Go Deeper

Postcards from the Woods: Q&A with Merian Soto

Posted September 18th, 2009

One of the Live Arts Festival highlights with Philadelphia origins is Merián Soto’s new work Postcards from the Woods. A professor at Temple University and a long-time member of the dance community in both Philadelphia and New York, Merián’s no stranger to working with the woods. Her One Year Wissahickon Park Project explored some of her new movement ideas in the city’s natural landscape. With Postcards from the Woods, she brings them—and some seriously huge tree branches—inside the stark space of the Ice Box, where there are only three more performances: tonight at 7:00 pm, and tomorrow at 2:00 and 4:00 pm. This week, I finally caught up with Merián to learn about how the show coalesced.

Why did you become interested in working in and working with natural environments?
I’m a nature girl. I grew up on the beaches and hills of Puerto Rico. I’ve been working with nature all my life. My first full evening solo performance in 1979 was called El Agua Viva [The Living Water] and explored the physical and spiritual aspects of water.

What elements from the One Year Wissahickon Park Project made it into Postcards from the Woods? Are they of a piece, or is Postcards an evolution of your ideas?
All the branch dances are connected. They all evolve into one another. Postcards is an extension of OYWPP. All the dancers have been through that process together; the practice of connecting and moving into stillness is the same. The sound is from the woods. The videos are from the woods.

Stillness seems like such a strong element of Postcards from the Woods. As a dancer, what are the different movement challenges in a work like this, compared to a more kinetic piece?
This work takes an enormous amount of discipline. The performance task is simple—to connect energetically and be present while approaching stillness. There is an expansion of one’s sense of touch and the act of touching/holding the branch as well as the establishment of an energetic feedback circuit. Slowing down can be difficult particularly as one shifts one’s weight, or moves from the ground to standing or when balancing these humongous branches. But it’s thrilling to achieve things that one never thought one could. A balancing happens in the body and the psyche. We always feel better after dancing in this way. A transformation happens.

You perform in Postcards from the Woods. What did you look for when selecting the three other dancers who perform with you?
Aside from being excellent dancers and performers, Olive Prince, Jumatatu Poe, and Noemí Segarra are thinkers. They are also great people and are not afraid to go DEEP. They want to go deep. We’ve also been working together for a long time so they KNOW the work. And they have a great sense of humor. Quite simply, they are committed to the work. It is very satisfying to collaborate with them.

Watching your preview, it felt like the branches you danced with were alive—like they were part of a duet with each dancer. Why did you bring them into the performance space?
Yes! Working with the branches is a bit like contact improvisation in that these are definitely duets. Each branch has its own dance. One has to listen (with the touch) to the branch; one responds. If you just push it around it’s a whole other experience. The huge branches we are working with were appropriate to the Ice Box. Only a huge space like the Ice Box can accommodate them. They won’t fit anywhere else.

What about the tone of “Postcards” will audiences find most intriguing?
I hope they will love everything. But I think it will be how they themselves feel as they experience the work.

Postcards from the Woods will be performed at the Ice Box tonight at 7:00 pm, and will be performed twice tomorrow at 2:00 and 4:00 pm.

–Nicholas Gilewicz

Photos by Bill Hebert.