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Further Refelection on Somos

Following are two audience members’ accounts of “SoMos,” a large-scale site-specific work choreographed by Merián Soto.  “SoMos” was performed in the North Philadelphia barrio as part of Taller Puertorriqueño’s free performance series, Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio.

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photos by Lindsay Browning

Reflection 1
by Robert Bingham, a Doctoral Fellow in Dance at Temple University.

October 12, 2012

It is a cold night, and I am in a parking lot in north Philadelphia.  Surrounding me are several large geodesic domes, lit and glowing against the night sky.  Within and around the domes are dancers organized into small groups, duets and solos.  Most move with incremental slowness, like ice forming and reforming, or tectonic plates shifting.  Audience members move freely through this landscape.

As I cut a path between the domes, my eye catches Olive Prince, a lone dancer within a space demarcated by chairs and branches.  I move in close and watch.  She is balancing on one leg, her body contracted.  A large branch sits atop one shoulder.  At first, she appears still, but as I continue to watch I see that she isn’t.  Her body expands slowly outward, seemingly from within.  Small gusts of wind gently toss her hair, creating a rhythmic counterpoint to the quietude of her body.  Her gaze, slightly downward, seems alert; I feel included in her awareness.  My body begins to settle, joints softening, feet registering concrete ground below.  I sense the dome of space around us, edged with row homes, street lamps, the distant skyline.   Overhead, planes blink methodically across the sky.

Twenty minutes have passed, and I am in the spring dome.  Birds chirp, a cheerful display of green grass and real flowers, planted in sod, surrounds me.  I am sitting on the floor inside the well-lit space.  Two dancers, Jung Woong Kim and Marion Ramírez, are entwined, nearly mauling each other, hands moving against bodies, bodies against hands.  All surfaces are in play.  The movement is generative, procreative: clasping, sliding and pushing force their bodies into new shapes and forms.  Somewhere in the maelstrom is a large twisting branch, which dips and shudders as they struggle.  I see Jung grasp the branch and slide his hand along its knobby length, while Marión’s foot wraps improbably around its base.  What is fueling their volatility?  I stay for a long while looking for clues.

It is now the end of the dance, and I am just outside the summer dome.  The entire cast of performers has been sprinting throughout the space, dragging branches heavily along the ground.  They are energized, running, pausing, pivoting, changing directions.  The air is charged with the sound of frictional contact between wood and concrete.  Merián Soto begins to spin, her branch slicing just inches past another performer.   Gradually, she builds momentum, traveling incrementally towards a cluster of onlookers.  After some time, the force of her movement levels, sustains itself.  The running around and past her begins to subside.  Performers settle into stillness, their alert, erect bodies facing various directions.  Against this stillness, Merián continues spinning.

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photos by Lindsay Browning

Reflection 2
by Molly Shanahan, a Doctoral Fellow in Dance at Temple University.

It is the end of the second run of SoMos, Merián Soto’s expansive movement meditation set amidst a carnival of igloo-like structures, branches, theatrical lights, video and atmospheric soundscape. The ensemble of dancers have survived the cold of last night’s dress rehearsal and tonight’s back-to-back 80-minute performances. The deep dark of the first icy-aired evenings of autumn has descended. It is not just chilly, but cold. The dancers occupy the concrete floor of the parking lot, the pop-up home for Merián’s work, with full stewardship.

For two nights I’ve watched these dancers relinquish any ties to physical, dancerly protection they might have in a more traditional setting.  The branches they dance with, on, and under have become at turns stake, crutch, defense structure, lover, scepter. As I witness them, I sense deep, succumbed-to darkness. The dancers are exposed to the cold; their regal and grounded comportment roots through the cement with equal parts determination and surrender.

For me, Merián is the focal point of the dance, though there is much beyond Merián to take in. Her embodiment of her own work is complete. As I write this, I am reminded that as a choreographer, I see this work through the lens of my history. When I work with dancers I try to bare myself so that they can glimpse the essence of my intentions within and beyond the dance actions or performative tasks. The potential verve and meaningfulness of performance is only achieved when the dancers accept my invitation to engage fully with the complex and paradoxical space between generative choreographer and performer-for-hire.

Merián circles round and round with the large branch that she has been working with for the past three hours. She circles and circles until the control of her dancerly practice gives way to pure potential, danger rolled with beauty, risk with glorious abandon. I feel safe, temporarily, for a moment, in knowing I am the witness and not the witnessed. Yet somehow I, too, feel exposed. I am only a few feet from the end of the branch, and Marion Ramirez, one of Soto’s longest collaborators and a virtuoso keeper of her work, is even closer. I grow fearful that Merián will swing just one inch more and hit Marion. I feel my witnessing grow to watching, my watching grow to watchfulness. Just when my breath begins to catch on the inhale, Marion takes two small, soft steps to her right, never once turning to see Merián, but sensing, apparently, the wind created by the branch’s momentum. The extreme subtley of this communication takes my breath away.

Gradually, then all of a sudden, Merián stops. There is a long pause as the settling of the dance occurs. Also settling is Merián’s years-long research. A sense of completion that can never really be completed, but that is bookended in time, and, right now, pervades the moment. A few seconds elapse, several seconds, maybe a minute. The air grows heavy, then light as the audience comes to our own acceptance of “end.” My eyes are fixed on Merián, and I feel an inexplicable tug of melancholy and empathic (projected?) sadness. She stands with branch. I exhale. I note the power of the choreographer’s sole presence to imbue the work with her stamp of no-holds-barred authorship from entrails to eyelids. I sigh, also noting the impossible nobility of completing something that will never be rooted in any place, space, or person but Merián herself.  In Merián I see myself, the majesty of making and the inevitable surrender to being undone by what we offer to what we make, a transaction that can never be documented even by the work’s most glorious manifestations. My applause is heartfelt and long. The sound of clapping drifts into the steel grey above-space space space like a child’s ill-grasped balloon. We are going, and Merián is here with a history in her body that she has allowed us to glimpse.

- Steven Weisz

Founder & Editor
While not a dancer himself, Weisz’s love for the arts and dance started as a child growing up in New York City. With parents, who were strong supporters of the arts and part of a community with an incredible array of notable artists in music, dance, theater and fine arts, Weisz’s access and affinity for the performing arts took root. Upon attending college in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 70’s, Weisz started performing as a puppeteer, magician, juggler and fire eater as a means of supplementing his income. This soon grew in to what became Rainbow Promotions Inc., one of the largest entertainment and special events producers in the region. It was here that he began to promote and book dance for major events throughout the city. Many of the dancers he worked with in the early days of his company are now major choreographers in Philadelphia. At the same time, Weisz’s interest in computers and the early developments of what is now known as the Internet, led him to also start another company, Delaware Valley On Line, which became one of the first regional ISPs. It was this combination of event production, internet development and event marketing that led him to examine the use of the internet as a means to promote the arts. Dance continued to be a major interest for Weisz and in 2005 he founded PhiladelphiaDANCE.org as a major online resource to promote dance in the city. It was soon after that the Dance Journal was also founded as a way to provide an outlet for writing on a range of topics that encompass the ever growing and emerging dance community in the region. Weisz continues to run both PhiladelphiaDANCE and The Dance Journal on purely a voluntary basis with no income derived from any of his projects. He is also the Artistic Director of Graffito Works, a unique platform for dancers and performing artists to create site-specific work and to make it readily accessible to the public.

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