Monday, March 31, 2014

Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"

Zoe Scofield, foreground and Ariel Freedman, promotional photo for "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards
Let me start with the obvious: Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" is stunningly beautiful.

From the moment the audience entered the theater at Seattle's On The Boards, we were enveloped by the world these artists created; a world that was simultaneously filigreed and almost feminine, yet somehow fierce and a bit menacing. It's a world that has lingered in the days since I saw this performance, and it has provoked me to ponder whether we ever really can begin from scratch. "Begin Again" for me was as much about memory as it was about the birth of something new.

Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey are creative and life partners, a duo whose collaborative performances bring audiences equal parts visual art and dance. Scofield is the dancer/choreographer; Shuey the visual/video artist. They are among the few who successfully meld artistic disciplines into something larger than either would be on its own. "Begin Again's" magic started with the set: two huge curtains billowed at either side of the stage, over beds of what looked like the kind of cedar bark you'd use in your garden. On one bed, a dancer lounged inside a plaster cast of her body. Beyond the curtains and the bark beds was an expanse of unlit unknown. As the audience found its seats, a faint soundtrack played: chants punctuated by cricket-like chirps. Above our heads, banks of lights slowly dimmed, brightened, then dimmed again in a subtle pulse. Finally, slowly, the theater went dark, and "Begin Again" really did begin in earnest.
Paper wall by Celeste Cooning, video images by Juniper Shuey from Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo by Juniper Shuey

Three dancers emerged, lit so faintly from the wings that we could hardly trust our eyes that we'd seen them before the lights went out. But we heard a rhythm they continued to beat out with their feet, and despite the darkness, we knew these dancers were real, not an illusion. The billowing curtains became screens for Shuey's delicate videos: what looked like flocks of blackbirds swooped across pillows of grey Northwest clouds. Silvery dancers stood still, then moved across the curtains, even interacted with the live performers. Shuey's videos never detracted from the action on stage (which is so often the case at multi-media performances). In fact, sometimes it was impossible to tell if we were watching the dancers or projected images of those dancers.

Scofield and her choreographic and performance partner Ariel Freedman were dressed in short, almost lacy grayish tunics. Slowly, they flexed their feet, toes splayed, then raised bent legs up from the floor, extending those legs straight behind them, only to snap back to their original, neutral positions. It was as if they were auditioning new ways to move their bodies, bravely daring something new, only to retreat from that frontier. Dancer Kate Wallich entered for a slow solo, and she, too, moved slowly across the stage, venturing a movement, then quickly retracting it. Each woman began again, over and over, the way we all do when we learn something new.
Paper wall by Celeste Cooning, from Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy Juniper Shuey

The black expanse at the rear of the stage, ultimately, was lit from behind, and revealed itself as a huge cut paper mural, designed by Celeste Cooning. At its center were the lacy silhouettes of two dancers, women kneeling to face one another. The light streamed through the cutouts, imparting a celestial glow from above onto the live dancers. (Kudos to lighting designer Amiya Brown.) Scofield and Freedman moved through what looked like classical ballet exercises: first position to tendu, ronde de jambe to arabesque, including all of ballet's pointed toes and rounded arm positions. Then, as if overtaken by some external force, their balletic poses gave way to angular legs, flexed feet, bent waists. Was Scofield retreating to her ballet past, or building on that foundation? For a brief moment, she seemed possessed by anger, as she wrestled Freedman onto the bark bed. It was a jagged shard in this almost misty dreamscape.  It passed as suddenly as it appeared, and the two women stepped back onto the smooth black floor.

"Begin Again" ended with a haunting song, chanted at center stage. I couldn't make out the words, but it left me with a wistfulness, a longing for something that I couldn't possible name. Scofield and Shuey have told other media that "Begin Again" represents a creative reboot, a new way of making art. Perhaps, but the peformance left me thinking about the ways we transform ourselves, how we incorporate our pasts into our presents, either consciously or unconsciously. Can we ever truly shrug off the experiences and circumstances that shape us? They almost always linger deep within, emerging at the least expected moments, like the fleeting images of young girls that Shuey superimposed on his flocks of birds, or the way Scofield's years of ballet training made a cameo in this piece.

I have always been impressed by the beauty of Zoe/Juniper's performances. With "Begin Again" they have moved me, touched me, in a way I haven't experienced before with their art. I am left to contemplate the delicate shreds of my own past, and how I have woven them into a new shape for my future. And I linger over the memories of ephemeral beauty this duo brought to life.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo by Juniper Shuey, used by permission of the artist


  1. Zoe/Juniper was here in Houston a couple of years ago, at DiverseWorks. It was a huge installation with performances scheduled in it, using local performers. It was lovely. I'm glad to read this. If this is a new way to make art, it sounds like their aesthetic remains intact.

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