Monday, June 29, 2009

I’m signing off!

The One Year Wissahickon Park Project OYWPP was an extraordinary experience. After it was over I sort of yearned for it, looked for ways to come back to it, made up new projects based on the OYWPP concept. Olive and I performed in the fountain on Logan Square in July and at the Green Festival in September. Jumatatu, Toshi, and I went back into the park for a reunion in October. But life and work keep taking me into other directions, to The Bronx, to Madison, WI, to the stage…

So today, exactly one year after the final performance of the OYWPP series, I leave this blog as a record of a remarkable project. There will be more to come as I continue to work on the video documentation. Laura Zimmerman has edited a fine piece that covers the summer cycle and she is working on editing winter documentation. Excerpts will be posted on the OYWPP youtube site.

AND I have a started a new blog about current branch dance investigations. Check it out!

And check out my web site:

Hasta la vista! Hasty lumbago!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

NEWS---Upcoming workshop and Performances at the World Dance Alliance Americas Assembly in Madison WI May 28-31

Jumatatu, Shavon, Toshi, and I are delighted to participate in the the World Dance Alliance Americas Assembly at the University of Wisconsin Madison May 28-31. The 2009 World Dance Alliance-Americas General Assembly is a conference and festival which will bring together an international cohort of dance artists, educators, and students from over 15 countries and throughout the United States. This year’s Assembly investigates What Moves Us today as participants in dance. This theme emerges from one recent trend in the discipline of Dance: a shift from an exclusive focus on high art and theater dance to the investigation of contemporary movement practices and the cultivation of global accessibility.

We will be conducting a Branch Dance Choreographic Project/Workshop Thurs-Saturday from 3- 5:30 which will culminate in a performance (a la OYWPP) in Muir Woods Sunday May 31 from 12:45 to 1:15. This workshop is open to ANYONE who is willing to move SLOWLY. Just show up! And bring brown and green clothes for the performance.

We will also perform an excerpt from my new work-in-progress Postcards from the Woods at the university’s Lathrop Theater on Saturday May 30, at 8PM. For general questions about the Assembly, please contact Ereck Jarvis by email at

A note for WDA Assembly participants interested in joining the Branch Dance Choreographic Project--- checkout the How to Dance with Branches entries to become familiarized with the work:

How to dance with branches -- Centering, Point of Contact

How dance with branches-- Hanging

Photo: Bill Herbert

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Performance tomorrow

Its fall! The leaves are turning, the park is glorious!

I invite you to join me tomorrow Sunday morning, Oct 12, at 10:30AM in Wissahickon Valley Park for a spontaneous branch dance performance with Noemi Segarra, Toshi Makihara, and anyone else who wants to and is able to join us. (just planned yesterday in honor of the changing season and in celebration of the anniversary of the first performance of the One Year Wissahickon Park Project). I know its way early, but consider how invigorated you will feel when you exercise your skeleton walking in the woods, breathe crisp fresh air, and reconnect to nature!

Now here is where you have to pay close attention: We will be working in a sort of new new site, off the main paths, but easy to find if you follow these directions. Enter from the East on Mt. Airy Avenue (directions to Mt. Airy Ave entrance below). Walk down the path. You will see the pond on your right and below you will see the bridge. Just beyond the pond there is a path on your right heading north. Walk along the path to the first left cross (not very far). Turn left. The path winds up and back and leads to the bridge. Past the bridge there are crosses both left and right that lead you back to the Mt. Airy Ave path. Or you can walk enter Mt Airy Ave, walk down the path past the pond to the next cross on the left. Go up that path, turn right at the first cross and cross the bridge and keep going. We will be along that loop.

As has been the format of the One Year Wissahickon ParkProject the performance will run for 45 minutes, and will take place rain or shine. Cancellations only in extreme weather which is unlikely for Sunday since the forecast says it will be about 76 degrees and "nice". Check the project blog: for last minute updates. Of course there is no charge.

What to wear/bring: Wear good walking shoes. Depending on the temperature bring a light sweater as the temperature is slightly cooler in the park than elsewhere. You may want to wear sunglasses and insect repellant ( although the bugs dont seem to be to bad at this time of the year). Bring water.

Email me w/ any questions: Hope to see you
there! Peace, Merian

Directions to the site:
By car from Center City: As Kelly Drive is often closed during the summer its best to take 76 W to Lincoln Drive. Make a left on McCallum. Make another left on Mt. Airy Ave. Take Mt. Airy Ave until it dead ends. Parking along the street.

