by Lou Mancinelli
“Branch dancing” is the improvisational yoga-like method that award-winning choreographer, six-time National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient and Mt. Airy resident Merián Soto developed and performs alone or with her troupe of professional dancers periodically in Wissahickon Park, rain, snow or shine.
“Wissahickon Reunion,” her current production, is a revisiting of Soto’s 2007-2008 One-Year Wissahickon Park Project (OYWPP) that featured one performance in the park each season. Dancers incorporate the landscape and use fallen branches during a sequence of slow movements as a way to connect to the environment, according to Soto.
“If the audience is willing to slow down [like the dancers], they are able to enter into a state of reflection and reverie,” she said. “I think this opens a window for the audience to see nature in a different way.”
Branch dancing is a meditative performance practice which involves moving into stillness, the investigation of gravity as essential force and the detailed sequencing of movement through inner pathways, Soto writes on her website.
“It looks really simple,” she said. “But it takes a lot of concentration and training to move that intricately.”
Soto, who requested that her age not be mentioned, moved to the U.S. in her 20s from Puerto Rico in the late 1970s to study dance at New York University and earned a master’s degree in dance education from Columbia University in 1985. She said it was her attempt to become invisible, at least in a symbolic sense, when she was walking through the park that contributed to her idea to use a branch in a performing arts capacity.
A little more than five years after she moved to Philadelphia, in 1999, to teach dance at the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University, Soto realized how close she lived to the Wissahickon. She began frequenting the valley, but on trips when she was alone she longed for more safety. Fallen branches would come to serve the purpose.
“The dance of the future is levitation,” she was once told during a conversation by an 80-year-old poet who mentored her husband, Gabriel Osorio-Soto.
Though a bit nonsensical, the thought stayed with Soto. She started to wonder what her husband’s mentor was talking about, and “it inspired this quest find out what that [was].”
She began to further investigate the energy of her body, something she was familiar with from her dancing background. As it came to pass, one day as she walked through the park she decided to pick up a branch.
“Maybe I can make myself invisible,” she said. “These ideas got me into sensing gravity and being part of the environment.”
For Soto, to become invisible is better understood as becoming one with the environment, thus making herself but a camouflaged texture of the landscape that blends in as much as a leaf, a concept familiar in traditional Eastern spiritual contexts like Buddhism. A core principle of mediation is being ever-present in your surroundings. Advocates contend that deep, slow breathing can help one become more aware of his/her surroundings.
The dancers in “Wissahickon Reunion” are taught by Soto to “move into stillness,” or perhaps more simply, “really, really slow.” Imagine tai chi in the form of improvisational dance but even slower.
“It’s all about touch and body and mind,” she explained. Each movement is a response to the previous movement, the slightest shift in weight. It leads to a meditative state, and a shift of consciousness begins to develop at levels of intense concentration.
Dancers Beau Hancock, Shavon Norris, Jumatatu Poe, Olive Prince, Marion Ramírez and acclaimed musician Harold Smith performed the first production of this season on Sunday, Oct. 23, at Bluebell Meadow. The next performance will take place Sunday, Jan. 15.
While teaching and performing in New York, in 1983 Soto helped to found Pepatián, a Bronx-based artists’ collective that supports Latino artists. She has created and presented works and performed around the world. She has been the recipient of an Artist Fellowship by New York Foundation for the Arts, as well as other grants from institutions like the Rockefeller Foundation and the New England Foundation for the Arts. In 2000, Soto received a New York Dance and Performance Award, a “Bessie,” and in 2008 she received the Greater Philadelphia Dance and Physical Theater Award “ROCKY” for the OYWPP.
Soto, a mother of two sons, one college-aged and one in high-school, lives with her husband and younger son. She said she began dancing when she was two. For more than 30 years she has practiced prana yoga, a branch of yoga that focuses strongly on deep breathing. That, running and walking over the years and eating a healthy diet have helped her maintain a physical condition that has allowed her to dance for more than five decades.
“It takes a lot of effort,” she said.