Go Deeper Happy Hour on the Fringe: Nichole Canuso on Being/With: Home

Happy Hour on the Fringe: Nichole Canuso on Being/With: Home

Posted September 16th, 2020

In this episode we talk to Nichole Canuso, Artistic Director of the Nichole Canuso Dance Company, who will be presenting her piece Being/With: Home in this fall’s Fringe Festival.  The performance experience is a meditation on separation and connection as two solo audience members, separated by venue, are connected in virtual space.  Join Nichole and Zach for this happy hour as the two of them discuss the importance of connection in these times, the evolving state of performance, and their favorite places in Philly! to find out more about Nichole, visit the NCDC website here

Zach Blackwood: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. I’m Zack Blackwood, an artistic producer here at Fringe Arts, and today, just I invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Today, we’re joined by Nichole Canuso, artistic director of Nichole Canuso Dance Company, based in Philadelphia, who will be presenting her piece Being/With: Home in this fall’s Fringe Festival. The performance experience is a meditation on separation and connection, as two solo audience members separated by venue are connected in virtual space. Welcome, Nichole. 

Nichole Canuso: Hello. 

Zach: Hi there. How are you this this fine Monday? 

Nichole: I’m well, thank you. 

Zach: So usually we start this podcast off by asking people what beverage they’re having, if they’re having one, because it’s technically going to come out at happy hour at some point. But I have to admit I’m just having a seltzer. 

Nichole: I’m having a seltzer, but it has a lemon in it. 

Zach: Oh, OK. Very, very glamorous. Very glamorous. And if you’re joining us in the audience, feel free to grab a seltzer with or without a lemon or whatever makes you happy that you like to listen to while you talk about art with your friends. So, Nicole, before we dive into Being/With I’d love to just orient the audience to your practice to a certain degree. Nichole is a greatly celebrated dance and theater and installation artist here in Philadelphia. And in the last handful of years, Nichole and her company have increasingly backgrounded the idea of professional dancers, whatever that means to you, in favor of interactive encounters that invite audiences to a permissive performance environment in which they are the dancers. It’s a really soft experience, one that’s deeply foregrounded in care, that kind of slides the audience member into that role in a way that feels almost seamless or natural for them. Does that feel fair, Nicole, or do you want to add anything about kind of how you’ve arrived here? 

Nichole: I appreciate that description. Yeah, I think there’s, I feel like there’s three not mutually exclusive strands of my work. And one is interactive technology. The other is audience being invited into installations or environments that are built. And the third is personal narrative. Sometimes my own, sometimes out of the dancers but sometimes out of the audience members themselves. I feel like each work leans into one or all three or two of those strands. And Being/With is kind of in all three very heavily. But I’d say the one that you’re asking about is bringing the audience members to the foreground and having the performers support that. It was a slow evolution that I think started in 2007 with “Wandering Alice”, which is a piece that took place in Christ Church  Neighborhood House. And the impulse was really to take…I’ll back up a little further and say I had started making very comedic performances where I was the interloper in these dances where I didn’t know what was going on and I was in, I would make eye contact with the audience. So I had a clown energy to it. And I I felt like I really wanted the audience to play this role of being the one who was in the middle of all of it. I wanted to get inside of a building and lead them through an experience that was 360 degrees around them. And that really began it, I felt like I had to take a crash course in how to make that kind of work by making “Wandering Alice” that took place in all three floors of the building. And there was people singing which took place on the staircase. And you were really immersed in show. And from there, I feel like I took… it was almost like I tried to cram everything into that show, and then from there I started to pick apart the aspects of audience interaction that I was most fascinated by. One of them being the agency that you can offer someone, as an audience member, to bring their own memories and experiences and bodies, and interests to guided encounter. 

