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.
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.
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.