Thursday, May 28, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Merián Soto

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Merián Soto

Merián Soto
(photo: Martin Poucher)

Puerto Rican dancer, choreographer, video and improvisation artist, BESSIE awardee, Merián Soto, is the creator of aesthetic/somatic practices Modal Practice and  Branch Dancing, a meditative movement praxis with tree branches that investigates consciousness in performance, and provides an entry into conversations about the importance of trees to human existence, their stewardship of our waters systems, and our essential connection to nature.  Her Branch Dance Series includes dozens of performances on stage, in galleries, and in nature, as well as video installations, and year-long seasonal projects including the award-winning One-Year Wissahickon Park Project (2007-08). Soto is a 2019 United States Artist Doris Duke Fellow in Dance and Professor in the Esther Boyer College of Music & Dance at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she teaches improvisation and Modal Practice, a creative methodology centered on unifocal movement sustained and practiced over time.

Above and below: from Branch Dance practice
in Wissahickon Valley Park
(photos courtesy of the artist)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

All my work has been affected. Several performances in Philadelphia and Puerto Rico were cancelled. A residency project with Eiko Otake at Northwestern University has been postponed. I have stopped rehearsing with Silvana Cardell on Disposable Bodies, a new piece she’s creating linking gun violence and animal cruelty. The solo improvisational performance piece I had been building steadily now seems like a distant memory. Work on the documentary, ¡Fenomenal! Rompeforma 1989-1996, in collaboration with Viveca Vázquez, is pretty much at a stand still.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

I have always danced. My mom, Andy Soto, put me in ballet classes at a very young age. I grew up by the sea; I danced on the beach. There was always dancing in my family home in Puerto Rico. I learned partner dancing with my dad, Henry Soto. Dancing with my family is still a source of great joy.

I came of age as a dancer in New York City in the 1970s. Despite various injuries, I was intent on pursuing a life in dance. I landed a cheap loft on Canal Street where, aided by a CETA job, I dedicated myself to practicing my art 24/7. I set on a path of invention and self-transformation: decolonizing myself and healing physical and psychic wounds, through the practice of an original dance, one that honors the wisdom of my sensing, feeling, thinking, dancing body and validates my personal history, gender, cultural background and experience.

Working long hours in the studio, improvising, moving very slowly, I came to regard pain as my teacher and partner, not something to push through, but to work with, breathe into, release and transform. I came to understand the body as the site of interdisciplinarity, the place where all experience converges. This has evolved a creative approach that involves the energetic body and consciousness.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

Dance, somatic, and aesthetic practices can be powerful agents for personal and creative growth, wellness, good. Creating work and performing fill me with delight, energy, and inspiration. My practice celebrates creative freedom, the wisdom of the dancing body/mind/soma, and values the everyday/anytime as creative space. My (aging) body is my instrument and teacher. My vision is to dance ‘til I die, to inspire others to dance the energetic body, to debunk the myth of inevitable decrepitude in aging.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

I am trying to stay calm, to not despair, to not give in to the uncertainty and sadness--breathe, wait, be patient, trust my body/self/creativity, ear to the ground. Two months into this pandemic, I’m just trying not to give into lethargy. Daily walks in Wissahickon Valley Park have been most helpful; I’ve reconnected with Branch Dancing which is all about connecting/responding to touch, gravity, place. Very much suited to current reality, the branch serves as a kind of social distancing insurance (smiley face). I also practice Keep it Moving, using a timer I commit to move the whole body continuously for 30 minutes. Sometimes there are sub-scores such as shaking, bouncing, spiraling, Be With What Is, Healing Dance for ________.

AND, I'm practicing gratitude; for my job, my family, my home near the park, and my friends and colleagues. I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect with you, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, here on InfiniteBody. I’m excited to  be included in upcoming books: Julie Lemberger’s coloring book, Modern Women Dancing Through the 21st Century, and Nibia Pastrana and Susan Homar’s, La danza experimental en Puerto Rico, interviewed by Alejandra Martorell.

I am grateful and heartened to see dancers online rally to stay strong and present, reinventing ourselves. Shout out to Maria Bauman-Morales for her brilliant moderating of Real Talk, the online discussion of Creating New Futures, and to the writers Jumatatu Poe, Yanira Castro, Amy Smith, et al., for their vision and labor. To Marion Ramírez who has opened a virtual studio for sharing her deep movement wisdom, Caracola, to Sarah Bush for Six Foot Wing Project in nature, to Megan Bridge for valiantly continuing to perform online with <fidget>, to Awilda Rodríguez Lora and Ying Yu for their daily dance practice shared on social media. 

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

Honestly, it’s hard to function. I’m in a kind of holding pattern, wait and see, become open to the new, while drawing from a lifetime of experience.  I’ve ventured into graphic art, and I’m trying to figure out how to effectively teach dance online.

Disasters force us to be on high alert. Pandemic art is an art of survival. It is also an art of submission. The world as we know has abruptly and fundamentally changed, and we must yield. We must adapt to restrict our movement and contact with others, forcing us to isolate and slow down. We must rely on the web for social interaction. Our delicious art of moving/playing with others has become deadly.

The lessons of improvisation can help guide us through. Self-care is not selfishness or narcissism, but an absolute necessity; survival requires that you put the air mask on first before helping others. Be With What Is is a practice of accepting whatever is coming up at the moment of dancing. It teaches that sometimes it is appropriate to retreat and prepare for an uncertain future.

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

Go to the woods, or the park, or the beach. Get out! Walk, breathe fresh air, soak up the sunshine, commune with the wind, find stillness by a stream, pond, or other body of water. Mirror water. Mirror the wind.

Go to the woods


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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