Six years ago, Merián Soto ventured into Wissahickon Valley Park intending to spend some time alone.
Like many people who visit the scenic getaway, Soto found solace in the park and routinely visited when she needed a moment to unplug and escape the demands of city life.
Around this same time, Soto was beginning to get the urge to return to the stage. A seasoned performer trained in modern somatic dance techniques, she spent the beginning of her career performing for audiences around the world.
“I had taken some time off from performing to focusing more on directing … But when I started teaching students at Temple I got the urge to perform again, but I wasn’t sure where I would perform,” said Soto, a dance professor in the Boyer College of Music and Dance.
While enjoying one of her weekly visits to the park, she realized that one of Philadelphia’s most popular green spaces could be utilized for more than biking trails and picnics.
“There is something incredibly beautiful and peaceful about Wissahickon. I felt like I’d discovered this wonderful resource,” said Soto.
The stillness of the woods became the perfect backdrop for an experimental, public dance series. The soil became her stage, the sound of rustling trees and singing birds became her chorus and fallen tree limbs served as inspiration.
Soon her trips to Wissahickon became performance dates as she began working to create a technique called Branch Dances.
“Branch dancing is a meditative performance practice that involves moving into stillness, the investigation of gravity as essential force and the detailed sequencing of movement through inner pathways,” said Soto. “Performing is about being seen. This is something else.”
In the beginning, her performances were unannounced. Unintended audiences of passersby sometimes stood puzzled as she moved slowly by the edge of a path holding one or more branches.
The series caught the attention of the dance community, and in 2007 Soto and a team of dancers that included dance alumni Shavon Norris, Olive Prince and Jumatatu Poe began working on the One-Year Wissahickon Park Project (OYWPP).
Soto and company performed in four different Wissahickon Vally Park locations, rain or shine.
“Some audience members came to every performance,” said Soto. “I even had someone tell me that coming to watch us perform was like attending church. There’s something very sacred about nature, especially early in the morning.”
Soto opened an anniversary series of performances on Sunday, Oct. 23, at Bluebell Meadow. The next performance will take place Sunday, Jan. 15.
“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.”