A Philadelphia dancer is now staging an immersive performance in the former girls’ gymnasium at the old Bok Technical School building in South Philadelphia.
“The Garden of Forking Paths” by the Nichole Canuso Dance Company is choreographed for six audience members — not five, not seven. Exactly six.
Each wears a pair of headphones on their ears and a radio receiver strapped to their arm. Audience members follow transmitted audio instructions, which lead them to interact with dancers and each other, and hear the music the dancers appear to be moving to. Each of the six sets of instructions is different from the other five.
The headphones effectively isolate you inside your own head. All the music and voices exist only in your headphones. At the same time, choreographer Canuso masterminded the experience so audience members at times feel intimately connected to each other — told to hold hands, look into each other eyes — even as they are literally on different wavelengths.
“I’ve been thinking about the beauty of solitude, and the heaviness. Trying to honor both of those things,” said Canuso. “Also community and the way we’re all connected. Even if they are very far away, they are connected to us.”
Nichole Canuso (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)
The piece debuted during the 2013 Fringe Festival in the basement of a former power plant in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. After briefly touring a shortened version of the piece, Canuso started looking for a new space to restage the full, hourlong piece. It was around that time that the Bok Technical School building began to be redeveloped as a commercial space.
“There was also a lot of emotion in the building, being an old school,” she said. “In doing this version, I would want to not only respond to the people and architecture, but the building’s community.”
This update reimagines “The Garden of Forking Paths” on a basketball court subdivided by gauzy curtains into translucent rooms. The headphone audio is offered in translations of Spanish and Khmer, the language of Cambodia, to reflect the demographics of this South Philadelphia neighborhood.
Canuso was also influenced by the recent history of this building — a massive art deco structure that had been a public vocational high school until the Philadelphia school district sold it to a private developer, who is turning it into a mixed-use, retail and manufacturing hub. That transition has not been smooth; when the building opened a rooftop bar two summers ago, it attracted both praise (for enlivening a moribund block) and condemnation (for being out of touch with the needs of the neighborhood).
“When I saw the building, I felt I couldn’t ignore its place in the city and its transition,” said Canuso.
Canuso added a section of audio incorporating recorded interviews with people in the neighborhood, poetically edited to the topics of solitude and community. Audiences are asked to listen while perusing a stage-set domestic library, stocked with apropos book titles and hand-crafted art objects.
“The Garden of Forking Paths” has an extraordinarily long run, for a dance piece: 80 performances in six weeks, ending June 16.