By bicycle from Center City: Take Kelly Drive North to the end. Cross Ridge Ave and enter the park. Follow Forbidden Drive along the Wissahickon Creek. Turn right on the Mt. Airy Ave Bridge. Cross the bridge and go up the path to the overhead bridge.

Photo of Noemi Segarra by Pepon Osorio

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.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Olive Prince reflects on OYWPP

1. From your experience, what is the branch dance performance practice? What does it entail? Are there any techniques that you practice regularly? Describe.

OP—The branch performance practice is a meditative state of being in my body, mind, and nature. I sink into a trance-like place where I am hyper-aware of my body and surroundings, but simultaneously “lost” in the movement of my body. I feel successful when I find a connection with the branch and travel on a journey that it takes me on. I usually try to feel the physical connection with the branch, the weight of the branch, or an intention that guides me to make movement choices. I become connected with my body from the inside out. Some days I approached the practice as working and noticing the detail of my anatomical form and releasing tension or holding patterns while I was moving fluidly from the branch. I felt like the branch was my partner and that I had a duet with an object that became “alive” to me.

The practice entails listening, authenticity and letting go. I have to listen to my body and the surroundings to discover how I can balance my body in the unique set of problems that develop. I also listen to the branch. I listen for weight, energy, and intention from the branch and from the inside of my body. Sometimes, the surroundings inspire me as well. I listen to other dancers, I listen to the sky or the trees and I find ways to dialog with them. I listen to my body in a very deep internal way. I move from sensing the muscles, bones, and internal energy within my body.

I absolutely have to be authentic in the practice. I cannot pretend to be present. I have to be fully committed to the movement, the space, and the challenges within the construct. My authenticity relates to moving slowly and stopping. It helps me to stop, drop my weight, and wait to listen for what needs to happen. I try not to look for or predetermine the movement. I attempt to let it find me. I let go of predetermined ideas and let go of the idea of “dancing”. I feel like I simply move through space and time without having to go to the performative dance place that becomes part of many performances. This is deeper - this is the most real sense of performing because I cannot hide behind structured movement. I cannot hide behind choreographed movement. It is about trusting and being vulnerable enough to simply exist and respond to the space.

I found so much power in existing in this authentic place. It’s beautiful to shed the dancing persona to simply exist as a moving body in nature. I dropped into the basics of my moving body and self. I existed with only the essentials in the present moment.

The people I dance with are part of my experience. I genuinely feel like I am pouring energy out to the environment and the people I dance with. I feel very connected to them through the practice and in my life. We became this community of movers that was more about being in the space together. I felt supported and enhanced by the artists around me.

Techniques I practice regularly. Hanging, dropping my weight, body scanning, letting the body stretch itself, vertical/horizontal plane with the branch, shaping or highlighting (based off of others movements), balance mode, stopping myself, softening my connection with the branch, breathing, opening up parts of my body, seeing others and seeing the space (being fed by it)

2. What happens during the performance? Can you describe the feeling of the performing/ a particular performance? Is there a pattern you can describe?

OP — It begins with me settling into the time and space that I am in. It begins with me getting really quiet and almost hallow. I try to empty my mind so I can sink into my body and the space. From there I try to see or sense the space and environment that I am in. With each season we had different challenges (and the different locations as well) and I had to move from this place. These challenges become part of my movement construct and I generally found an intention in my practice from the environment (or from a structure Merian assigned). For example, I remember being on the large bridge and my work became about balancing in the wind and cold of that space. I was working with the elements rather than trying to move against them. I loved the challenges that developed for me as a mover! Rocks, logs, bridges, and water . . . I wanted to be on them all to discover something new with my body. Where would this particular journey take me? What can I do with this problem I have to solve? How do I get off of this rock slowly? I discovered the answers within the dance and they always surprised me. It took a great deal of independent and collective trust for the performances to happen.

Within the performance practice once my body and mind are “warmed up” to simply slowing down and sinking into the space, I generally feel led by the branch. I try to find new things and I get inspired through the journey. I can honestly say that after every performance I felt better than when I started. I felt more alive, more in tuned and connected to my body and myself, I felt more connected to the community that we created. I felt aligned with nature. That was something I hadn’t anticipated. Overall, I became grounded in my body and nature. I had the time to wonder and wander through my body and this beautiful place. I noticed the trees, the clouds, small debris in the water, a bug that sat on my arm while I moved, sounds of people walking through the woods. I became a piece of nature and a part of something larger than me.