Zach: And that’s that’s the best way I think that you talk about it, is this intimate guided encounter. My favorite way, because it talks about the exchange in a capacity that the artists and the audience are both permitting each other to kind of enter each other’s space in this way that has felt all the more kind of charged now, as we’re moving through the world. As… Just to take Corona Virus completely off the table for a moment, it doesn’t have feelings. What was the impact that you saw on audience members or that they described in that experience? You know, because I don’t think of myself as a dancer. And I remember experiencing a piece of yours called “the Garden of Forking Paths” at Bok in the women’s gym. And that was such a powerful experience for myself to see my own kind of just vernacular movements reflected back at me by people who I had already kind of placed in my mind as… dancers. So seeing my own kind of… What I consider like goofy, and uncoordinated way of moving and experiencing the world differently reflected to myself, made me feel, I don’t know, a different appreciation for the effort I put into moving through the world every day, whether I think of it as graceful or poised or where I expected to be or not. And I just wonder if that’s something you’re attempting to inculcate in people is this feeling of creative agency and maybe what impact that’s had on people in your experiences so far? 

Nichole: Absolutely. That’s that’s beautiful to hear. It’s this piece “The Garden of Forking Paths” actually, it’s taken from a short story, a Luis Borges short story of the same name. And in it, there’s there’s this labyrinth that no one can find the labyrinth. And there’s a riddle inside. And it’s a riddle about time. And there’s this moment when he says, well, ‘What’s in a riddle? What’s the one? A riddle about time, what the one word you would never say.’? I said, well time. And so, in a way, “The Garden of Forking Paths” for me was a riddle about choreography and dance in which the whole thing was revealing to people that they were always making choreography and they’re always dancing. That’s all dancers. And to take anything that they do and frame it and reposition it so that it becomes a part of choreography was the underlying impulse. So they get sent inside a literal labyrinth. We created a labyrinth. But they have an intimate set of voices in their ears- headphones- helping them find their own dance, sometimes alone, sometimes with other audience members, and sometimes with dancers or performers that were hired. Because we’re trying to think about all of us as dancers, the audience and themselves. But there is a difference between rehearsed and rehearsed as opposed to trained and untrained. Cause I sort of try to frame it as: we’re all trained, to be alive is to be trained in whatever it is that your experiences have given you. And for the rehearsed dancers, part of that training is knowing this labyrinth of being able to (unintelligible)… But putting them on equal footing with the audience members who come with just as much knowledge and experience and desire and interest and then see what happens. 

Zach: And the guide with such an important part of that. This voice in your ear, right. This changing voice that felt like a unified perspective, and also several people’s. And the headphones themselves serving this dual purpose of giving each person an individual route, but also giving each person the feeling that they were alone together. And I just thought that that was so, so powerful. 

Nichole: Yeah, that’s great. Alone together is really a big piece of it- that we’re all always alone but we’re also always together. And so It felt important for the guides to keep switching, like you said, so they had different ages and different genders and it was a lot of… So that people would feel that they… The voices reminded them of different people in their lives or were familiar and unfamiliar in various ways. And there was also a nice shift or an important shift for us in the difference between instruction, suggestion, sound, and music. And so we would try to oscillate between all of that. So sometimes the sound, it’s less important. Sometimes it’s… 

Zach: So, Nicole, knowing that this experience of interfacing with art digitally from their own homes is something that might be new to a lot of our audience members. And one question we’re trying to pose to all of our Fringe Festival artists this year is what can audience members expect to experience as they sit down for Being/With Home maybe in the first couple minutes? And what should they do to prepare themselves for the experience? 

Nichole: Well, with this experience, it’s quite intimate. There are only two audience members at a time and the audience members are participants. So it’s very interactive. You’ll be seeing your own image and someone else’s image and you’ll be invited to share stories about yourself and hold other people’s stories and listen, and you’ll be guided to some creative activities together that include: creating something with the memories and objects that populate your own room and we guide you through that. And there’s a sound design that supports it. And by the end, you’ll have a window into this other person’s life. 

Zach: And that’s so powerful. Just as we think about how we interface with people right now, knowing that we’re all doing a lot of Zooming, a lot of video chatting. We really do meet with people and get the information we need from them, frankly, and then kind of disappear. And this idea of seeing into other people’s homes in that moment has been very, very powerful, watching even our news anchors and television personalities now have to show you what their homes look like as they’re kind of delivering their daily missives to us, has been deeply impactful. Are you thinking about kind of the ways to re-contextualize that Zoom space and that digital space with this work? 

Nichole: Absolutely. The goal is to invite people to see their homes in a different way, to see themselves in a different way, but also to just use this platform in a way they may not be using it on a daily basis. Use it for something that’s more choreographic and poetic. 

