A stark, abandoned parking lot was transformed into an artistic carnival last weekend, as Merian Soto brought a performance from her acclaimed branch dance series to North Philadelphia’s Barrio section.
The production, SoMoS, showcased Soto’s unique choreography — a meditative, somatic style that explores concepts of balance, consciousness and energy. The event was part of a larger movement to bring major performing arts events out of the theater and into the neighborhoods where people live.
"There is a planetary crisis of the imagination,” said Soto. “We fail to imagine the solutions to the massive destruction of nature, the prevalence of war, our dependence on fossil fuel and the collapse of the education system. I see the parking lot as a blank open space. I wanted to trigger the audiences’ imagination of what is possible, to jump start sensations which may be dulled.”
The performance transformed a parking lot the size of a city block into a vibrant and immersive performing arts experience. Large tents were erected to shelter the audience from the elements as Soto’s core of dancers performed. Shadows of the dancers and images of nature were projected inside each tent and on the dilapidated walls of buildings surrounding the parking lot.
The evening performance was presented in collaboration with Taller Puertorriqueño's "Café Under the Stars: Spotlighting the Arts in El Barrio" series. The parking lot in which SoMoS was set will be the site of Taller's future home.
"Taller is in the middle of a capital project to build a new state of the art cultural center in that location,” said Carmen Febo, director of the organization, which provides cultural training alternatives to youth in the Puerto Rican community. “We felt that using the space to bring art to this community would plant the seeds for the new Taller as a cultural hub, as a place where people gather to celebrate the art of our community."
Bringing a large‐scale performing arts piece to a parking lot at Fifth and Huntingdon streets is not without its challenges, said Soto.
"Practicing in the parking lot was grueling,” she said. “It's dirty and noisy and the cement is rough and hard. In the summer it was excessively hot — now the wind makes it cold. But, at the same time, we were always intrigued by the project.”
The Barrio performance is one of the first times Soto’s production, which require dancers to perform choreography while balancing large branches, was performed in an urban setting. In 2005 Soto and Company developed "The One-Year Wissahickon Park Project," a creative research project of 16 performances in Wissahickon Park spanning the four seasons.
“It's beautiful to see such an expanse of sky and to connect with the neighbors when we’re out there,” said dancer Olive Prince. “The audience has the opportunity to wander through a world that presents a sensory experience on nature."