Creating a performance piece about a parent’s recent death can make for a tricky dance, even a danse macabre. It can get very personal. Having lost my own mother to cancer at an early age, I can say that the wound never fully closes. Nichole Canuso’s Sneakers makes the personal universal while offering a comforting touchstone to those of us who know how hurtful the loss is. And in her inimitable way, she made a dance theater work carved out of a previous work with the addition of a taped interview with her mother, Paulette.
As I said in a 2014 review of the original work, Midway, artists frequently go back to the same well to draw inspiration and action. That work preceded her mother’s death and gave us most of the information we are given again here. This iteration of Midway has pretty much the same white tape and chalked layout of the Lansdowne home Canuso grew up in.
Honesty and privacy
This version is called Sneakers, after the now-defunct N. 3rd Street lesbian bar where Paulette met the woman who struck her with such love that she would become her partner and confide to her nine-year-old daughter that she was gay. While the taped excerpts of Canuso’s mother affirm a sincere attempt at honesty with her daughter, there remains a halting sense that the mother wishes to keep some things private.
On Canuso’s part, she doesn’t wish to push her failing mother. This becomes such a delicate dance between the two, that after her mother’s passing, Canuso realizes she can never really know all she’d want to know about her mother. Here, Canuso comes closest to embodying her grief in some of her short, lonely, and lovely dance phrases.
She sinks to her knees, knuckles bent on the floor, sidles crablike in deep lunges as if trying to escape the inevitable. At one point, she stands in place swaying her hips as a child might have done with a hula hoop. At another, she waltzes across the floor, her arm holding a phantom partner. Canuso poignantly swings a microphone around the stage as if finding its resonant frequency will bring her mother’s voice back.
Memory and new beginnings
There are conflicting remarks between Midway, where Canuso says her mother often played the Chopin Preludes on their piano, and Sneakers, where she says Pauline never played them. Since both works share memory as a motif, this seems a play on selective memory.
Theater artist Suli Holum has long collaborated with Canuso via Pig Iron and an early Fringe show, Wandering Alice. She directed Sneakers, while composer/sound designer Michael Kiley adapted the Preludes and the taped interview.
This was my virgin visit to the new Theater Exile, and only the third production Canuso’s father, Exile director Joe Canuso, says the venue has hosted. It’s a terrific addition to Philadelphia’s theater spaces, intimate yet spacious, simple yet very well appointed—a fitting place for the family to memorialize Paulette.
What, When, Where
Sneakers. By Nichole Canuso. Through September 10, 2019, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
Theatre Exile is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.