South Philly choreographer explores memories of her late mother in new theatrical production

Nichole Canuso uses “Sneakers,” which runs from Sept. 6-10 at Theatre Exile, as a way to convey sorrow but also celebration surrounding her parent who passed away from cancer.

South Philly-based choreographer Nichole Canuso performs in her company’s 2014 production “Midway Avenue.” The show was recently recontextualized into Canuso’s new piece, “Sneakers,” a FringeArts production paying tribute to her recently departed mother. (Photo by Peggy Woolsey/Special to SPR)

Though Nichole Canuso will perform a solo in this year’s FringeArts Festival, the Philadelphia-based choreographer is not necessarily dancing alone.

The longtime creative collaborator, whose Newbold-based dance company has been producing original work since 2004, will be accompanied by the spirit of her recently departed mother.

In a new theatrical contemporary dance production, “Sneakers,” which was created in collaboration with director Suli Holum and sound designer Michael Kiley, Canuso unearths a new era in the relationship with her mother. 

Revisiting memories while simultaneously writing new chapters, Canuso uses “Sneakers,” which runs from Sept. 6-10 at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St, as a way to convey sorrow but also celebration surrounding the parent who passed away from cancer in 2018. 

“All of a sudden, I felt like I had a relationship to every moment that I’ve known her in a different way, and so, I have a continually evolving relationship with her still but it’s different,” Canuso said. “There’s a clear line between the moment when I could create new memories with her and the moment that I couldn’t, and I feel like I’ve crossed that line.”

“Sneakers,” she explains, is a recontextualization of a prior piece Nichole Canuso Dance Company produced in 2014 titled “Midway Avenue.” 

The one-woman “dance-story-map-tour” explored Canuso’s childhood growing up in Philadelphia during the 1980s. The piece sparked Canuso’s contemplation about how “memories are stacked,” such as the recollection of her mother coming out to her when Canuso was 9 years old.

Shortly after that show’s run, Canuso says her mother married her life partner of 33 years when the same-sex marriage ban was lifted in Pennsylvania. But, the matrimony was followed by her mother’s diagnosis and eventual passing. 

The timeline of events paved the way toward “Sneakers.” 

“There were a lot of things in (Midway Avenue) that felt very comforting, and so, I realized I needed to make a new solo….My understanding of memory really changed once I lost someone really important like this and how, when you can’t go back to someone, the way you revisit the past becomes much more potent,” Canuso said. “The past is really interesting when someone is still alive, but when they’re gone, the past is really all you have so it becomes a place to visit and explore.”

Approaching the work, Canuso collaborated with Holum, a Philadelphia-based theater artist, member of The Wilma HotHouse and artistic director of The Work, an incubator for new performance, and Kiley, a Philadelphia-based sound designer, composer, performer and educator.

The reprising trio, who partnered in these same roles for the FringeArts production of “Wandering Alice” in 2008, are not solely bringing their own technical skills to the stage but also their personal experiences with grief.

Holum’s own mother also passed away about five years ago.

As a director, Holum, a Mount Airy resident and childhood friend of Canuso, says she worked on keenly listening and responding to Canuso’s poignant execution of the story, which, sometimes, can express grief more effectively than words.“There are things that you understand and process intellectually and that you can express verbally when you’re going through the grief process and then there are these things, so many things, that really defy words,” Holum said. “And those are emotional, and they’re also physical. Grief really affects you. It’s in your body. After going through this process, I can’t imagine trying to express this journey just in movement or just in words because of the way in which it’s happening on so many levels at once.” 

Holum and Canuso also have shared performance experiences with oral history – a key component of “Sneakers.”

Canuso recorded heartfelt interviews she conducted with her mother shortly before she passed away. 

Brought to life by sound design production, during the show, these tapes will be intertwined with Canuso’s own recordings recollecting her mom through interviews conducted by Kiley. These mixed sounds will be fused with a little bit of Kiley’s original music and excerpts of Chopin’s 24 Preludes – a tribute to Canuso’s mother, who played piano.

“The sound elevates it because it gives Nichole something to move to,” Kiley said. “All the elements of the work are pretty tightly woven…I think the thing that’s special about this piece is what I think is special about most performances – something that feels really personal and evokes a universal reaction. While this story is very specific to Nichole and her mom and family, it’s something that anyone who’s experienced parenthood or loss at any level can really relate to.”

Unlike a majority of shows in the Nichole Canuso Dance Company repertoire, “Sneakers” departs from the organization’s traditional focus on audience interaction. A core mission of the company includes removing dance from traditional spaces and engaging audiences in a range of ways to create experiences for them. 

Though this show is not as specifically interactive, audiences, Canuso says, are invited to bring their own stories and experiences with grief, loss and love to “Sneakers.” 

“After you’ve lost someone, their story is complete, and that means that you have the opportunity to take them in all at once or in your own time,” Holum said. “When someone is alive, then you’re reacting to them in real-time, but after they’re gone, the only thing that becomes new is your relationship to that story…It’s a meditation not just on the process of having lost someone but on the process of losing someone.”

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