There’s already been plenty written about zoe | juniper’s latest work, BeginAgain, but it’s a show that sparks the written word. BeginAgain possessed so many poetic layers, so much rich craft, that the act of reflecting it back again through language functions as a way to understand it more deeply, and to collect people’s myriad reactions—the different things they saw and felt about the same show. BeginAgain opened Thursday, March 27, at On the Boards and played for four sold out nights. If nothing else, these reviews and reflections serve as a way to bring in the many people who didn’t get tickets. The show needed a second weekend.
While Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey were responsible for the concept, design, and direction, they were joined by a number of other artists who helped make BeginAgain a work that defies categorization into a single discipline. Dance, visual art, video, sound, music, lighting, and costume all worked in concert to create a darkly luminous world full of mirrors and doubles, shadows and shells. Each element played an equal role with the dance—or maybe more simply the live performers—at the nexus of the work. The stage, too, was a major player. Two scrim panels that hung diagonally facing each other divided the stage from front to back and left a wide corridor in the center; they also served as the projection areas for Shuey’s video textures. Dirt spread over the ground in front of either panel. In front of the right panel, a woman lay on her side in a plaster cast of her own body—an image that remained after she walked away, leaving just the shell.
As a dance work choreographed by Scofield with dancer Ariel Freedman, BeginAgain was essentially a series of duets, mostly for Scofield and Freedman, interspersed with appearances by other players: dancers Kate Wallich and Kim Lusk, as well as Rachel Green, who spent the performance being covered in plaster by Kepler Swanson, a not-for-long boy soprano who sang a melancholy French song to himself as he went about his work. The dancers, though, became small in the midst of their surroundings. Amiya Brown’s gorgeous lighting helped this effect, sometimes going so dark that the dancers’ bodies were only hinted at, or isolating them so they became small in the black. Sound design by Julian Martlew (with additional music by Morgan Henderson, Erin Jorgenson, and Martlew) enveloped the dancers from all sides, at times far off, at times right up close. Celeste Cooning’s exquisite wall of cut paper served as a backdrop to it all—a vast symmetrical network of shapes that resembled the detailed arabesques of old Islamic art until the brain caught up with eyes and saw the profiled female silhouettes nestled among the leaves and curves. The images captured in Shuey’s video also dwarfed the dancers. Sometimes these were textures (a dark murmuration that later mirrored itself as swirling snow), or bodies, or even panels of light. A particularly memorable image was that of Scofield’s and Freedman’s shadows dancing on the panel, larger than life.
This section encompassed the whole of the piece, both the visual artistic components and the delicately layered thematic elements. Freedman began dancing in the dirt, her shadow large behind her, and then Scofield’s silhouette joined her—not her physical body, just her disembodied shadow. Was this a duet or a trio? The two shadow figures engaged in a gentle, intimate duet, lending a poignancy to the flesh-and-blood Freedman’s dance since her partner was absent, insubstantial. Wallich appeared behind the screen, dancing a more aggressive version of what happened in front, like a quietly persistent anger that undercuts a tender moment. Soon Wallich was replaced by Scofield, whose movements were similarly fraught as she joined Freedman.
BeginAgain was shot through with moments of aggression suggestive of the violence that exists within individuals and their personal relationships. At one point, a commanding Lusk led Freedman through a manipulative accumulation that gave way to an ambiguously disturbing duet where Scofield and Freedman took each other’s necks and sent dirt flying underneath a sound wall of almost exaggeratedly driving music. While there was no narrative, or perhaps because there was no narrative, these episodes of violence were available for the audience to write their own stories and memories on.
The end of the work returned to intimacy, with Freedman and Scofield in front of the paper wall, now glowing with blue light. It looked like they danced at the gates of a secret garden, complete with soft insect noises filling the air. As their faces brushed close, sharing either secrets or kisses, they possessed a slightly magical air. Jubilant singing in the distance isolated them, and they danced on in spite of it—as though they were at a threshold to something they didn’t know was there. Swanson approached them, rapt, but as he got too close, the lights went black. The final moments of the work showed Swanson isolated in a pool of light, still singing to himself, eyes cast down, plaster evident on his hands. A perfectly timed (but likely circumstantial) crack in his voice served as a reminder of the vulnerability of change. He, too, was at a threshold, but sang on undeterred.
In the midst of its intricately crafted nature, zoe | juniper’s work opens out rather than defining its borders too closely. BeginAgain layered dance composition with sound and other artistic imagery to pose more questions than it sought to answer. Scofield and Shuey welcomed their audience into BeginAgain’s imagery and created an openly abstract, but never obtuse, work. As a result, they managed to capture something at once indefinable and immediately recognizable.
For more information on zoe | juniper, visit their website: zoejuniper.org.