On a crisp October night, Merián Soto/Performance Practice’s SoMoS transformed a parking lot in the North Philly barrio into an inspired performance installation on the somewhat counterintuitive theme of nature. The scent of sage permeated the air, and soundscapes of wind blowing and water flowing were punctuated by the occasional plane flying overhead and cars humming down nearby streets.
At sunset, the lot began to fill with people, including many families with young children, who milled about a fanciful scene dotted with geodesic-dome tents. But there was no moment when everyone was corralled to a specific place to sit and watch the performance. Viewers were free to wander and experience the scene as they wished, as a dozen or so slow, graceful dancers inside and outside the tents manipulated and balanced large tree branches.
This was the grand finale of Temple professor Soto’s seven-year experimental Branch Dance series. Most of the prior dozens of performances had occurred in natural settings — in the woods of Fairmount Park, on the banks of the Wissahickon, in the snow, in a storm. But for last Friday’s culmination, Soto chose a different sort of setting: the parking lot at Fifth and Huntingdon that will soon become the new home of community center Taller Puertorriqueño. The night brought a bit of nature into the gritty city.
Video projected onto a large screen and the fabric of the tents enveloped the performance in natural imagery of different seasons. Autumn was present outdoors in the reality of the nippy weather and on video projected on a large screen, while the three tents represented summer, winter and spring. Viewers could settle into seating areas outside each tent, circle around to watch the shadows the dancers inside cast onto the translucent tent walls, or head inside for a closer view.
Inside, the summer tent had the feel of a beach, and the sound of the sea rolling to and from the shore. Kids were drawn here not just because it was strewn with beach balls, but for the tent’s focal point: a woman dressed as a mermaid, lying in the center as if she’d just washed ashore. Children became part of the performance as they rolled the balls around her. Occasionally the mermaid would kick up her tail or stir to tap on balls that came her way. It was convincing enough: One child was overheard asking her parent, “Is that a real mermaid?”
The spring tent sported a fresh grassy floor for a duet, and a peaceful calm suffused both spring and winter areas. If you hung around a bit, it rubbed off on your own state of mind; focusing on a specific scenario for a while proved an intimate meditative experience. The exceptionally slow movements of the dancers — the speed of their gestures was reminiscent of Japanese Butoh dancing, but without the psychology or makeup — compelled you to focus on the tiny details of how they carefully twisted and bent their bodies around branches and one another, much like a tree bends in the wind, a plant wraps around a pole or a flower opens toward light. Each individual scenario was so measured that in isolation you might think nothing much was happening, but the multitude of different activities created a kinetic energy, and moving back and forth between the settings, it was clear how things were constantly changing.
As the evening wore on, the illumination in the tents and the shadows of the performers grew more pronounced against the darkening sky — an eerie, mysterious effect. To someone standing in the center of the lot and reviewing the full scene, the domed tents felt like beacons, calling for attention while also shedding light on performers dancing in the open air.
Although this piece was an artful contemplative installation featuring abstract tableaus, children were as spellbound as the dance connoisseurs — their curiosities piqued by this fascinating environmental wonderland, parked for just one special night in the middle of an inner-city block.