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.
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.
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.
One part of Dreams, Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film, portrayed a team of mountainclimbers caught in a blizzard. The screen was awash in white, with 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 prodigious powers and beauty of nature. And the deep delight of a clear wintry day.
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.”
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 alluding 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: Shavonn Norris, Jumatatu Poe, Olive Prince, Noemi Segarra, Merian Soto
Musician: Toshi Makihara