Dance Theater Workshop aims to present “artists from around the world who are exploring new expressions in contemporary dance and performance” and to “advance the critical role of contemporary dance and performance in local and global culture.” So it is baffling that they chose to present Seattle-based zoe/juniper’s the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
Choreographer/dancer Zoe Scofield and video/performance artist Juniper Shuey have been collaborating since 2004 on projects ranging from visual arts to dance. The duo describes the devil as “a world shaped by accumulating, external forces…a haunting physical, sonic, and visual space shaped by brutality and grace.” What surfaces is an amateur-looking dance recital.
Scofield, the lead dancer, and four other company members, along with a “corps de ballet” of Barnard students, pound through an evening of penchés, jetés, and convulsions to sci-fi flick music, adorned in white body paint and Jungle Book-inspired costumes. Scofield, a good mover, does seem possessed by the devil with her tortured writhing and passionately pained open mouth. Her fellow sexy alien beasts yearn and suffer through lots of piqué turns and developés, punctuated by stylized Exorcist moments. There is much reaching towards God, and many So You Think You Can Dance-style eye-locks with the audience.
I am always interested to see how contemporary dance uses ballet, whether the rigorous technique is used to limit or expand expressive range. The former seemed the case here.
In her artist’s statement, Scofield says she “is interested in using the self-command and physical distortion of classical ballet technique: i.e. turned out legs that display pointed feet, placement, and disciplined physical articulation.” The explicitness of her reference combined with the way balletic movement is treated in this piece contributes to a sense of fetishism. There is nothing wrong with beautiful balletic dance for the sake of dance, but this choreography makes the dancers look as if they have something to prove. The endless strings of high jumps and high legs would be suspiciously redundant as is, but the dancers also appear to be straining under demands of virtuosity and are often out of synch.
Then there is the climax at the end, complete with a Nutcracker-style snow scene. As the dancers jeté across the stage to rock music, plumed in peacock tails, shimmering rainbow confetti begins to fall. Sometimes dancers reach upward as though they’re receiving a benediction from on high. The most interesting part about this effect is watching the way mechanized troughs dispense the parti-colored snow, rhythmically dumping it out from above. Instead of being a mere visual effect, it exposes the conscious decision behind it. It is a clear effort to jazz up a dance piece.
Towards the end it all comes together in my mind: the body paint, the animal-inspired costumes, the Space Mountain music, the crowd-pleasing high kicks, the swirling confetti: Disneyland.
zoe/juniper has received numerous grants and touring opportunities. With such a dearth of arts funding in the U.S., how do they pull it off? Could it be the collaborative aspect of this artistic team that makes them attractive to funders? Is it because they’re not New Yorkers? Is it the appeal of the arts-using-technology trend? Could it be Shuey’s video snow projection that opens the piece or the sunburst-through-clouds backdrop that makes it inter-disciplinary?
The audience loved it though, so maybe it is just a question of venue.
ERIKA EICHELBERGER is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn.