Friday, October 19, 2012

Its been a week since SoMoS.   Still feeling happy from the experience. But tired.  Performing for 3.5 hrs in 30some degree weather takes its toll.

Below are photos by Gabe Martinez and links to various post-performance press.   Check out Deni Kasrel's review in the the City Paper.

Jazmyn Burton has written a piece for the Temple Times.  

And the Dance Journal review.
Olive Prince

Silvana Cardell by the mural

Jumatatu Poe and summer tent

The winter tent from outside

Marion Ramirez & Jung Woong Kim in spring tent

Ellen Gerdes by the fall wall

Marion Ramirez in ensemble finale

Katie Jasmin, Merián Soto & Marion Ramirez

Melissa Putz & Jung Woong Kim


Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Roots and Branches of SoMoS

SoMoS program essay, by Lisa Kraus

The Roots and Branches of SoMoS 

Like Australian  aborigines who believe that the well-being of the natural world depends on their repeatedly walking the paths through their homelands,  choreographer Merián Soto connects to the wild areas surrounding us through movement. She has spent years now presenting performances around Fairmount Park and parks  further afield  that bear witness to their beauty and fragility. Through her branch dancing practice, she has developed a way of performing that encourages viewers to slow down, observe closely and feel their own kinship with nature, other bodies and the forces acting on them.

Now she is filling a vast Philadelphia parking lot with  SoMoS and its domed tents splashed with projected images of nature, sounds recorded through the seasons, and dancers moving in slow motion balancing branches. It’s the culmination of a long path that began on the beaches and in the rainforests of Puerto Rico.

Soto grew up in Bayamón and Playa Cerro Gordo, climbing trees, wandering up creeks and running on rocks on the beach. It was an imaginative space for her, an orientation to the feel of the earth under her feet and the mobility and weight of her own body.

Merián Soto and  Patti Bradshaw in Escalio (1983)
Study in New York with kinetic awareness pioneer Elaine Summers gave her tools to research the inner life of the body: its sensations, rhythms and storylines. Also, as a young dancer, she tapped into a deep well of energetic power through learning the Afro-Caribbean form of bomba. Holding the two approaches—traditional forms like bomba and son along with improvisational somatic practice—has made Soto a unique artistic explorer. Almost thirty years ago, she made a dance, Escalio (1983), in collaboration with visual artist Pepón Osorio and dancer Patti Bradshaw in the early days of their collective Pepatián. She describes it as being all about the earth. So the threads that are woven together in SoMoS go way back.

Prequel(a) 2002 Photo: Julie Lemberger
Constructing rich theatrical environments has been an ongoing aspect of Soto’s work. The studio-set of La Maquina del Tiempo (2004) with its dripping “rainwater” evoked a long slow afternoon for dancing. The films of Irene Sosa in Prequel(a): Deconstruction of a Passion for Salsa (2002) brought the palm trees and beaches of Puerto Rico into the performance space. In that solo, Soto danced salsa on a wooden platform sprinkled with sand, the scratchy sound amplifying her every rhythmic step.

Following these works, Soto began to reverse the trend of bringing the natural world into the theater by taking her movement practice out into the woods. One reason had to do with aging.

Growing older as a dancer requires shifts in physical practice. Soto had burst on the New York scene as a compelling livewire of a performer and had always seen her own dancing as being about channeling energy. But on turning 50 she began to see the potential power in drawing energy inward rather than projecting it out. Doing more with less energy.

With a sabbatical from her teaching position at Temple University and time to explore what she calls her “anti-aging project,” she headed into the woods. She says she went into Fairmount Park by the Wissahickon Creek to clear her mind and become centered. When she picked up a branch and began to dance with it, there was an immediate energetic connection, as though she was completing a circuit

Branches offer a feedback loop of touch and sensory awareness. Their weight, their shapes, the ways they react to a dancer’s movements and the possibilities they offer for hanging or balancing are all features that Soto is excited to respond to through improvisation. And Soto feels that working with branches brings her and her dancers to an all-important state of full presence. That means being fully here. Now.

