Philly dancer/choreographer Nichole Canuso returns for her first show in Philly since last fall’s The Garden, and for the first time she’ll be taking the stage alone. Canuso calls Midway Avenue “the most directly personal work I’ve made to date.” There is no set. It’s just her, a piano, and enough pieces of scotch tape to construct her childhood home. Within those walls she blends movement, music, and dialogue to reveal how experiences from her youth have formed the life she’s living today.
In a Q&A I did with her this week, she details the creative process behind the show, how being a new mom influenced the work, and how the “richness of the process will be feeding me for years to come.”
Ticket: How did Midway Avenue come about?
Nichole Canuso: This dance grew out of a choreographic research project, [where I investigated] the intersections of words and movement in performance. I wanted to give myself a space to use my voice, my writing, and my body in a range of ways — to challenge myself to arrange, strip down and layer meaning in playful and meticulous ways. As the process evolved my own stories and my own body became the source material and the platform for these formal investigations. Images and stories from my childhood home kept coming up in improvisations and experiments. And what began as a formal exploration of language and body also became a personal excavation of memory, architecture, and the body. I think the solo veered in this direction for a few reasons. For one, solos are inherently personal, there is something vulnerable about standing alone. Second is timing; my son is currently the age I was when a lot of my most potent childhood memories formed.
T: What is the set like?
NC: There is no set. I perform on a giant chalkboard-like stage with some tape and a handful of objects. The performance is both very physical and very verbal. Sometimes simultaneously and sometimes in alternation. The layering and alternation of music, movement and language is a major factor in the structure of the piece.
T: In one description of the project you used the phrase, "The house you grew up in squeezes into your current home." What does that mean in the context of Midway Avenue?
NC: I’m curious about the notion that spaces we inhabit in the earliest years of our lives form a diagram inside us that we constantly refer to and move forward from. The edges of the architecture in my childhood home defined the twists and turns of my actions when I first learned to move. That house now lives inside me in various ways: as as a somatic diagram as well as a mental storage map for images, memories, and sensations. Some conscious and some unconscious. I’m also curious about the things that repeat in our lives. Mundane repetitions like pieces of furniture, certain pets, the layout of a kitchen, and then the deeper, more complex repetitions of patterns and desires.
T: Why did you use a piano as the focal point?
NC: When I think back to my childhood home the piano stands out as an important piece of furniture around which several potent memories formed. (And it’s currently an active part of the house I live in now.) So I knew I wanted to use piano sounds in some form.
T: Why did you choose Chopin's 24 Preludes as the music?
NC: At a certain point in the process I worked with Chopin’s 24 Preludes ... as an exercise, with the challenge of addressing the same theme from 24 different angles, each lasting the length of the short preludes. This proved very fruitful. The challenge of adhering to all the preludes — in order — became a heated struggle that fed the overall structure of the work quite well. So now the dance is divided into a series of vignettes, each taking a different relationship to the content and to the preludes.
T: How does growing up in Philly in the 1980s manifest itself in the piece?
NC: I'm not sure I paint a picture of growing up in Philly in the '80s, or at least that’s not my intent. But I did grow up here in the '80s, so the details I share of my own experiences, and the style and energy of the project, do add up to a tone and flavor that reflects that time period, I suppose. The project addresses questions about what we keep and what we toss aside, and how we store these things. I use some of my memories as examples and launch-pads for this inquiry.
T: Sounds like a very personal experience.
NC: Yes, this feels like the most directly personal work I’ve made to date. I’m speaking more than I normally do onstage. There is a lot of abstraction but I also reveal a certain amount of information about myself. All that said, Midway Avenue, is more about the universal questions of memory and repetition and self imposed structures than it is about me. My memories and my stories are a vehicle for that conversation and those inquiries.
T: Has doing a solo piece presented any new challenges for you?
NC: In recent years I’ve been helming large installations and collaborations, so working on a solo was a big shift. I’m also a mother, so prior to working on this solo I hadn’t been spending much time alone. At first, being alone in the studio felt uncomfortable, almost haunting. But eventually I learned to cherish this time with my own physical practice and the patterns of my dancing and the trajectory of my thinking began to change. I learned, or remembered, that spending time alone, without a computer, is essential. Every dance feeds the next. And somehow I feel that the richness of this process will be feeding me for years to come.
Nichole Canuso's Midway Avenue runs Friday, May 2nd to Sunday, May 4th, at the FringeArts Building. For more information and tickets, go here.