Journal

Zoe | Juniper: Subverting the Canons of Ballet Apr 25, 2008

by Tania Kupczak

The devil you know is better than the devil you don't, Zoe Scofield's and Juniper Shuey's third and most ambitious work to appear at On The Boards, opens with a characteristic Zoe/Juniper visual element, video projected on scrim. As snow falls from the sky, an indistinct figure, but recognizably a dancer, moves from right to left across the stage. Soon the snow becomes a hard rain, then a torrent, and the figure begins to resemble a darting fish or a fragile flame, barely holding its own against the onrushing flood. The image seems to express the central theme of the work: the tenuous existence of anyone or anything that attempts to buck the current.

Reputedly, this theme reflects Scofield's own story: A gifted student of ballet, she was discouraged from becoming a professional ballerina because she was too much of an individual and could not "stay in line." Perhaps as a result, her choreography reflects both her love of ballet and her willingness to subvert its canons for her own expressive purposes. From the waist down, Scofield and her dancers often look like they're performing classical ballet. From the waist up, it's often another story: Torsos undulate and twist, arms writhe and contort, and faces express indefinable emotions, in a blend of modern dance, Butoh, yoga, and even jazz idioms. Sometimes the dancers seem to resemble deer, birds, or insects. Whenever the choreography threatens to become purely balletic, Scofield throws in some subtle asymmetry or a cocked wrist, defying our expectations. The result is mesmerizing.

Consistent with its underlying theme, the work is danced mostly in unison. Surprisingly, this never becomes monotonous: Individuals and groups of dancers vary their spatial orientation, unison sometimes breaks into two- or three-voice polyphony, and lone dancers episodically split from the group, sometimes rejoining, sometimes becoming new leaders. In two extended duets, pairs of dancers are briefly more self-expressive and mutually responsive. But, in the end, unison always seems to exert an inexorable attraction. Morgan Henderson's postmodern musical score is well suited to these choreographic themes, and its propulsive energy builds to a satisfying finale.

At the heart of all this is Scofield herself, the company's principal dancer as well as choreographer. Scofield looks and moves like no dancer I've ever seen. Her style is so complex and unusual that I sometimes get the uncanny sense of watching two separate beings inhabiting one body. She's also unerringly precise, hyperflexible, and lighting-quick. Her quirky individuality might not appeal to everyone, but I find her utterly compelling: I can't get enough.

Christiana Axelsen, who has performed with the company since 2006, dances with fierce energy, and is an ideal partner for Scofield in their exquisite duet. Ezra Dickinson, who has also danced with Scofield since 2006 and is the company's only male dancer, often assumes the role of deviant individualist here. Dressed like the women, with an androgynous appearance and an impeccable style, he takes the piece beyond gender, contributing to the Butoh-like feeling. Lizzy Melton, who joined the company only a month ago, dances like a veteran; her ability to quickly master Scofield's choreography testifies to her skill and determination. The final member is Allison Van Dyck, who joined the company in 2007. She's nothing short of spectacular. Seemingly born to dance this style, she displays boundless athleticism and total commitment. Her tender duet with Dickinson is extraordinary.

For this version of the devil, remounted since its Portland debut in 2007, the company is augmented by an eight-woman corps de ballet. Identically attired in short white dresses, white capes, and long white gloves, they look like Stepford cotillion debutantes and often move like a synchronized flock of anthropomorphic chickens. Dancing with precision and verve, they take the piece to another level entirely, whenever they're on stage.

This is one of the most entertaining and exciting dance pieces I've seen in the last two years. I'm sorry that I will only be able to see it three times. If you're in any doubt about attending, just think of how great it will feel to tell your grandchildren that you saw Zoe Scofield in 2008, before she took the world by storm.

- Anne

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