In The Garden, the latest work from Philadelphia choreographer Nichole Canuso, just six audience members are admitted to each performance. Each of them is guided through a labyrinth of rooms while wearing headphones that provide instructions (different for each person) and an atmospheric musical score by James Sugg and Mike Kiley.
I tried to be detached because I was there to report on this "roaming performance installation," but that proved to be impossible. Keep in mind that I am not a dancer, and am not physically demonstrative. In fact, I dislike events that are precious or pretentious. The Garden is creative but never crosses the line into that realm.
The “garden” is metaphoric. Actually you are underground, enclosed by brick and concrete. Once you enter a room you are joined by one or two guides who move around you in expressive, dancelike patterns. You are instructed to copy a hand movement or a step, and before long you find yourself thinking “I wish I were able to move freely as they do.”
The voice tells you to stand back to back with the other person in your room. When you do so you realize that although your bodies are touching you can’t see him and you feel very much alone. From that emotion arises a strong desire to connect. You don’t want to be alone. You want to reach out.
In another room a dancer circles you, then the voice in your earphones asks you to circle her. You think “Do I dare try to copy her motions?” Later on, in a different room with different guide-dancers, one of them sprawls on the floor and you are asked to help him up. With this physical contact your involvement becomes deeper.
The motions of the Canuso dancers tend to be graceful rather than exhibitionistic, therefore more enticing, and perhaps more attainable.
Eventually you find yourself in a room with Nichole Canuso, and that’s a bizarre experience. On the one hand she’s a child, no taller than my chin and young enough to be my daughter. On the other hand she is a mother figure, the all-wise expert of dance who created the very world we’re in.
I’ve seen her in various guises. In Wandering Alice (2007), Canuso was the adolescent explorer in a surrealistic wonderland; while in Takes (2010) she was the adult lover of a man. This Garden was slightly reminiscent of her journey in wonderland but more personal and focused on the visitor rather than on her.
You progress from admiring her motions to moving your own body. You then actually find yourself dancing a spontaneous pas de deux with the expert Canuso. In one way that’s frightening; in another, exhilarating. She reaches out and touches you, and you find yourself wanting to touch her, then she disappears through a gauzy curtain.
I have no idea if other audience members reacted as I did. I’d love to hear your impressions, but the show’s run is sold out. Clearly, it needs to be reprised. Meanwhile, call to see if there are any cancellations.