REVIEW: Nicole Canuso’s Garden of Forking Paths

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Part meditation, part choose your own adventure, Nicole Canuso’s latest creation, the aptly named “Garden of Forking Paths” (inspired by a short story of the same name by Luis Borges) breathes new life into the controversial Bok Building in South Philadelphia, bringing audiences up close and personal with the dancers and the building itself. It’s meticulously well planned (a fact you won’t truly appreciate unless you experience it yourself), but seeded with moments of freedom and play, creating a uniquely enjoyable moving meditation.

Generally speaking, a performance in which the dancers outnumber the audience is an embarrassing indication of poor tickets sales or bad marketing. But this is not the case with Canuso’s work. Audience members receive a headset upon arrival, and an email upon first purchasing tickets that explains the program is designed for exactly six people: no more, no less. If you buy a ticket, you have to be there.

So what happens once you arrive? I don’t want to give too much away, but the experience takes place inside the old girls gymnasium, which has been divided into smaller rooms by sheer, hanging curtains. A voice comes on in your headset, inviting you to take a seat but because this is no ordinary theatre, there’s a mishmash collection of white chairs, some already taken by the artists who will serve as your guides (although they’re much more than that) for the next hour.

Being the slightly manic, type A rule follower that I am, I had a bit of panic when it seemed that everyone else had taken a seat, or that other audience members were following lines of tape on the floor while I was still standing there waiting to be told what to do. Had I missed my instructions? Was I going to mess the whole thing up? But no: each headset had a slightly different narrative and slightly different set of instructions; I was exactly where I was meant to be.

“Garden of Forking Paths” blurs the line between audience and performer but not in a scary stand-in-the-center-of-the-room-while-everyone-is-watching-you sort of way. Participants move through different vignettes, while listening to interviews with locals from the surrounding neighborhood or being directed to offer their hand to one of the performers.

You dance without realizing you’re dancing and at one point I found myself performing a little duet with another critic: resting a hand on the gymnasium’s wall, stepping forward, turning, again and again. Our duet became a quartet, accented by local movement artists Eun Jung Choi and Jenson Titus Lavallee.

I felt awkward at times, having seen (and reviewed) many of the artists before within the protective confines of a traditional proscenium stage. But they’re all smiles and gentle gestures, inviting you in when you’re not sure where to go and leading you through the labyrinth from one room to the next.

There are delightful surprises along the way (which, again, I don’t want to ruin) and moments for stillness and self reflection. The curtains allow you to see what’s going on around you and sometimes you find yourself treated to a private performance, nestled into a corner or pathway, obscured from everyone’s view but your own.

If you don’t like to be touched, this experience is not for you. You’ll have to hold hands (and eye contact) with complete strangers at times– a terrifying concept in this digital age. I lost my focus when I found myself face to face with my date for the evening, offering her my outstretched hand so she could trace the lines on my palm. But our giggles soon subsided as we were swept, once again, into the dreamlike experience created by Canuso’s exquisite installation.

About Kat Richter

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and professor of both dance and cultural anthropology. She is also the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Lady Hoofers Tap Ensemble, Philadelphia’s premiere all-female tap company. Her work has appeared in Glamour, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and The Journal of Research in Dance Education.

As a professional dancer, Richter began her apprenticeship with the New Jersey Tap Ensemble at the age of 9 and was promoted to Principal Dancer while still in high school. In 2005, she received a scholarship to Oxford University and returned to the UK in 2009. She holds a BA in Dance and History from Goucher College and an MA in Dance Anthropology from Roehampton University. A proud Philadelphia transplant, she blogs at www.fieldworkinstilettos.com

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