THE GARDEN (Nichole Canuso Dance Company): Offer your hand…

“Enjoy the experience,” says Nikki, the box office manager. Or perhaps it was, “We want you to experience the piece,” or something like that, “to its fullest.” We six audience members, standing around the lobby-kinda entryway of Powerplant Productions—on N Bread St, right behind the Painted Brid—are wearing heavy, noise-canceling headphones, connected to a radio device strapped to our upper arms. “Sorry,” says Nikki, “sometimes they cut out. But it’ll come right back.”

Photo by Yi Zhao

Photo by Yi Zhao

Six audience members isn’t an empty house; that’s the full load for Nichole Canuso Dance Company’s THE GARDEN. The basement below us is an expansive concrete stretch, a network of small rooms and squared pillars, and we’re sent down into a smallish room scattered with chairs. We’re invited to sit wherever we like.

“Look at the man across from you,” says the voice in my headphones. “He’s nothing like you. How could he be?” The man across from me is a dancer; he’s in a bright plaid shirt and yellow pants almost exactly like a pair I nearly wore tonight. He’s also muscular, and smiling; I try to smile back and make eye contact.

“Follow the man who is nothing like you,” says the voice. So I do. We leave the others and walk down halls of billowy curtain. “Come to a stop here. Put your hand on the wall. Put your back against the wall. Step away from the wall. Turn. Put your hand on the wall.”

As the piece develops, it is clear that THE GARDEN is a series of rituals. Every movement takes on significance. Walking slowly down a hallway of curtains which ripple in the breeze tossed up by your steps, knowing that elsewhere audience members are seeing something you can’t; a voice whispers a gesture into your ear and you perform it, and it becomes part of a sequence which you can’t see in full, and won’t understand until after it’s already over – perhaps long after.

What’s key here is that you aren’t asked to do much. “Lean your back against the wall.” “Offer your hand.” The dance, which everyone participates in, becomes a sequence small, unself-conscious actions. So you give yourself up to the experience, as Nikki suggested you do.

Even the title has a sense of symbolism and ritual about it. The Garden of Eden; the Garden of Earthly Delights. The space (which, by the way, seems to alter as you wander through it; “I think I’ve been in this room before, but wasn’t there a table and some bowls here then? Wasn’t the wall covered in post-it notes?”) has a gritty, crumbly earthiness to it. It is part of the performance, part of the art, and unlike most art or even hybrid dance/theater, you put your hands on it, feel the paint peeling off the wall, crumble cement dust between your fingers.

Nichole Canuso.

Nichole Canuso. Photo by Jacques Tiziou, jtiziou.net.

The Garden is a happening; it is a performed installation; it is site-specific theater; it is a line dance with all the participants in different rooms. It is an odd social event with all the awkwardness and delight that comes with making prolonged eye contact with strangers.

Canuso’s dancers smile at you and warmly invite you to participate. Dance becomes social but also oddly theatrical, to the point that you aren’t quite sure when you are supposed to participate and when you’re meant to watch, but you do as you’re told. When the performers leave you, and when this performance with all of its immediacy and presence ends and they send you back up the stairs to the lobby, you feel an unexpected gap and sadness where they had been.

Nichole Canuso Dance Company is known for their idiosyncratic and revelatory audience involvement. As a performer as well as an audience member, you get a full-body experience. Canuso’s plays are as tactile as they are audio and visual, which makes them as spiritual as they are aesthetic. October 30 – November 17, 2013, nicholecanusodance.org.

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.