Wednesday, May 9, 2018

always now...the Zoe Diaries continue

Navarra Novy-Williams in the midst of part A of "always now" at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield
Each of us sees the world from a unique vantage point. And when our perspectives change, so do our perceptions of what we see around us. I'm sure there are reams of psychological treatises on this topic, but at this moment I'm contemplating the subject through the lens of my experience last weekend at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

I traveled to western Massachusetts to follow Seattle thinker and choreographer Zoe Scofield. She got a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation for a two week technical residency at the Pillow, to work with another choreographer, Bebe Miller, on a project called "always now."

As soon as I arrived I was escorted into the Doris Duke theater, a literal barn of a space. Zoe and her artistic partner Juniper Shuey transformed what had been a more traditional performance venue into two distinct sections, divided by a heavy black curtain.
Navarra Novy-Williams in "always now" part A
photo by Zoe Scofield

Once space--think of it as section A--was a shrine of sorts.  Eight "curtains' of white fringe hung from the ceiling, not quite touching the floor. Along with the lighting design by Thomas Dunn, this fringe formed boxes around several silver bowls, and a single dancer, Navarra Novy-Williams. I'll write a separate post about the durational ritual solo she performs over the course of more than 60 minutes.

For now, I'm going to focus on section B. Scofield had in her mind to play with the nature of perspective; how do we look at each other in news ways? How do we interact with one another when we're not standing toe to toe, or in a traditional audience/performer scenario? According to program notes, she wanted to explore how her dancers could integrate with the audience. For me, it was about how I, an audience member, was enfolded into the performance in ways I had never experienced.
Zoe/Juniper dancers in "always now" Part B
photo from a video by Zoe Scofield

"always now" is performed for a very small audience. Approximately a dozen people at a time can be in either room. In Part A, we enter to a solo in progress. We are in command of our shifting perspectives, walking around the dancer, choosing where and how to watch her.

In Part B, we enter the space and sit in chairs along the side, waiting for individual dancers to greet us and usher us to fleecy mats on the floor, where we lie supine for the duration of the performance, approximately 30 minutes. Once we're lying on our backs, we gaze up at six dozen large inflated balloons suspended in bunches overhead. These balloons are dark, and many are stippled with flecks of copper flakes. They are a bit sinister, but also pillow-y; once the lights come up on them I feel I have entered another world.

I have.

Five excellent dancers--Shane Donohue, Kim Lusk, Troy Ogilvie, Kevin Quinaou and Gilbert Small--perform in this room, but unless you eyes like a flounder, on the side of your head, there's no way to see everything they're doing. However, you do experience it through your other senses: you hear their feet as they shuffle or stomp around the supine bodies, and you feel the vibrations travel up your spine. You feel the whisper of air on your face as Ogilvie leaps over you. You shiver with a bit of apprehension as Small and Quinaou tangle above your head. When Small hoists Quinaou over his shoulder, Quinaou's hand dangles just a few inches from your nose. You smell his skin, the sweat that sheens it.
Audience and dancers merge in "always now" part B, at the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
photo from a video by choreographer Zoe Scofield

Every audience member has a different experience, depending on where we lie. But our perspective isn't only about our physical positions on the floor. It's also about our deeply held beliefs and the ideas we bring into the space with us, whether we're watching "always now" or a nightly newscast.

I have spent a couple of years thinking deeply about why art really matters in contemporary society. That comes out of my need to justify arts coverage to news editors. But it's more than job security; I  believe artists serve a vital purpose in our crazy world: they offer us insight into ourselves and our shared humanity; they give us new visions that can open us up to change of all types.

I have no idea if Scofield had these lofty goals in mind when she first conceived this performance. All I know is how it affected me. To use the word 'profound' would be an understatement.

I was lucky enough to experience "always now" several times over my stay at Jacob's Pillow. With each immersion into the piece, my mind traveled in different directions. First, I was conscious of the immediate sensations. Lying on a stage, in the middle of a dance, is nothing like watching a piece from a sitting or standing position several yards removed. I felt everything deeply. I left the Doris Duke theater shaking, with no words to describe what had overcome me.

After subsequent experiences, I began to think about something a fellow arts writer once told me. He approaches every performance with an open mind and an open heart, ready and willing to go where it takes him. Maybe even to shift ingrained opinions and perspectives. It's something I keep in mind, but don't always practice. I am an aspiring wordsmith; I have a need to use words to document and describe the world around me in the same way a choreographer like Zoe Scofield uses gestures, environments and her dancers to articulate what bubbles in her fertile mind.

Zoe/Juniper's residence at Jacob's Pillow was part of a new series there that cultivates work-in-process. I have no idea if, or when, the wider world will get a chance to experience "always now." I can only hope "always now" really will be here always.

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