Posted by: strugglesome | February 19, 2011

Jack Be Nimble: Nichole Canuso Dance Company’s As the Eyes of the Seahorse

What do you get when you cross a wooden roof, a thousand candles, a piano, a drum set, an indie rock band and a group of 6 dancers decked out in pristine white? Well, if you answered a recipe for disaster, you could not be more wrong. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea, mixing open flames, white after labor day, witnesses, but as it turns out, a show that in theory could have been disastrous and inaccessible is in practice one of the most intimate relaxed and interesting dance pieces in Philadelphia this spring. But how could we be surprised, given that the creators of this work are Nichole Canuso Dance Company in conjuncture with The Mural and the Mint? If there are two more accessible groups performing so far in 2011 I have yet to see them.

Anyone who attended the Nichole Canuso Dance Company benefit (written up here) last May will recognize the seeds of Canuso’s dance presentation during the event now flowering in this work. Fresh from its January run at the Here Arts Center in New York, the piece is staged in The Maas Building, a beautiful and increasingly used loft style space in Northern Liberties, which feels like nothing so much as some friend’s awesome attic during a house party. And that’s what this piece feels like, in its entirety. A house party, with a great band, a fantastic group of dancers, and ample beverages for all. Oh yeah, and an amazing 60 minutes of integrated sound and dance ruminating on relationships, contact and impact. And to think, I usually just bring a fun dip.

Part of what makes this work so inviting and engaging is its format. The piece is opened and closed by Michael Kiley, founder of The Mural and The Mint, a free music project. Riley, leading musicians Eliza Jones, Corey Duncan, Jebney Lewis and Joshua Delpech-Ramey, welcomes the audience to the show, pauses for applause between numbers, explains himself, acknowledging the performance completely. There is no artifice here, no fourth wall, just the clear gift of music and dance being generously shared, both with the audience and with each other.

The dancers, Subcircle‘s Niki Cousineau, John Luna, Shannon Murphy, Scott McPheeters, Meg Foley, and Canuso herself, who also choreographed the piece, all sing along with the band in various moments, and watch each other as they dance, leaning against the walls and sitting among the audience when they get a rest. The musicians are invited into the dance as well; they tentatively join the dancers and then retreat back into their corners, grasping their instruments with relief. Corey Duncan is especially active, resulting in a gently amusing exchange with John Luna. There is an integration of artists in this piece that is admirable, the communication between music and dance is real and palpable. Moreover, watching Canuso’s choreography imprinted on so many bodies demonstrates the satisfaction to be had in both collective motion and individual expression; each of these dancers is talented enough to maintain the form of Canuso’s movement vocabulary while embodying the movement with their own personality.

Warm yellow and cool blue lighting by Mark O’Maley mixes with scattered tea lights in mason jars, painting shadows over the space and bathing the dancers in warmth and contrast. Dancers in white swirl through the room like modern-day whirling dervishes, making contact, testing the impact of their bodies against each other, and then dispersing, scattering like leaves.

The dancers begin to play with pairings, duos making physical images, playing with each others limbs, brushing past each other, holding hands, crumpling to the ground. The lighting quick transitions between smooth floating passages of movement and hard quick jerky sequences are continually exciting; they have all the suddenness and energy of a summer storm. At times the dances become sculpted in time, in other moments they are free-flowing, but they are all marked with the precision that separates dance from random motion. Some especially beautiful moments include a trio piece of Cousineau, Canuso and Luna set to “I Was Never Loved”, a duo between Foley and Murphy, and an achingly lovely exchange between Canuso and Riley  to “All That We Had”, a dance that illustrates Canuso’s gorgeous and expressive style and Riley’s haunty musicality.

While we are accustomed to music scoring dance, this piece is a rare instance of dance scoring music. At the center of this work lies Michael Kiley and The Mural and the Mint and the soulful and stirring songs crooned and strummed out by the band. The music seems to direct the dance, rather than simply being relegated to the role of soundtrack. The music and movement feel as though are in conversation, which is, of course, the goal of this kind of collaboration. You can’t close your eye and listen or close your ears and hear without missing something vitally important to your understanding of this work. Take away one part and you destroy the whole. Put it all together and it is more then you thought was possible. “Let in the size of it all” as The Mural and the Mint implores us, it’s worth it.

As The Eyes of the Seahorse will be playing at 7:30 and 9:30 on Saturday, February 19th. And hopefully somewhere else sometime soon. If you run, you might be able to pick up tickets here. All music is available for download here.

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