Jumatatu Poe in Postcards (2009) , Photo Cylla Von Tiedeman
Bringing a larger group of dancers into her practice resulted in many versions of the branch dances. She initiated the One Year Wissahickon Park Project (2007-8), which animated select locations in the park during each season over the course of a full year. And with several other iterations, this work began to make its way back into theaters. Soto’s States of Gravity & Light (2006-7) and Postcards from the Woods (2009) represented a new kind of performance/installation with projected video in saturated colors showing details of woods, water and sky. The works have a mesmerizing effect, just as the outdoor performances do, but within a completely constructed space.

With SoMoS Merián Soto takes an expansive outdoor space and creates indoor spaces within it in the form of three large tents. Again using video and adding sound recordings reflecting the seasons, she re-introduces nature into this paved-over place. SoMoS is a field of possiblities, a slow-moving carnival-like installation, where audience members can wander, as in the woods, and frame it as they choose, moving in close and further away, improvising their own experience..

What might audience members see? The slowness of the dancing invites us to notice how movement travels sequentially through the dancers’ bodies, how they engage in a continual balancing act not only with the branches, but with their own bones, how they twist and bend to the extremes of their movement range and how they morph from one shape to another, simply, like a plant turning toward light.

The dancers “paint on the surface of the tents” by casting shadows in response to the shapes and shadows they see. We can savor the shifting designs they create. And watch for how they share weight and enact wordless conversations.

We might sense underlying stories. Soto has said that one aspect of branch dancing is “magnifying.” When she stands upright with a branch held vertically it makes her feel heroic, like a sentinel, and she goes deeper into that image. Or using a branch that’s planted firmly on the ground like a crutch makes her imagine herself as a crone, so she delves into that feeling. When the branches are held horizontally, Soto sees it as a place of grace, of balancing. 

In watching SoMoS there’s nothing specific to “get.” It can be read as a series of beautiful images and interactions. But Soto sees it also as a form of environmental activism. Her motivation for creating it arises from her sense of the natural world as being in peril. She sees the body as being in peril too, and in making SoMoS, is reflecting on how we might contribute to preserving these fragile areas of our existence.

Perhaps some will be inspired to create something beautiful out of ordinary objects for themselves. Soto sees the potential for that all around us.

We live in a fast-paced, multi-screen, jump-cut moment. With a performance like SoMoS, we’re not entertained so much as invited to tune in in a different way, to a subtler set of channels. Hopefully what we find is a measure of peace, of curiosity and of connection to nature, both within the body and in our wider world.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Interview with Jumatatu Poe, dancer-collaborator for SoMoS

SoMoS is a Branch Dance performance spectacle bridging nature and the urban landscape, to be presented in a parking lot in the North Philadelphia barrio on October 12, 2012, at 8pm, as part of Taller Puertorriqueño’s performance series, Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio. In contrast to the urban landscape, the parking lot at 5th and Huntingdon Streets will be transformed into a quiet carnival of nature images, sounds, and movement invoking the four seasons. This is a free event.  See links on right for more information.

Interview with Jumatatu Poe, dancer-collaborator for SoMoS.

Q: Please describe your role in SoMoS. What was the process of creating this show?

OYWPP Photo: Gabriel Osorio-Soto
Jumatatu Poe: I am participating in SoMoS as a collaborating performer. I have been doing branch work with Merián now for the past six years, and feel a significant sense of ownership of the practice of branch dancing. It is something that you can only really feel over a significant amount of time. I do not think there will ever be a time when I am not practicing slowing down as part of the work. Even after so much time, I am learning about the range of possibility within slow. Slow is a really huge landscape, and so much can happen there.