3- How do you experience your body in the branch dances? Where are you in your body when you branch dance? Who are you, who do you become in the dances?

OP — I might have already answered this, but I’ll give a little more detail. I become very aware of my body (from the inside out) while doing the branch dances. There is the time and space for specificity in the form but room for spontaneity and creativity. My body feels alive, full, and responsive to nature. My body generally surprises me in the construct of the work. Often times I felt like I became a tree, the water, the wind, or the sounds that I heard.

I noticed during the last few performances that I had the desire to return to the studio to do movement research because I felt like I was falling into a movement pattern within the work. There were fewer surprises for me and I began to wonder what else could be found in the work. How can I continue surprising myself?

I am always myself when I am doing the branch dances, but I feel like a smaller more connected version of myself. I feel miniscule because the nature around me feels so expansive. At the same time I feel this interconnection to the environment and the people within it. I feel like we are influencing one another in small, subtle ways.

4- Is there any change in you from before beginning the performance and after it ends? If there are changes, what do you think in the practice triggered those changes?

OP — This performance practice always made me feel more whole. It gave me the space and the reason to become quiet, still, and internal. In many ways I believe it saved me from spiraling out of control this year. In the crazy schedules that I lead, dance became another task on my to-do list. The freedom, creativity, and spirit of dancing became lost in my need to achieve certain things. I was occasionally disconnected from why I dance. This performance practice reminded me that my moving body and my artistic spirit needs time to be quiet enough so I can actually hear myself.

In the practice (and in life), I had to sometimes force myself to go slow and stop moving from one thing to the next. I had to find the space in my body/mind to breath into being still. The practice required discipline and endurance. The practice also required detailed and specific movements. I began to notice how the subtlest shifts changed my entire body. The practice also required patience and listening to the connection I had with the branch. Why was I moving with a branch? I had to answer that question and find a way to relate to the work every time I entered it. There was no hiding. It became a sacred space for stillness and internal shifts.

5-Can you name/describe specific moments or experiences in performance where something in you or your experience shifted? Do you have a sense of why? Does it carry over into the rest of the experience or other performances? How, why? Please be descriptive and give specific examples.

OP — There were specific points throughout the process of the practice where something shifted for me. I remember doing the first performance on the waterfall and having a moment of fear that people where going to actually witness this practice. I had, of course, always realized that people where going to watch us, but I hadn’t really taken the audience into account until that moment. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. And I shifted. I approached it as a performance rather than a practice. I suddenly could trust the structure, my improvisational skills, and my body’s practice within the work to let it move beyond my personal experience. It became a dance; a movement journey that always found its own beginning, middle, and end.

The winter was difficult. I don’t like the cold and my body always feels tight in the winter. How was I going to open up and move slowly in the elements of winter? The worst was when we rehearsed in the winter and I wasn’t dressed warm enough – I don’t know if I could have been. My fingertips were frozen, but we all found a way to sustain through it. This prepared me for the actual performance in that space. I was shocked by how much heat and energy my body generated. The stillness and small movements made me warmer than then when I walked to the park. I trusted the work more and I knew that my body was shifting within it. I felt more open.

I realized in the spring that I missed the park in the winter. It was comforting to be in the barren space and see the trees still standing tall. There was nothing extra (in nature or in my movement). I felt very connected to what was essential in the practice and the space.

On father’s day I danced on the rocks and dedicated that dance to my father. I set my intention for him within the practice and followed it through. This day moved me emotionally and made me realize that the dance was larger than this practice. My artistry was not only allowed into the work it was wanted and needed. As a dancer this is not frequently the case. Here it was necessary. My story, my history, my knowledge was appreciated. After this dance I acknowledged that the more I brought to the work, the more it was going to grow and the more I would receive.

Overall, the performance practice has also seeped into my own creative work. I’ve worked with Merian throughout graduate school and her improvisational modes have greatly influenced my process in choreographing and performing. It has become a part of who I am as an artist. I began working on a structure that required moving slowly and shifting the body’s relationship with gravity. I utilized the skills I’ve acquired throughout the practice and began expanding and adapting them to discover new ways of moving.

The branch dance performance/practice brings to mind the quote from Henry David Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I danced in the woods and I am grateful for what it had to teach.

Photos: Pepón Osorio