All the world’s a stage: Nichole Canuso Dance Company creates “experiential” dance performances

You are one of six people in a room inside the Power Plant Productions basement, where a labyrinthine art installation has been constructed. You are each given a set of headphones to wear, and then you are separated, each of you about to embark on your own unique journey through this theatrical maze. You will hear music. You will hear silence. You will be told when and where to turn, instructed to touch a dancer on the shoulder or follow them to the next room. You will be allowed to wander without guidance or instruction. Your experience will last 45 minutes. Your experience will be unlike those of the six people you began your journey with, and it will be unlike that of anyone who came before or will come after you. This is The Garden, an experiential dance theatre piece produced by the Nichole Canuso Dance Company.

Inspired Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Luis Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” The Garden ran for 50 performances in November 2013, each with only six audience members. The interactive, immersive performance explored the theme of being alone in our own bodies but ultimately all connected through moments of solitude, isolation, and immersion. The idea is that we are all travelers, here traveling alone as both viewer and participant. “The focus was on the audience experience rather than someone observing what [others are] doing,” says Canuso. “We created a labyrinth-like environment in which six people at a time have unique experiences, a combination of being alone and being together. The dance was both responsive to them and pre-determined. Each person heard different things in their headphones.”

An audience member might have seen other audience members, or sit across from someone and told how to interact or given a simple physical instruction that would trigger a series of events. “They become a part of the show,” says Canuso. “They’re seeing the architecture of bodies from inside the shape in a way that whatever quality they bring effects the dance.” There would be long corridors where each person would be alone. Sometimes it would be very interactive, sometimes very voyeuristic, sometimes very simple. It ran the gamut from highly orchestrated and pre-determined to completely unpredictable. “The dancers basically collaborate with each audience member that comes in.” Canuso says it was a very difficult production to coordinate to be responsive and let it unravel but also to have people in specific places at specific time. “We didn’t want to lock it up too much but we also didn’t want a free for all.”

The Garden was funded by the Knight Foundation through the 2011 Knight Arts Challenge grant, one of only four dance projects awarded a grant that year. It was a collaborative effort between the Nichole Canuso Dance Company and several other artists: it included a maze-like installation set by Anna Kiraly; conceptual lighting by New York-based Yi Zhao; an original sound score by Fringe favorites James Sugg and Michael Kiley; and performances by NCDC artists John Luna, Scott McPheeters, Les Rivera, Eun Jung Choi, Christy Lee and Annie Wilson. It premiered at the 2013 FringeArts Festival, which is part of what drew Cansuo back to Philadelphia in 1997.

Originally from Philadelphia, Canuso went away for school at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. When she came back to Philly, she saw things about the dance and theatre scene in Philadelphia that interested and inspired her. “I went away to school not really knowing much about the arts community in Philly,” she says. “When I came back the arts community had changed, and I was at a place and age to be curious about it. I started working with a lot of people in Philly and fell in love with the community, the process [of collaboration] and the support people gave each other in the community.”

For her, Headlong Dance Theater and FringeArts had a lot to do with it. “I immediately began dancing with Headlong and their collaborative company became my dance family. Also, The Fringe Festival really supported the kind of the experimentation that was going on in the city during my early years. People in the city were really ready to try new ways of experiencing work and there was this festival promoting unusual modes of performance.”   

As a dancer, director, and choreographer, Canuso has always been interested in many different art forms and in doing work that defies genre categorization. “I’m a choreographer and dancer by nature but I really stretch the definition of what that means,” she says. “I don’t think there are any rules about what that should feel like or look like. I make work with my collaborators and collect a group of people that I feel are inspiring and try to generate energy towards an idea and make a project with them.”

There is a wide community of interdisciplinary arts in Philadelphia, which appealed to Canuso’s artistic sensibilities. Since moving back in 1997, she was a company member of Headlong Dance Theater from 1997-2011 and has performed and collaborated with Pig Iron Theatre Company, Theater Exile, Karen Bamonte Dance Works, and co-directed Moxie dance collective from 1999-2004. She has received numerous fellowships for her work, and has produced 11 works through her dance company since its inception in 2004, all of them highly experiential and collaborative working with filmmakers, rock bands, theatre designers, and more to create whole new worlds and alternate realities that transport and envelope their audiences.

These productions include Wandering Alice, a production inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Windup Bird Chronicles by surrealist novelist Haruki Murakami where reality is slippery and the audience wanders through the dreamlike landscape while watching Alice, both seeing and becoming the work; and TAKES, an exploration of film and dance installation that played with distance and perspective where audience members could watch, interact, engage, or watch other audience members interacting.

Canuso’s next work is a solo show called Midway Avenue, a rare solo performance in which Canuso recreates her childhood world from memory in an exploration of personal history, the ephemeral nature of memory, and the collective unconscious. Midway Avenue premieres in the first year-round season of programming at FringeArts this May. After that, her next production will be CoPresence, a dramatic departure from the large cast and heavily-designed experiential Garden. CoPresence is a multi-disciplinary project about identity and location in which two halves of the same performance will happen in different cities simultaneously. Both will be incomplete halves that fit together like a locket, with an installation component that allows people to step inside and interact with people in the other city. “It’s a way to join audiences in different cities,” she says. CoPresence will premiere in a couple of years.

As she continues to explore the multiple facets of the human experience in her work, the city of Philadelphia – the arts community and the viewing public alike – continue to embrace her. “The community in general is the beating heart of this,” she says. And because of this, Philly is a wellspring of experimental theatre, where artists interested in doing something outside of the ordinary flock. “People who want to make this kind of work keep moving here.”