There are different modes that Merián has encouraged each individual collaborator to create for themselves. One of mine that I most enjoy is Vining. In short, it's a way to use the shape of the branch and its (usually) vertical interaction with the ground to find and accentuate curves in your movement. I always feel like I can open different parts of my body up when practicing Vining. I feel like I am exposing different parts of my body to the surrounding air, being touched by the air. It's sensual. It's precious.

Q: Does the scale of SoMoS affect your approach?

SoMoS; Photo Lindsay Browning
Jumatatu Poe: The scale definitely affects the work—there are no environmental elements that are ignored in this work (at least not intentionally). It creates a magnitude of information to which we must pay attention, even as we go to very internal places for performance. Also, the vastness of the space means that we have plenty of room to travel, and we use that. This also creates opportunity for momentum.

Q: As you said, you've been working on branch dances for six years. What was the practice like to develop and at what point did you feel you got it?

Jumatatu and Noemí Segarra Photo: Alan Kolc
Jumatatu Poe: I felt connected to the work pretty early, actually. Noemi Segarra and I performed a duet, States of Gravity and Light #2. We rehearsed intensively for this work. That intensity, the connection between Noemi and I, and the brilliant musicians with whom we were working allowed me to receive Merián's direction trustingly and critically.

We spent maybe a year and a half performing that work in different iterations. Every return to it felt like a deepening of my understanding of the work, since, as I mentioned before, it really takes time to be able to understand it. I was always interested in it, felt connected very early, but I feel like I really understand the work now. My sense is that so much of it is really about temporary-ness—and you may get a different perspective from Merián—and aging. Beauty and decay.

Q: Merián has talked how SoMoS is the culmination of her branch dance work. How do you see this evolution?

Jumatatu Poe: Many of the branch pieces over the years are being referenced in this particular work and taking this work into an urban setting is something that we have been supposed to do for a long time. I think that is really critical here.

Interview by Josh McIlvain

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Temple University students in the Philadelphia Dance Experience practice branch dancing

Jung Woong Kim demonstrates
Last Wednesday, Oct 3, Jung Woong Kim was guest teaching artist in Prof. Monica Frichtel's course, The Philadelphia Dance Experience.  Jung Woong conducted sensory awareness exercises and students tried balancing branches.  Below are excerpts of their reflections on their experience.
Thank you, Monica for hosting Jung Woong in your class! We look forward to sharing the work with the students this coming Friday. 

"On Wednesday, we had a guest teacher from the SoMoS dance company present and engage us in the importance of balance and becoming in touch with nature in dance.  We did many trust exercises, for example, being led with eyes closed by a partner around the Presser Cafeteria. We found the experience to be very interesting and we really enjoyed it. It was not just a dance but also a life lesson, for instance when the teacher said that  when one "drops the branch, one should always pick it back up and keep moving". It was a great experience."   Bria, Tiffany, Erin
"The experience as a whole was unexpected, but we all noticed that the improvisation was subjective to each individual’s interpretation. Some people simply walked their partner around, others ran with their partner and some did figure eights within the space. The term paradox came to our minds as the physical space was limited to a perimeter, but the actions and interpretations were left to each individual to interpret within the space, or within the guided directions. We all agree that we were put into an experience that put us out of our comfort zone, but that is where learning and creativity can thrive."   Derek, Carlyn, Emily, Michael, Fiona, Bryant, Carl, Tiffany 

"During the improvisation class, the performer laid on the ground with his back touching the concrete. With his bare feet raised, he balanced the wooden stick while focusing on it. I thought this was interesting because his movements were really slow so he wouldn't drop the stick. I felt a high degree of concentration while he was moving, relaxing, and one with nature."   Kortney

"Wednesday  in class we went outside with our guess teacher and we worked in pairs.  We had to close our eyes while our partner guided us. It was a frightening experience but fun; we learned to trust someone we didn't know. While being guided I could hear  things going on around me better. The sound of the crunch of grass while as people walked  was escalated. I was able to feel people walking past and tell how close they were by the sound of their voice. It was very scary but a lot if fun."  Jen

