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During the October 5th performance at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, zoe | juniper’s Clear & Sweet presented a highly specific answer to the question, “ What do we consider sacred?”

Co-Artistic Director, Set and Production Designer Juniper Shuey’s set transformed the space onstage into one that the company could consider sacred [per his own explanation, in a post-performance talkback]. In the center of a theatre-in-the-round, a round white fringe chandelier-of-sorts hung from the ceiling; directly below it lay a muddy opalescent sunburst with a bright white center. Iridescent light shone through the fringe fixture and onto the marley while dancers in light pink traced geometric patterns onstage, each of them crawling backwards, heads married to the ground.

In the meantime, four Sacred Harp singers greeted audience members in their seats, passed out Sacred Harp songbooks and offered vague instructions for reading the music inside. For those unfamiliar with Southern Baptist Sacred Harp singing, myself included, these instructions led to some confusion. Had I read the Song Book’s introduction, I would have learned that Sacred Harp music comes from The Sacred Harp, a 19th century hymnal that maps out shape note singing of four-part songs. The term sacred harp refers to the human voice, and the practice of Sacred Harp singing aims to be inclusive and non-performative. But a performance was very much on the horizon.

Clear & Sweet began with a brief solo by dancer Troy Ogilvie set to rippling electric guitar riffs. Ogilvie traced the center circle during a phrase of suspended movements, emphasizing the importance of the space before entering it with her hand outstretched to the sky. Ogilvie was soon joined by three fellow dancers who were led blindfolded into the space by Sacred Harp singers, and by Scofield, who stepped into the space and blindfolded herself.

After a section of unison floor choreography and some picturesque moments of pause, the female dancers removed their blindfolds and surrounded male dancer Dominic Santia. Santia then broke away to  perform a solo to dissonant heavy metal music.

While dancing inside the circle, Santia found a sense of flow, spiraling through his body in turns and falling into his backspace. In the moments he found himself outside of the circle, there seemed to be some sort of internal struggle – an internal conversation of sorts. Movement slowly built in his body – first he quaked while on all fours and then he moved quickly but specifically, angling his limbs as though he was being manipulated by some outside force. As the solo came to a close, Santia gestured to his heart and paused while resting his hand on his knee — a notably tender, human moment inside of an otherwise highly performative solo.

The next section began with traveling choreography done in a pack, with a newly blindfolded Scofield directly in the center of the group. Fellow dancers counted to keep Scofield as close to the movement combination as possible, and also gave her physical cues when she began to encroach on their space. Ultimately, this section devolved into each dancer giving verbal directions or cuing movement in an effort to get all of the dancers on the same page choreographically.  Though this section added some humor, it felt out-of-place in the context of the overall work up to that point. The script was not set, but the section felt over-rehearsed and the dialogue felt stale. Tongue-in-cheek onstage commentary about dance rehearsals has been put onstage by many choreographers, and when it came to Scofield’s work, this overplayed trope served only to distract from the choreographic themes and relationships that Scofield had begun to build onstage.

Two similarly narrative, dialogue-heavy sections told the story of dancer Ana Maria Lucaciu moving from Romania to Canada to study ballet; the first version of this scene featured Lucaciu performing an adagio of sorts centerstage as fellow dancer Troy Ogilvie told her story in English. The audience later saw Lucaciu dancing more physically demanding solo choreography as she recounted her own story in Romanian (with some key phrases in English). While these three sections – blindfolded rehearsal and Lucaciu’s story parts A & B – perhaps reflect traditions of physical practice that feel sacred to the dancers onstage, they felt less intimate and were not deeply emotionally accessible from an audience perspective.

But where Scofield relied on movement to tell the story, she had great success.

One such example came in the middle of the evening, when the fringe chandelier lowered to enclose two female dancers in its center. One dancer lay on the ground, poking, prodding, pushing and pulling the other dancer using only her feet.  The other dancer, taking movement cues from her partner, allowed kinetic patterns to ripple and spiral through her body, beginning with her hands and moving to her hips and back. Ultimately the standing dancer found her weight fully supported by her prone partner; she stepped on her partner’s chest and swiveled her hips to find a comfortable seated position atop her partner’s knees. Following this power dynamic reversal, the two women danced together, suspending one another like airplanes and then lying on the floor side-by-side like a pair of sisters sleeping. This created another example of a sacred space, perhaps, but this time, more emotional than physical.

In another emotional variation, the chandelier tilted to a downward angle to frame a duet between dancers Dominic Santia and a female partner. A blindfolded Santia began standing about ten steps behind his partner, who began on all fours. Santia used his head and body to orient himself in space before picking up his partner, though not without a fight. The pair engaged in this struggle multiple times to varying degrees of Santia’s success; every time Santia picked up his partner and began to dance, she found a way back to her original position on all fours. In an act of support and selflessness, Santia ultimately accepted his partner’s choice and assumed the same pose alongside her.  

Other lasting visual images from this work include a variety of projections on the fringe chandelier- some of dancers, some of landscapes – and a movement series where the five dancers formed an interlocking chain of limbs whilst lying on the floor. Musically, some sections began in heavy metal dissonance and found resolution in Sacred Harp Singing. Transitions between sections often played out only to a chorus of voices. Though previously implored to sing along, audience members seemed tenuous in their participation.

The work’s final section featured Scofield dancing in the center of her peers, each of them seated in chairs, one near each section of the audience. Scofield’s movement here implied a searching of some kind – a desire to find a sense of control and a way to relate to those around her. Scofield moved one dancer out into the space to join her, only to have that dancer immediately sit back down. Scofield’s solo was gestural and frantic, but she seemed to find calm in moments of contact with her fellow dancers. A tender moment from a previous duet was revisited here, as Scofield found resolve seated on the knees of a fellow dancer. Scofield then walked away from the circle, with that same dancer trailing close to her heels before returning to her chair. In the work’s final moments, audience members were asked to join the Sacred Harp Singers and dance company members to sing “All Saints Bound for Heaven.”
Overall, zoe | juniper’s Clear & Sweet found success in its ability to project inquiries externally while searching for answers internally. After removing her blindfold, Scofield said in performance, “I’ve learned a lot about my choreography, and about you guys.” Ditto.

zoe | juniper

“Clear & Sweet”

October 5, 2016

Memorial Hall – Chapel Hill, NC