Zach: And that thread of being alone together, that was so present even years and years ago feels differently present in the work now, as all of us kind of have this general sense of of loss of lonesomeness in the world, but also this greater imperative to think collectively, to think about the care and empathy for other people who might not be immediately visible to you. It’s just so powerful the way that this work has really existed in this way that feels so enduring, but at the same time, so deeply topical now. I know that that wasn’t your intention in making the work, but it’s really changed in its meaning even just over the past few months. Can you speak a little bit about the development of the work so far and kind of how that’s changed? Maybe because of what’s happened in the world and then maybe how that’s changing the work concretely and logistically, of course, but maybe how that’s changing your thinking around the impact of the work as well? 

Nichole: Sure. Well, to back up the project started several years ago, as with the goal of being in two places at once with an installation that we built. And so that is on hold, but that is happening. That’s still happening, but not yet. So what will happen is you’ll arrive at a location that we have designed and enter a room and you’ll meet someone in a large scale video screen that isn’t actually there. And so this idea of presence and absence becomes highlighted. You meet also dancers who are actually in the space. So there’s real space interaction and distant space interaction in that live installation. When Covid hit we we were planning to premiere that, and that goal was to connect people across neighborhoods, but also across countries- you could be in one country and the other person could be in another country. And so we were already thinking about this idea of distance, distance that’s perceived and distance that’s actual in space and how to think about absence and presence along both of those lines. So it was already in the ether- loss of body movement, distance, communication- in the work. And so we realized we had to start rehearsing online. And it was actually a quite efficient shift at first because the script was already there to support these scenes. But what was really different was that people were in their own homes, which is much more vulnerable and intimate. And so we started to lean into that and respond to that. Also, people were feeling both the effects of loss and the effects of fear and the tone started to shift in response to what was going on around us. And now we realized we’re creating a sister piece. So we were on our way to make this installation and a roadblock came, which was that we couldn’t get together to make it. But then we… It’s almost like we took a side road and in order to keep going that side road was by using Zoom. And that allowed us to keep moving forward. And what I say to people is that on that side road, I started to notice, ‘oh, look at that stream. Look at that pony prancing along’- all this beautiful scenery on that side road that I couldn’t access on the main road towards the main installation. And so it felt like a hidden gift to be able to make this version of the show before then returning to our original idea, which was to build this installation of two neighborhoods, is that helpful?

Zach: Oh, that’s absolutely helpful. I mean, it’s it’s so powerful to think about, in this initial kind of conceiving of the piece, the audience member was originally prescribed or instructed to bring one object from their home that felt significant to them, but like something that they could let go of. And I remember I brought a tiny ceramic pig. I have a dog at home named “Pig”, who’s one of my favorite parts about being alive. And I brought one of my many pig-themed things with me to experience that workshop version of the piece. And then I’ve also done a workshop version of the digital version of the piece. And the experience of bringing your whole home with you to the piece is much different. It is. It’s a similar impulse. Right. But it’s compounded. It’s the next size up. And to see the experience of people who I know very well, whose homes I haven’t seen or hadn’t seen from the… In this kind of framed setting, is powerful and it makes it feel like we’re together when we can’t be right now. So it’s just I thank you so much for the work you’ve done on that piece. I have a few silly questions, If you’re available for some of them, they’re not that silly. They’re just maybe… 

Nichole: I’ll take them seriously. 

Zach: OK, fantastic. So this is a question that I will be game to answer as well. So that just in fairness, for the sake of fairness here. Where’s your favorite place to be alone in all of Philadelphia? And conversely, what’s the place in Philadelphia you can’t wait to share with someone who’s visiting for the first time? 

Nichole: I should have prepared for these. 

Zach: Oh, I’m sorry. I really did want like a gut… Because I haven’t thought about mine if that’s helpful. I’m really just going to shoot from the hip. 

Nichole: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I’m thinking about. Right. Right now, because we’re in the middle of this pandemic, and I’ve been taking walks straight from my home and I live in South Philly. So I just walk straight to the river. And to be alone and to all of a sudden hit the river… there’s this  nature trail that’s between Walmart and then Washington Avenue. That strange change of scenery. You can see both city buildings falling apart and also beautiful flowers It just feels like a collage of Philadelphia. And it’s in its glory and decay. 