"We balanced branches and played with sensing. I had to learn to trust myself and my partner when I was walked around the field with my eyes closed.  When I approached the wall, I sensed it near me. It felt relaxing after I began to trust myself walking around with my eyes closed. I participated in the middle balancing a branch on my head, arm, and foot. These exercises took trust, balance, and patience."    Carl
"During the improvisation class, we explored the idea of balance and gravity. Students gathered in a circle and balanced branches on various parts of the body. Students were able to interpret movement in their own way. After playing with the branch, Kevin and I realized that the earth is stronger than us."
Neil, Kevin 

Photos by Monica Frichtel  
See Monica perform branch dances!


Interview with Leigh A. Mumford, lighting designer for SoMoS

SoMos is a Branch Dance performance spectacle bridging nature and the urban landscape, to be presented in a parking lot in the North Philadelphia barrio on October 12, 2012, at 8pm as part of Taller Puertorriqueño’s performance series, Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio. In contrast to the urban landscape, the parking lot at 5th and Huntingdon Streets will be transformed into a quiet carnival of nature images, sounds, and movement invoking the four seasons. This is a free event. See links on the right for more information. 

Photos of Leigh Mumford's lighting for Postcards From the Woods by Cylla von Tiedeman

Interview with Leigh A. Mumford, lighting designer for SoMoS

Q: Please describe your work for SoMoS . How does the scale of SoMoS affect your approach to lighting?

Leigh A. Mumford: The scale of this project is large and small. It is delicate in every way because the movement is so slow and melodic, one gets lost within it. So when approaching the geodesic tents, which are huge on the outside but quite intimate on the inside, I have to keep in mind the complete simplicity of this world so as not to upstage it with my design. The space outside the tents is vast and will include texture and breakups in light to emulate the light between leaves and trees and the overall feeling that fall brings to our souls and our senses. Inside the tents Merián’s projections serve as the light, which in itself is beautiful and holds incredible texture. So my lights inside will only cut in from the sides so the projections appear three-dimensional.

Jumatatu Poe
I cannot simply approach this project thinking it is large—each area is so incredibly intimate and important that it needs to be broken down using isolation and complete and utter emotion. On the equipment end of things the scale is HUGE; it has taken months for us to get here. I'm so excited and blessed.

Q: What is the set up like for the show, and what are some of the challenges?

Leigh A. Mumford: Setup is very much like arena lighting slash dance lighting. Audiences will be viewing the work from every direction but they too will also be lit because they must experience this work. There is no brightness in lighting like stage theater, the lighting will be broken up and quite shadowy, carving out the bodies like the sun or moon sliding through the trees, blanketing itself, and wrapping around, giving life and energy to our nightly tree dancer nymphs.

Noemí Segarra
Challenges will be plentiful as I won't really know what this will look like until the day before, which is nerve wracking. I have all the confidence in my design approach and implementation of the design—however, as an artist, the greatest challenge is perfection within one’s own mind, knowing that I can always do better and hoping to have the time to perfect the design. The challenge at that point lies within my dual job as technical director. The technical aspects have to be constantly monitored and properly installed. That is the biggest job and then the design comes into being.

Q: Merián has talked how SoMoS is like a culmination of her branch dance work. How long have you been working with Merián on branch dances, and how do you see this evolution of her work?

Olive Prince
Leigh A. Mumford: I first worked with Merián for Postcards from the Woods back in 2009 for the Live Arts Festival. It was an incredible experience. My light moved organically in and out of the projections, I became a part of the piece literally by manually fading in and out the lights based on instinct and feeling. SoMoS will be my second experience with Merián. Merián's evolution is taking her slow melodic movement to another level, not only incorporating more lighting but doubling all the projection images and adding the scenic elements for the first time. Instead of just watching the video, Merián and Christine Darch have created a world to step inside of and experience in the round in a neighborhood where not all are able to travel and see these beautiful places. "We are nature"—to quote Merián—and we are bringing four worlds, four seasons to concrete land.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Interview with Christine Darch, set, costume, and graphic designer for SoMoS.

