds so much with the surround that I don’t pick him out for some time.

June is active at Livezey waterfall with the rushing sound of water, leafed-out trees tossed by wind, sun throwing sparkles across the Creek surface, ducks floating downstream. Just as air molecules move faster in the heat, summer picks up the pace around the Creek. Rather than the five slow-moving dancers being animators of a tranquil scene, they are stable anchors in the vividly alive landscape.

Watching from Forbidden Drive I can simultaneously take in the dancers below and Merian Soto, who, in the middle of the path, is like a someone with an old-fashioned sandwich board ushering us in to see the wares on offer. Soto looks planted, receptive, as though she might have been on that same spot for many years already. Later, descending the stone steps to place myself right at water’s edge, I slip my feet down along the rocks to rest with water lapping up to my ankles. Toshi Makahara, just above me on a wide rock, seems to bring more power to his sound than I recall. Rather than an occasional soft bell or percussive thud or rattle, he opts for stronger clangs, more piercing strikes.

I wonder again how much of the forty five minute sequence involves concrete instructions for the dancers. Each holds a strong branch and tests their weight on it, “hanging”. Is there a progression toward deeper more perilous hanging off their stout branches? This incarnation of the Project doesn’t seem to involve displacement or development that I can perceive.

The usual relationship to performance in a proscenium space involves a basic separation of audience (in seats) and performers (on stage). In the One Year Wissahickon Park Project audience and performers share a vast space: our park and by inference, our planet. Each time watching my attention has been brought to thoughts on the nature of time, the vastness and beauty of nature, and our place in it. This is dance alludes to the big questions gently, as contemplation rather than diatribe. How mature. How generous.

Even on Sundays my to-do list may loom and getting out the door can involve a rush. Arriving in the park and settling in to observe means automatically down-shifting several notches. The dancers who have participated in the Project have told me that the “meditation” of the movement is powerful; Soto has said that she wants to give the practice away, to have a wider circle of people experience it. In a world that leans increasingly toward the virtual, increasingly unravelling our connection to the environment, the One Year Wissahickon Park Project has been a tonic.

It takes being on the planet for a bunch of rotations before an artist would conceive of something with the scale and depth of the OYWPP. While there’s always an appetite for what’s youthful and fresh in dance, I am deeply sustained by the vision and choices some of dance’s elders, Soto among them.

One Year Wissahickon Park Project
Performers: Shavon Norris, Jumatatu Poe, Olive Prince, Noemi Segarra, Merian Soto
Musician: Toshi Makihara

Thursday, September 4, 2008

OYWPP is awarded a ROCKY!!!

Dance USA Philadelphia and the Live Arts and Philly Fringe Festival hosted the annual ROCKY Awards last Monday Sept 1, at the new Festival Bar. What a fun evening! Megan Mazarick and Jamil Kosoko kept us laughing all the while moving the show along.

Silvana Cardell, creative artist extraordinaire, presented a ROCKY to me for the One Year Wissahickon Park Project!!!!!! I am grateful and honored to receive this important recognition from my peers.

The text of Silvana's short speech follows:

Forests, tress, branches, skin, bones and muscles changing shapes
the human body
adapting to the environment,
blending into the landscape
changing very slowly

following time
accepting time

making me stop my mind clutter
and my body
to feel
to smell
to remain
to be part of the environment created
in order to contemplate our forever-changing physical form

Those were my impressions as an audience of The Wissahickon Park Project

I want to pass along my Rocky award to the one of the most generous, risk taking and committed choreographers that I know: Merián Soto. Rain or shine - at every designated performance date- Merián and her committed dancers performed, transforming the landscape of the Wissahickon Park.

Thank you for your contributions as an artist to our Philadelphia Dance Community.

Thank YOU, Silvana, and everyone else involved for the recognition. It means a lot! Thanks especially to the artists who joined me in this endeavor: Shavon Norris, Jumatatu Poe, Olive Prince, Noemí Segarra and Toshi Makihara. The honor is shared with them.