In the eyes of Newbold-based performing artist Nichole Canuso, breaking the fourth wall isn’t nearly enough.
The local choreographer’s productions, which meet at the intersection of “movement, visual art and theater,” are not solely spectacle but aim to serve as full-fledged experiences for audiences.
“I suddenly realized I needed to leave the theater entirely, and I needed to actually put the audience in the center,” she said. “I need to actually touch them. I needed to actually ask them to step inside on stage with me.”
Established in 2004, Nichole Canuso Dance Company, a nonprofit organization, has been creating large-scale immersive and site-specific works around the country for several years. The company, a descendant of Moxie Dance Collective, recently received an $83,000 project grant for Canuso’s latest brainchild, “Being/With.”
Tapping into the visionary’s fascination with human relations, “Being/With,” which will premiere with the FringeArts Festival in fall 2020, invites strangers in two separate geographic locations – one in South Philly, another in West Philly – to interact with one another through live corresponding audio and visual technology.
Similar to a video chat conversation, participants will be able to see and hear one another through a screen. Individuals in separate locations will comprise half of the digital visual, but together, they manifest a whole.
“The spirit of the show is – you show up and you meet somebody who lives in your city who you might not otherwise meet. You meet them in this different way…I do think there’s something really interesting and potent about being in two spots,” she said. “There’s still plenty of strangers in your own city.”
Canuso’s practice of immersing audiences has been evolving for the last decade.
Each experience, she explains, paves the way for her next project.
She initially unearthed a need to foster relationships with audiences while sharpening comedic performance skills, such as clowning, at local theater establishments like Pig Iron Theatre and Headlong Performance Institute, where she was a company member for 12 years.
“This desire to connect turned into humor, and then it turned into wanting to have a tactile relationship,” she said. “The transformative experience of being inside some of these video and sound installations I was making – I was appreciating it so much – that I really wanted to choreograph that for the audience. I didn’t want to choreograph them watching me do it. I wanted to choreograph them doing it.”
Following critically acclaimed runs of “Takes” (2010) and “Wandering Alice” (2008), the company produced one of its most prominent interactive works, “The Garden,” which premiered in 2013 at PowerPlant Productions in Old City.
Inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Luis Borges’ short story The Garden of Forking Paths, “The Garden,” which recently toured in Mexico, guides audience members using audio spoken on a headset throughout labyrinths.
A revised version of the production ran at the Bok Building in 2017, when audio options were offered in both Spanish and Cambodian to reflect the demographics of the neighboring community.
Canuso says the instructions never told them to dance, but rather, asked audiences to take a hand, fall or make a circle.
“I was thinking of this piece as a riddle about dance,” Canuso said. “We would slowly be asking people to dance without ever telling them that’s what we were calling it…Just slowly finding imagery of what I consider to be the choreography of the everyday and offering it to people in these little vignettes.”
“Being/With” will embody the same concept, as two strangers perform a “duet” with one another despite being in two different parts of the city. Through audio exchanges, the participants will ask questions, share stories and engage in interactive movement.
Though the company’s dancers will perform choreography, their presence will be relatively minimal, as audience members take on the true feature roles.
“It’s somewhere in between what I love about teaching and the aspects of dance that I’m most drawn to. I try to bring that spirit of shared experience to the choreography itself,” Canuso said. “The performances have a lot of ‘What Ifs.’ What if you thought about this? What if you did this with your body? I’m not forcing anybody but there are a lot of invitations. Because I love it so much, I wonder, maybe you will, too.”
During the 2020 FringeArts, the project will run for several hours each day over the course of four weeks.
However, once the festival ends, the team of video, sound and set designers hope to take “Being/With” to Mexico City, adding another dimension to the project’s core value – intimate encounters created despite separation.
“Because the technology we are using has the ability to collapse distance – and the themes of the project are communication over distance; loss and embodiment; and what presence and absence means to each of us – I thought installing it in two countries that are right next to one another, but for many people quite difficult to traverse, could be very potent,” she said.