SoMoS is a Branch Dance performance spectacle bridging nature and the urban landscape, to be presented in a parking lot in the North Philadelphia barrio on October 12, 2012, at 8pm as part of Taller Puertorriqueño’s performance series, Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio. In contrast to the urban landscape, the parking lot at 5th and Huntingdon Streets will be transformed into a quiet carnival of nature images, sounds, and movement invoking the four seasons. This is a free event.

Interview with Christine Darch, set, costume, and graphic designer for SoMoS.

Q: Please describe your work for SoMoS. How does the scale of SoMoS affect your approach to design?

Christine Darch: I am doing the set, costume, and graphic design for SoMoS. When Merián and I began set design conversations we thought about ways to create fantastical experiences of a heightened natural landscape. The first question we encountered was how to be inspired by the idea of a tent, a white rectangular box. I had grand ideas about giant flowers that bloomed over time, petals unfolding and foliage magically emerging from branches, wild masses of entangled vines, and felt strange about reconciling them with the ubiquitous white vinyl party tent. We searched for something more special and found the geodesic tents from a company that provides temporary disaster shelters and living spaces for Burning Man goers.

The design has evolved into something much more Zen and minimal in feeling. The domed tents are inherently beautiful and the video projection is stunning. Anything faux does not work. I am embellishing branches for their respective environments, creating a mirror in the shape of Puerto Rico for Jumatatu Poe to dance on. Shapes in the costumes are from nature, but neither literal nor overly conceptual.

Several different performances are happening simultaneously, and so most of the set budget has gone to creating the six "theaters"—clean, comfortable places for the dancers and audiences to experience the work. 

Q: What is the set up like for the show, and what are some of the challenges?

Christine Darch: The set up will be largely accomplished by Michael Roberts, the SoMoS production manger. The weather will affect how efficiently we can assemble four tents, almost one thousand square feet of living bluegrass from a local sod farm, about two thousand square feet of flooring, fallen trees, and hundreds of branches. The costumes have to work for whatever the weather is for that night, it could be a balmy Indian summer evening, or 45 degrees with wind-chill. My costume design for dance is usually as bare as possible. I like to see the body and bare, luminous skin. This has been my first foray into designing with "performance" fabrics, textiles that are used for hikers and mountain climbers with inherent moisture wicking properties to hopefully keep the dancers warm and dry.

Q: Merián has talked how SoMoS is a culmination of her branch dance work. How long have you been working with Merián on branch dances, and how do you see this evolution of her work?

Noemí Segarra  Photo: Merián Soto
Christine Darch: I have been working with Merián since 1997. Her passion for Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean culture and dedication to improvisational dance is the driving force or undercurrent to the work. The first outdoor branch dances coincidentally took place in my home town of Northport, Long Island, about seven years ago in a lovely harbor front park. This culmination brings nature and branch dancing from all its prior venues, from urban theaters to natural wooded landscapes, back to the urban environment, to beautiful and ephemeral theaters in a harsh and uninviting abandoned urban parking lot. If we are nature, it is possible to say that everything is nature, every thing is created by the natural world. Concrete resin, aluminum, steel, oil paint, PVC, vinyl, lycra, and polyester are of and from nature. Noemi Segarra appears as a mermaid in cropped hair and sunglasses on a Puerto Rican beach at sunset in one of the videos. It is a wild juxtaposition that is a perfect metaphor for how I have approached the design. Fantasy shielded by plastic in a beautiful "natural" setting. It is a striking trope to use branches along with so much technology and plastic to evoke an experience of nature. 

October 3, 2012
Christine Darch Costumes for Merián Soto Works:

States of Gravity & Light #2 Photo: Steven Schreiber
Three Branch Songs Photo; Steven Schreiber
La Máquina del Tiempo Photo Doug Herren

La Máquina del Tiempo  Photo: Doug Herren

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Interview #2 with SoMoS choreographer Merián Soto by Josh McIlvain

SoMoS is a branch dance performance spectacle bridging nature and the urban landscape, to be presented in a parking lot at North 5th and Huntington Streets in the North Philadelphia barrio on October 12, 2012, at 8pm as part of Taller Puertorriqueño’s performance series, Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio. This is a free event.

