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Zoe/Juniper’s Clear & Sweet a Delight to the Senses

by Amanda Abrams
October 6, 2016
Memorial Hall - The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
114 East Cameron Avenue
Chapel Hill, NC 27599
(919) 843-3333
The setting for Zoe/Juniper’s Clear & Sweet, which was performed at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on Oct. 6, was about as accessible and transparent as it could be. The folding seats in front of the traditional proscenium stage went unused; instead, chairs were arranged on the stage itself, lined up on all four sides to form a box. Inside was the performance space, with its set—a fiery circle painted on the floor, and a circular fringe suspended from the ceiling—visible before the show began. There was no backstage.

I’d seen Zoe/Juniper last year in Washington, DC, in “BeginAgain,” a beautiful performance in which the stage was also wholly transformed. That was a different set of dancers, though, and I feared that this show wouldn’t be quite as enthralling.

I needn’t have worried. “Clear & Sweet” was an utter delight to the senses, 70-minutes of pure pleasure. And the freshness and immediacy of the set design made the performance an almost participatory act.

The show used five dancers, including choreographer Zoe Scofield, who either sat in chairs in the front row of the audience or stepped onstage to perform sections of the piece. They were accompanied by four sacred harp singers seated in the audience; these musicians performed a cappella hymns in the early American style of shape note singing. I never quite got the relationship—on a thematic level, at least—between the dancers and the musicians, but it didn’t matter. Both were excellent, individually and in how they complemented one another.

The dancing alone would’ve been enough. Scofield mentioned during a question and answer session following the show that the choreography was derivative of ballet, and that was apparent in the steps’ highly technical nature, the many arabesques and light leaps, and above all, Scofield’s constant experimentation with turnout of not only the feet and legs but also the torso and arms. But the choreography went far beyond ballet, and it was never clichéd or lazy—taking advantage of the established modern dance vocabulary to make something pretty, for example. Rather, it was original and surprising, utilizing spirals and under curves and sequencing through the spine to create new, unusual movements.

And it was always expressive. The dancers themselves were stellar, particularly Troy Ogilvie, who opened the show with her precise, muscular solo, and Dominic Santia, the sole male dancer and a lush, supple mover. And yet it was the choreography, and not their performance of it, that seemed to represent the range of human states and emotions, including playful, intense, graceful, macho, bossy, and loving. Nothing felt rushed: the phrasing occurred at a human pace.

The show was composed of at least ten movements that ranged from slow solos to clever unison phrases to conversations that took place while the dancers all performed different choreography. Each section was interesting, but a few stood out. In one, all of the dancers began moving and then broke into the kind of opinionated, rambling conversation that might occur at a rehearsal. It didn’t feel necessary, and as the discussion wound on, I found myself rolling my eyes. But later I realized that the dialogue had allowed the audience to get to know the dancers a bit, and that enhanced the show.

Although “Clear & Sweet” included little partnering, there was contact during the show’s two main duets. Both took place partially or wholly inside the circular fringe, which was ingeniously lowered to create an intimate space. The first duet was between two women and felt unabashedly sensual. The second was between and man and a woman, Santia and dancer Navarra Novy-Williams; he was blindfolded and yet repeatedly wooed a woman determined to resist his overtures. Of course she gave in eventually, and the result was a pairing that felt incredibly sweet and intimate.

Added to all of this dancing was the music, which initiated or underlay most of the show’s sections. When I first heard them, the bright voices—performed by men with bushy beards and accompanied by nothing—made me think of some ancient farm music, Amish perhaps. The second time, I thought of wood that’s been polished to show off a deep, rich grain. The third time, I imagined an orchestra. After that, I just basked in the sound. To hear unabashed human voices belting through the space as dancers spun just a few feet away from us was simply a sensual treat that doesn’t occur often.

The words “clear and sweet,” come from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.” And I'm guessing Scofield had that line in mind when she titled the piece. But to an audience member, the two words were also apt descriptions of the piece they took in: the clarity of those unmediated human bodies and sounds, and the sweetness of lovely, buoyant dancing.
ZOE | JUNIPER dancers in Zoe Scofield & Juniper Shuey's 'Clear & Sweet.'

ZOE | JUNIPER dancers in Zoe Scofield & Juniper Shuey's "Clear & Sweet."

Photo © & courtesy of Juniper Shuey


ZOE | JUNIPER dancer in Zoe Scofield & Juniper Shuey's 'Clear & Sweet.'

ZOE | JUNIPER dancer in Zoe Scofield & Juniper Shuey's "Clear & Sweet."

Photo © & courtesy of Juniper Shuey

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