The dance/design duo Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey struggle — and play — with themes of redemption in “Clear & Sweet” at On the Boards, using ballet, blindfolds and 19th-century shape-note hymns.
Some choreographers prefer form to function — the perfect curve of an arched back, the razor-straight line of an outstretched arm, the precise angle of an ankle as a dancer trots across the stage — and abhor the question: “So … what is this dance about?”
Zoe Scofield is not one of those choreographers. A prodigious reader and thinker, she’s usually trying to tell us something — or point us toward tough questions.
Make no mistake, her internationally award-winning work with projection and scenic designer Juniper Shuey is often rigorous and precise. Scofield, a 2015 Guggenheim fellow, began serious ballet training as a child, and zoe | juniper (their partnership’s official name) betrays a love/hate relationship with balletic discipline. One moment, dancers might be leaping across the stage in militaristic sync; at another moment, they might sit in chairs, barking at each other like furious dogs.
‘Clear & Sweet’
zoe | juniper: 8 p.m. Oct. 21-22, 5 p.m. Oct 23 at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $25 (206-217-9888 or ontheboards.org).
But her gestures aren’t just there to be admired — invariably, some visceral inquiry lurks behind them. Watching a zoe | juniper performance is like watching two artists think together.
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Their work can descend into grim themes (“A Crack in Everything” was a haunting dive into the Greek family-murder saga of The Oresteia), but “Clear & Sweet,” running at On the Boards through Oct. 23, reaches for redemption.
As audience members walk into the theater, they’re handed song books with shape-note hymns from the 18th and 19th centuries. Shape note is a form of musical annotation, popular in some Southern Protestant churches (Scofield is based in Seattle but was raised in Georgia), that makes it easier for large groups to sing complex, fugue-like a cappella music — it’s all about inclusion. And you’re invited to sing along.
The stage is painted with a large circle and blurry beams of color radiating outward toward the audience, which sits on all four sides of the stage (another nod to shape-note singing, where groups sit in a “hollow square” configuration).
Toward the beginning of “Clear & Sweet,” five dancers put on blindfolds and interlock in configurations that look like religious tableaux from Renaissance art, including Pieta-style images of Mary holding the body of Christ. At other moments, performers with blindfolds dance with performers who can see — the metaphors are clear: blind faith, the blind leading the blind, etc. — while the voices of 10 local shape-note singers from Seattle Sacred Harp boom through the theater.
“Clear & Sweet” depicts moments of spiritual struggle: Dominic Santia has a dark-night-of-the-soul solo, moving frantically and torturedly in and out of the circle — another likely metaphor — with heavy, reverberating guitar tones drowning out the singers.
It also has moments of sudden, and seemingly semi-improvised, comedy.
True to her ballet roots, Scofield is an exacting artist (given some of the precision in her work, it’s not hard to imagine her being a bit of a drill sergeant in the rehearsal hall). But in one passage of “Clear & Sweet,” she is the only one with a blindfold, trying to dance with other performers who cajole her. “Zoe, stop!” one says as she drifts toward the audience. “You’re going to run into somebody!” “I know this!” she snaps back. “I choreographed it!” As Scofield continues to go off track, another dancer sarcastically gripes: “We used to be doing this in unison, which was really nice.”
The audience laughs, but there’s another spiritual metaphor behind the bit — sometimes, finding the right path means giving up control.