Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Zoe/Juniper Takes Us To Another Shore


Nia-Amina Minor in Zoe/Juniper's Always Now, part of The Other Shore at On the Boards 2022
photo @ Jim Coleman

Lying on a sheepskin throw, my head on a cushion, I gaze up at assorted pieces of what looks like crumpled foil, suspended from the ceiling of On the Boards’ main theater space. As the lights dim, I hold my breath in anticipation of the performance to come.

Zoe/Juniper’s two-part creation, The Other Shore, had its Seattle debut at OtB October 5-9, 2022; it’s both a live performance and a video installation. Experiencing them was a ritual for the senses that defies easy description but I’m going to give it my best shot.

Always Now, 2018 at Jacob's Pillow
photo @ Marcie Sillman

I actually had my first interaction with an earlier iteration of this artwork in the spring of 2018 when Zoe/Juniper was in residence at Jacob’s Pillow. Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey, the company’s co-artistic directors, had embarked on an exploration of the ways that artists and audiences interact during live performance. They wanted to change our perspective, and what better way to do that than to put the audience in the middle of the artistic action?

Even early on, Scofield and Shuey planned The Other Shore as a two-part experience. At Jacob’s Pillow, the big barn was divided by a heavy curtain; at OtB, the audience moves from floor to floor. The two dozen attendees are divided into two groups; in Seattle, half are led into a video installation, called Future Ancestors, while the other twelve people begin with the live performance, Always Now, in the room with the sheepskin throws. The two groups switch rooms midway through. 

Always Now before the audience arrives
photo @ Jim Coleman

Zoe/Juniper works have always combined live dance with stunning visuals and innovative video projections; with The Other Shore they take their creative vision to new heights. Future Ancestors, in OtB’s downstairs theater, is a large-scale video projection featuring performer Kehari Hutchinson. The audience, seated on couches or chairs, watches as Hutchinson emerges from under a pile of crumpled foil. The video, projected on a large, curved surface, follows the performer through what feels like a prolonged birth experience; it’s a slow ritual that culminates in Hutchinson’s self-anointment with golden liquid.

Future Ancestors has evolved from the live ritual I saw four years ago at Jacob’s Pillow. While not performed live this time, it remains quietly mesmerizing, no doubt touching different chords in each viewer.

Shuey’s video artistry is astonishing, but for me the thrill of The Other Shore was the live segment, Always Now. It’s immersive, innovative, beautiful and thought-provoking.

The experience began as our small group was led to an ante-room adjacent to OtB’s upstairs theater, where we shed our shoes and jackets. In the dimly-lit performance space, six dancers greeted us individually, guiding us to separate sheepskin mats laid out in two rows on a white floor. They settled us in and explained what we might expect. 

Nia-Amina Minor, front right, and fellow dancers, upright. Audiences members lie supine.
photo @ Jim Coleman

Once we’re supine on our mats, an almost-hypnotic score begins and the dancers start to move around us, between us, above us. We’re on the floor, but it feels like we’re suspended in an other-worldly cocoon, spun by lighting designer Evan Anderson, set designer Sara Brown and sound designer Bobby McElver.

Dancer Akoiya Harris in Zoe/Juniper's Always Now.
photo @ Jim Coleman

Lying there, you can turn your head from side to side, but you can’t see everything that’s happening. Instead, we rely on all of our senses (well, maybe not smell!) We can feel the vibration of the dancers’ feet on the floor, the whoosh of air when they leap over our bodies. The lights are set up on all four sides of the space, sometimes they're reflected by the crumpled pieces of foil on the ceiling, other times they backlight the bodies in motion.

Always Now at On the Boards
photo @ Jim Coleman

From time to time, a dancer crouches over you, looking into your eyes, creating an intimate bond we don’t get in a more typical performance where the audience watches artists from a distance. Other times, a dancer vaults over you, and for a tiny moment, we worry they might fall onto us. It feels a bit like the adrenaline rush you get on a roller coaster, scary, exciting, exhilarating all at once.

Always Now at On the Boards
photo @ Jim Coleman

As I lay there soaking it in, I was struck by the very “rightness” of Always Now. Almost three years into a pandemic that kept us physically separated for so many months, the sensory immersion of this performance, the intimate proximity to other humans, is celebratory, revelatory and melancholy all at once. I don't think it was meant as a commentary on this particular time in history, but it couldn't be more appropriate.

The cast of Always Now, October 2022, Seattle
photo @ Jim Coleman

For me, the most powerful art is a journey; I don't necessarily need a  narrative, but I want each performance to move from a starting point to another plane, another shore, if you will. Zoe/Juniper’s Always Now did just that for me. And in doing that, it offered up a fleeting moment of grace in these uncertain times, a place to reflect on our human connections: our dreams, our fears and our hopes.



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