Interview #2 with SoMoS choreographer Merián Soto by Josh McIlvain

Q: What new developments have you discovered about SoMoS since the last time we spoke?

Merián Soto: My work is very process oriented. I am an improviser. My work develops out of contact with the materials. SoMoS was born of a vision that has been percolating over time, but it is in the playing with the materials that the piece is made.

New aspects: The summer tent will have projections of a tropical beach. It will be empty except for a white gym floor and  exercise balls.  I am hoping the audience will lie on the floor and look up at projections. 

Jumatatu Poe will be performing with a large bundle of branches. He has a station right outside the summer tent. He will be standing on a floor cut in the shape of the map of Puerto Rico.  Olive Prince will be stationed in the center of the entire conglomerate of spaces. Working with two enormous branches.

I am also including docents who are dance and movement artists and scholars. They will be available to help audiences negotiate the piece.

Q: What will be the process of transforming this vast parking lot into the set for your show in a technical/how-to manner?

Merián Soto: Transforming the parking lot involves careful planning. Equipment and materials have to be purchased, rented or borrowed, and stored. In terms of video and sound we need 14 projectors, 4 laptops, 20 speakers, etc. We are building a pipe and drape wall for projection. We need clean floors for each of the performing areas.

And we have to practice. Rehearsing the piece in its totality is a challenge as it is cumbersome and costly. (Ideally I would have rehearsed in a giant warehouse) Practicing in the parking lot is grueling. Its dirty, and noisy and the cement is rough and hard. In the summer it was excessively hot, now the wind makes it cold. There’s no water or electricity. Getting stuff there – the branches—is an ordeal.

And at the same time it's intriguing to think what the event will be like. It's beautiful to see such an expanse of sky, and to connect with the neighbors when were out there. The greatest challenge for me is that I won't really know what the work is until a couple of days before the event. Practically speaking, we will put it all together on site the days immediately preceding the event. But this too is a precarious plan. Rain will make it impossible to use any technical equipment.

Q: What will be the process of transforming this vast parking lot into the set for your show in a creative and performing manner?

Merián Soto: We go to the parking lot a lot and imagine how things will look, sound, and smell. We plan knowing that everything could change once we see it all there. I am excited for the first rehearsal in the parking lot with tents. I am looking to make the entire event a seamless whole. The challenge is to coordinate all the elements so there is an organic sense of connection and flow. 

Q: Parking lots are the ultimate urban dead space. How do you think SoMoS as a work will echo against its setting?

Merián Soto: There is a planetary crisis of the imagination. We fail to imagine solutions to the massive destruction of nature, the prevalence of war, and our dependence on fossil fuels, the collapse of education systems, etc. I see the parking lot as a blank open space. I want the piece to trigger audiences’ imagination of what is possible, to jump start sensations which may be dulled.

Q: SoMoS is an example of not just taking performance work outside of its "normal" theatrical setting, but of actually bringing art to the people. Does this affect the work at all, and how the audience relates to it?

Merián Soto: The audience is terribly important. Some of the standing challenges have to do with how to best invite and guide the audience into a sensory experience. How to help them take on the responsibility for this experience to become co-creators. The piece is like a travelling carnival that arrives in town for a day or so and moves on. Like a carnival, it's about creating a magical place. It's not entertainment in the way that one sits back and watches something (although, this will be an option for audiences who want to experience things in this way). The audience gets to choose how to experience it. Audiences don't necessarily have to like it, but I hope people can slow down and experience the juxtaposition of images in the urban space, the lure of the senses, shifting their consciousness of self, space and place with us.

September 24, 2012
Photos:  Merián Soto