Seattle, high-tech mecca at the edge of the American continent, has become a place for youthful reinvention. Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey are no exception. The married collaborators are here at Bates developing new work, beginning the transition from local celebrities to directors of a contemporary dance company hoping to make the leap to national recognition.
Every reinvention, however, drags along with it the smudged traces of the places and experiences left behind. Perhaps that’s the quandary at the center of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don't.” Choreographer Scofield has said that the work’s origin lies in her explorations of adolescent group dynamics and the inability of people to think for themselves. How it is, she wondered, that people fall into or push themselves into the roles of leader, follower, outcast?
At just 29, those adolescent miseries are not so far behind her. It’s simplistic to say that the theme of this fierce, abstract multidimensional work is autobiographical, but both Scofield and Shuey have spoken frankly about their rocky personal journeys. Growing up in the small town of Gainesville, Georgia, Zoe Scofield started dancing at age 6, dreaming of wearing a pink tutu just like her big sister’s. At 14, she moved to Boston where she trained at the Walnut Hill School and in the Boston Ballet’s apprenticeship program. That classical training gave her a solid technical foundation – but that same period also left her with a raging substance abuse problem and later, anorexia. At least one teacher suggested the aspiring ballerina drop ballet altogether, noting that she was simply not able to stay in line. Scofield was temperamentally unsuited to be a swan maiden.
Swans, however, are not the only -- or even the best – aspiration in a dancing life. She danced in the emotionally loaded modern choreography of Prometheus Dance in Boston, took up ashtanga yoga and performed with experimentalist Bill James in Toronto.
She was living in Seattle, was in recovery, and hadn’t danced for four years when she met Juniper Shuey. Shuey is an installation artist and videographer who had studied theatrical set design at Emerson College and was combining a career in fringe theatrical work and gallery exhibitions. Shuey grew up in Davenport, California and says that he coped with a difficult family situation by creating an inner life out of immersion in science fiction and fantasy. From developing installations he learned to consider what an artist had to do in order to create an environment where people would choose to stay and watch what was happening. In retrospect, that turned out to be a key call to action for a performing artist.
When Shuey first saw Scofield’s nascent choreography he was critical – and unconvinced. He encouraged her to go for broke, to dance like she meant it. Their first artistic collaboration, “I am nothing without you,” premiered in April 2005 and became the foundation stone for their company.
“the devil you know is better than the devil you don't,” is an evening-length collaboration that premiered at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in 2007 and then was selected for inclusion in the highly competitive touring program of the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA)’s National Dance Project.
In series of episodes divided by blackouts and shifts in musical themes Scofield draws on her ballet training in unexpected ways. The ensemble’s unison work is formally patterned with an almost balletic counterpoint that establishes legible coherence even when the work becomes violent and dark. The choreography riffs on classical classroom ballet exercises, but they’re presented with a kind of implicit challenge: what does all this delicacy buy you? Steps that should be simple and straightforward are twisted into butoh-like contortions; steps that are hard to do are tossed off with a matter-of-fact attitude.
Shuey, who conceptualized the overall look of the piece, backs the dancing with a video of sooty smoke pouring down, a paradoxical image where weightlessness and intangibility meet the pull of gravity. Jessica Trundy created the stage lighting that acts as a kind of third character in “the devil you know…” determining what is exposed, what is
obscured and what is hidden.
Musical collaborator Morgan Henderson, who has played with a number of Seattle-based bands provides, in the words of Seattle critic Michael van Baker, a
sonic landscape, a collage of instrumental, electronic, and found sound, [that] picks up the theme of repetition, of practice, but it also slaps and stabs the dancers at times.
I have a lot of demons, Zoe Scofield admitted in a wide-ranging podcast interview with Sara Edwards, Communications Director of Seattle presenter On the Boards.
My personal feeling about physical movement, be it dancing or walking or what have you is that I think things get stored in your muscles and in your cells in your body and there’s a physical embodiment of your history… sometimes I feel like some of the best choreography comes from not ‘I’m going to make this gesture,’ ‘I’m going to express this feeling’ but what does my body want to do right now?
Depending on the project, Scofield and Shuey try to mine that cell-deep source for movement on stage, in photographic images and even in a music video Scofield recently choreographed for Dave Matthews in which her Seattle-based dancers accompany the rocker in a fiendish trip to the barber shop. By coincidence or plan, Matthews’ lyrics resonate with Scofield and Shuey’s preoccupations:
Walking along in this haze of confusion
Sometimes I collect, sometimes it takes all of my strength
Just to find enough reason to take the next step, step
But I will, but I will, till I do
C 2008 Debra Cash