Zach: Yeah, that’s I, I. So I moved to South Philly a few years ago. And one of the first things that I really started to enjoy was walking to the Delaware River, because previously as a West Philly person the Schuylkill river was like where we are now. And it’s just such a different environment. It feels industrial to certain degree. But then there’s also so much kind of historical ephemera and kind of almost amusement to that area. And it’s empty and at the same time, so, so full of history. And it’s also just never that populated. But it’s it’s so beautiful. 

Nichole: What’s yours? 

Zach: That’s a good one. Oh, my favorite place to be alone in all Philadelphia. There is an observation deck on the West side of Fairmount Park kind of near the Japanese house and garden in the horticultural center. It’s called the Pavilion in the Trees. And you can find it on Google Maps and then go out there and just sit down. And it’s just my favorite place, to like sit down and read books. And I can hang out there for, like, hours and hours and hours just by myself. And I think partially it’s because it reminds me of what everything looks like at home, like in Florida, just to be surrounded by that much green and vegetation, and just like this living humming environment just very much reminds me of, like my backyard. As a child. And there’s something about it that just… I have to go back there whenever I can. 

Nichole: That’s Interesting that’s the other place I go to when I drive. Is that a Japanese garden. 

Zach: Yes. It’s so beautiful. Again, it just feels like it’s like the world just opens up and there’s this place that just feels like it doesn’t belong. Almost like it’s just like this this environment that’s just cropped up here and is so well taken care of and is such a place of education and learning. And yeah, just kind of pops up out of the trees and so beautiful. But if I’m taking someone here for the first time and they’ve never been to Philadelphia before, I know that this is tacky, but I have to take them past Cheesesteak Vegas because it feels like it just says something about the city. And it’s also just at this intersection of so much kind of cultural change in Philadelphia. It’s just it’s powerful to to experience. And it’s also just a cute weirdo intersection of like six streets. 

Nichole: That’s so funny. I, I can’t go there because I lived there for 10 years. And it feels like living on the boardwalk. 

Zach: I have a friend who lives over there right now, and she she likes it now, but she’s not been there that long. But she’s right next to that Jerry Blavat mural that they’re presently covering up. 

Nichole: Yeah I would be awakened at 3:00 a.m. to people throwing up on my front yard. 

Zach: Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. So what’s your favorite place to show a new Philadelphian or somebody who’s just in town for a little while? 

Nichole: I think it’s… I I love walking behind the art museum along Kelly Drive, there is like peace and boats. And then if they’re art people I’ll take them to the Rodin museum. (unintelligible) 

Zach: That was like the cool place to go on a date when you had absolutely no money, when I was an undergrad at Drexel is people would just like walk all the way behind the art museum through the Azalea Garden and then take the little river path back. And that was that was how people used to date each other. 

Nichole: If all the trees are in blossom. It’s magical. 

Zach: It is. It’s so beautiful. And you see people on all of the rented bicycles and scooters. It does. Like, there’s so much beautiful stuff in that area of Philadelphia. And once we can all be together out in the world again, I’m so excited to get back out there. Well Nichole, it’s been lovely speaking with you about this piece, and I’m so excited for a greater swath of people that finally get to experience this and to stay with you through the development to the real space version of this piece moving forward. And I’m just really, really excited to have worked with you through the kind of changes that have met this piece, and to have just seen the agility, the poise and the thoughtfulness with which you’ve kind of handled this whole moment. 

Nichole: Appreciate that. It’s been wonderful working with you. 

Zach: Well, thank you, but that’s not interesting to people… anyway. But as much as I love you, I do think we have to close this all down. So where can people find out more about Being/With Home and how to support Nichole Canuso Dance Company moving forward? 

Nichole: Well, there’s a Website: There there’s an H in the word Nichole. And on Instagram canusonichole. And on Facebook, Nichole Canuso Dance. 

Zach: And we’ll place all of those in the episode description so that you guys can make sure that you’re checking on our friend Nichole. All right, thank you so much, Nichole, and thank you so much to everybody who listened to us tonight. For more information on the entire slate of Fringe Festival 2020 programing, please visit us at or on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at Fringe Arts. And again, thanks so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe.