A magical, exhilarating performance at Carolina Performing Arts on October 5 still has me resonating two days later. The work Clear & Sweet, by Seattle company zoe | juniper, was repeated on the 6th in Carolina Memorial Hall, but sadly, the group has now left town. I have a good feeling, though, that we will see Zoe Scofield, Juniper Shuey and the rest of these performance artists here again.
“We approach the creation and presentation of our work with a belief that dance is a visual art form and visual art is a physical form,” says zoe | juniper in the company’s website mission statement. That is exactly how I think about it. “Considering the movement as though we were seeing a sculpture, film, or painting allows us to expand the medium of classical ballet vocabulary and how it functions in performance,” the statement continues. But in this case we saw sculpture, film, and painting; ballet vocabulary and passages and frills from other dance languages, all threaded through and enveloped with four-layered shape note singing and a reverberant, intermittent, sound score (Julian Martlew).
I responded so strongly because one of my primary values for an artwork is its approach to wholeness, the harmonious completeness it can have, in and of itself (no matter its shape, content or emotional qualities). Thus, what I mean by the shorthand “dance,” encompasses all the production elements: light, sound, costuming, and space-making with image or scenery. The more fully these elements are integrated with the kinetic–the choreography and its danced expression–the more satisfied I am. And I was very satisfied with Clear & Sweet, for not only does it achieve the wholeness which denotes thought-through artistic truth, each element is itself made with refined skill.
Clear & Sweet required an intimate setting with height, like the simple churches where shape note singing is traditional. Its architecture was created partly by the audience risers flanking the four sides of a square centered in the Memorial Hall stage, making the audience literally part of the piece, and very close to the dancers. With the stage contracted this way, the space above seemed to soar even higher. Centered in the square was a circle of light from above, the shaft of light permeably bounded by an enormous fringed “lamp shade” suspended from the grid. Various lighting effects and projections (Amiya Brown and Juniper Shuey) created different paintings and moving images on the shade and on the floor, changing throughout, but always keeping the brightest glow in the center circle. The center of each side of the square was marked a chair different from the audience chairs–a shape note singer sat in each one, so their hymn singing cast sound-lines across the circle in the square, meeting in its very center.
This is some serious mystical stuff.
The movement begins with one of the five dancers (the mystical pentagram suggested by its points?) wiggling and worming facedown around the circle, caressing the floor with their tresses. Others join, each on a separate earthly quest. The costumes (Christine Meyers) are lovely and disturbing. Made of thin linen, they convey a delicate strength. In places sheer, in others layered and gathered, they are modest but allow for full freedom of motion. But it is the colors that are so affecting: the colors of very ripe, slightly bruised, peaches. So there you, thinking about redworms and country churches and overripe fruit, when all the sudden all five bodies are face up, lying together inside the circle, where they launch a gorgeous, prone, sequence of elastic folding and interlocking in unison, reminiscent of Ohad Naharin-influenced Israeli Gaga style.
So much amazing dance ensued that it was hard to see how they got it all into a short 70 minutes. Much of it was balletic–but ballet torqued; stripped of prettiness and easy sentiment, it blended easily with the barely-contained energy of Gaga style, and with the effervescent Celtic steps. It has a simplicity and a generous quality throughout. There were some very powerful segments in which one or more of the dancers were blindfolded. From the beginning, all the movement languages speak of matters of spirit and faith. The piece, dramatically speaking, is well-structured–it entices, it builds, it culminates, it ends cleanly. The dancing itself, by Zoe Scofield, Ana Maria Lucaciu, Navarra Novy-Williams, Troy Ogilvie and Dominic Santia, was often extraordinary and always passionate.
My one quarrel was with the introduction of three pieces of spoken word. One was probably included to emphasize issues of faith and the submission of self to the faith group, whether church or dance company, and the ever-plaguing conflict in the arts between the leader and her collaborators. The auteur model is out of sync with the currently sensibility–egalitarianism is the byword today–its all about collaboration. Yet someone must lead; someone must have the final word. All this was perfectly clear without the insertion of words, and that first spoken bit was the only part of Sweet & Clear that struck me as a self-indulgent sop to fashion, blurry and overwrought. Because we process words so differently from music and image, this talky bit was interruptive of the flow, and threatened to dissolve the mystical atmosphere. The other two speeches, one in English, the other in Romanian, fitted a little better with the movement. They describe a young dancer’s studies, and how the better she got, the more alone she became. That is certainly the price of greatness in dance or any field, but did this obvious fact need verbalization within the speaking dance?
How can a piece like Sweet & Clear even get made, and made so that we can see it thousands of miles from the artists’ home? Increasingly, institutions like Carolina Performing Arts are vital to the making of such serious art. An astute director, like Emil Kang at CPA, or Aaron Greenwald at Duke Performances, builds relationships with artists so that over time as ideas and opportunities arise, their organizations can support the creation of today’s probing art.
Amy Russell , CPA’s director of programming explains: “Emil [Kang] had been following Zoe’s work for years and we met her for coffee about two years ago to see what she was working on and how we could support her next steps and she told us about this piece and we were just floored by the ideas and sentiment behind it and we agreed right there on the spot to be a co-commissioner. So, the origin of the co-commission wasn’t through the official channel of NPN [National Performance Network], but rather more organically arising out of our relationship with Zoe directly.”
Collaboration is the order of the day on many commissions, too. On this one, CPA had five partners. That doesn’t take a thing away from their leadership, or from the astounding fact that they presented this jewel for a mere 300 or so people over two nights. Such intimate presentations will become more economically sensible when CPA gets its new black box theater in a year or two, but I so appreciate the grand theatrical gesture that put a tiny theatre inside a large one, and made a place for sign and portent.