At Home on Midway Avenue: Interview with Nichole Canuso
Nichole Canuso is drawn to what people choose to embrace and what they try to erase from their memories, especially as relates to spaces. In her new solo dance performance (at FringeArts May 2 through May 4), Midway Avenue, she explores what happens when “the house you grew up in squeezes into your current home, bending walls, twinning rooms, tilting windows.” In the performance, she constructs and transforms her own memories of growing up in 1980s Philadelphia while through her dance she builds—and takes apart—her current house on stage. We caught up with Nichole to find out some background to the show, as well as what it’s like to create a solo work.
FringeArts: How did you come up with the title Midway Avenue?
Nichole Canuso: Midway Avenue is the name of the street I grew up on. This title came towards the end of the process, once I knew the subject matter of the dance was centering around this house I lived in as a child.
FringeArts: Can you talk about what Midway Ave is exploring and how it came about?
Nichole Canuso: This dance grew out of a choreographic research project that I instigated a few years ago that focused on the integration and exploration of verbal meaning and physical logic. The main thrust of the project was, and still is, an investigation of the intersections of words and movement in performance. I wanted to give myself the space to use my voice, my writing, and my body in 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. What began as a formal exploration of language and body eventually became a personal excavation of memory, architecture, and the body. 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 that I was when a lot of my most potent childhood memories formed.
FringeArts: What’s it like to create a solo work? What appeals to about solo work from an artistic standpoint? And why now was the right time to create it?
Nichole Canuso: When I was a kid I spent a good amount of time alone. And I loved it. As an adult my life is filled with collaboration, discussion, parenting, and negotiation. I love this too. In recent years I’ve been sculpting large installations with incredible groups of collaborators [Check out Nichole’s work in this area: Wandering Alice, TAKES, The Garden]. I’m also a mother, so for years time alone meant time writing at a computer, or sleeping.
But some piece of me was ready to work alone for a bit. To return to a solitary place. In the beginning being alone in the studio felt unfamiliar, lonely, sometimes haunting. I realized I hadn’t really been alone in a studio for substantial chunks of time since before I’d become a mother, seven years prior.
But with this project, being alone with my body was the essential starting point. This time alone was not always “pleasant” and not always immediately “productive.” Spending long periods alone in the studio felt odd, like reconnecting with an old friend. Or maybe more like a frustrated grandmother who quips, “Why haven’t you visited?!” And like reconnecting with loved ones or taking a tour of an old house, you see things with a new perspective, while simultaneously experiencing a flood of memories. These sensations seeped into the content.
These sensations became the foundation for this new solo. A lot of personal material was creeping into the process and although I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to use it as the subject for a work that I would share with the public, from that foundation I found portals into new ways of working. And eventually I found the courage to dig around and to allow myself to use my own stories as a frame for something larger than myself.
I wasn’t always alone. Along the way I’ve had several provocateurs, guides, and peers visit my process and shape the way I’ve been thinking about this work. The first and most influential was Wendy Houstoun, a UK choreographer who began her career as a founding member of DV8 and currently creates bad-ass solo performance work. I admired her and asked her to be a mentor in the beginning stages of this process. She was hard on me—for good and for bad—and I learned a lot from our conversations. Working with her sparked a fire in me, pushing me to use text in new ways and to ask myself hard questions. To round out this relationship I had meetings with two other UK artists: composer Matteo Fargion, an artist with a keen eye for structure, and Rahel VonMoos, a body–mind centering practitioner and deeply insightful mover. These two stayed present through to the end, sporadically but influentially providing words of wisdom and outside reflection.
I was also balancing my solo rehearsals with studio time with a group of dancers. The starting point for this research project was an in depth exploration of content and form. I wanted to create a playground for the intersection of verbal meaning and physical logic and give myself time to experiment freely with this without the pressure of making anything. I split this process in two: time directing a group of dancers and time alone in the studio. Bouncing back and forth between these two processes was extremely important and both influenced the other and influenced my working style in general. I kept a blog/archive of some of this process for those who want to learn more about these early explorations. (See photos of the fabulous dancers.)
At a certain point I realized that the material that was emerging in my solo practice was aching to become a performance. After so much time working on this material in an open-ended laboratory setting, it was a big shift to invite design collaborators—sound, lights, costume—into the creative process and set a production deadline. Adding these designers helped to mark a change in my approach but it did not erase the desire for exploration. The artists that came on board to design the work—Troy Herion, Maria Shaplin, Tara Webb—did so with deep respect for the original material and the questions being asked and a dedicated approach to continuing and deepening the inquiries feeding the process.
FringeArts: How does being a parent influence your work?
Nichole Canuso: Kids change constantly. In my work I’ve always been interested in the ways people are both uniquely different and inherently connected. This fascination intensified as I began to parent Simon. Simon is a complex, vulnerable, and exuberant being. He inspires me to be my fullest self. He reminds me that life is short and should be celebrated. Staying aware of his evolution as a complicated and beautiful person keeps me alert and exhilarated—and alternately exhausted. Each moment feels both more personal and more universal somehow. Simon gives me a broader lens on everything I do.
FringeArts: How do the themes of Midway Ave manifest themselves in your movement? What was your approach to movement for this work?
Nichole Canuso: The specific images from Midway Avenue crept in slowly, riding on the back of this formal exploration, so the investigation of movement and speech was embedded in the work from the start. To reflect this, the dance is divided into vignettes, and each takes a different approach to the subject matter. These vignettes are delineated by Chopin’s 24 Preludes. The preludes act as a musical frame for these vignettes and another layer in the structure of the work. The physical and verbal content alternately sit in stride with this frame, push against it and are consumed by it. I took several different approaches when generating the movement material. Some of this movement is “lived in” and natural (instinctual), some of it ordered and pre-determined. Some of the movement is driven by text or music, while some sections are guided by sensation. Some sections I’ve left open for improvisation and others are highly organized patterns. In some moments I’m attempting to carry out an imposed (impossible) set of assignments, while other sections I gently drift along the current of what’s come before.
Thanks Nichole, looking forward to the show!
Nichole Canuso Dance Company
140 North Columbus Boulevard
(at Race Street)
Philadelphia, PA 19106
*Saturday performance will be followed by “Architecture, Memory and The Body,” a panel conversation about bodies and the built environment, addressing the question, do we move differently because of the architecture we grew up in? Panelists include dancer/choreographer Nichole Canuso, 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Inga Saffron, and urbanist/neighborhood advocate Emaleigh Doley. Moderated by choreographer Andrew Simonet.
Photos: Selfies by Nichole; Midway Ave shots by Peggy Woolsey; rehearsal shot by JJ Tiziou.