On one side of the stage, there’s a woman lying on her side on a patch of dirt. She’s seemingly encased in a papier-mâché cast of her own body. She’s there for a long time—the show hasn’t started yet, and the audience is filing in, drinks in hand. It’s a sold-out house. What is she thinking? What happens if she gets itchy? Is she cold? What is she has to pee, or falls asleep? Then the lights go down, the chirping of crickets the only sound in the room.
Two dancers, both women, appear in the middle of the stage, rhythmically stomping their feet in a dim, almost undersea-ish light. The light goes out again, but the dancing/stomping continues, the air in the completely dark theater vibrating with their movements. The lights come up, and the stomping continues, but the dancers are not doing the stomping, it turns out; they’re twirling and lightly stepping around each other. Unless their lithe, petite forms are sporting the weight of an average strongman, those stomping sounds are coming from somewhere else. Trippy.
Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey’s new work, BeginAgain, is a whole lot of trippy. There’s a lot of illusion in the piece—or, more specifically, illusions in front of illusions, not magic-show-style gimmickry but combinations of dance and music and video and light that transform the space in completely unexpected ways. Huge, sheer curtains hanging at angles on either side of the stage shake and shimmer while full-size projections of curtains shaking and shimmering are projected onto them—then the projections turn dark, possibly storm clouds overlaid with swarms of moving black spots. Gradually, black-and-white images emerge through the swarms: perfectly coiffed schoolgirls furiously scribbling something on paper and occasionally grinning up at the camera. Look at me! They seem to say. Aren’t you pleased with me?
As if in answer, the two dancers at center stage move almost in tandem, often leading with the middle of their bodies so that it seems as if there’s a fishhook in their navels, pulling them this way and that. Their hair is arranged in low buns, small braids on the sides, short gauzy dresses flowing lightly around bodies that move with increasingly frenetic energy. They are goddesses with warnings: lean musculature shadowed in the gray-green light, creating visually coherent messages out of the chaos of sound and light around them. Although they are executing the same movements, there’s an intentional slight delay between them, which does marvelous things to the brain of the viewer: Just as we register the ending of one movement, it’s quickly echoed centimeters away.
And this all happens within the first maybe 10 minutes of the show. Highly anticipated by arts crowds and dance fans, BeginAgain was funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. I should probably mention that I donated to BeginAgain’s Kickstarter as an anniversary present to my parents. They live in Japan and won’t be able to see this production, but after 30 years, who really wants another pair of cuff links? Having donated money to this instilled in me a kind of pride and ownership in the work, and it amped up the anticipation, which made it all the more gratifying to see that Scofield and Shuey (the pair won a Stranger Genius Award in 2013) used the resources to create something legitimately new here. The synergy between the mediums is breathtaking.
One example: a dancer performing slow movements with a spotlight on her, so her silhouette is projected onto the screen behind her, while a video of Scofield’s dancing silhouette is projected onto that same screen right next to the live dancer’s shadow. The two silhouettes dance together, hands caressing each other’s heads, graceful, balletic hands reaching toward each other, heads dipping toward and away—a pas de deux between a dancer and a ghost. Another dancer is barely visible behind the projection of Scofield’s shadow, but she is doing something vastly different, moving with jerking, kinetic motions. As Scofield’s silhouette fades away, the dancer behind the curtain is revealed to be Scofield herself. SO TRIPPY. Later, both screens are covered in gigantic projections of five female dancers in rigid stance, turning slowly in place, naked and dimly lit. The projections of the dancers on the screens are intimate, commanding their own attention independent of the actions performed around them, yet it’s not distracting or detracting from anything else going on onstage. The timing of each new aspect of the show is just that impeccable.
Combining such intricate lighting, powerful sound, and mature, intelligent choreography into a cohesive production is a huge challenge: Without proper respect for each medium, the viewing experience could easily have become jarring and schizophrenic, even annoyingly confusing. But that is not the situation with BeginAgain—it’s smooth and natural, even with drastic mood changes in the music and the movements. Every part is riveting to behold, from Kate Wallich’s gracefully crisp body isolations to the triangles of dirt on the stage. Wallich’s brand of movement is fascinating, the manner in which she moves her body a work of art itself. She is a young dancer who manages to combine the sort of pop-and-lock quality of single-body-part isolations (think hiphop or break dancing) with the extreme grace and physical control of someone classically trained. Wallich is given a lot of room to excel in BeginAgain, which is wonderful to see; Scofield, a riveting force to view in her own right, usually takes center stage in her choreographic works, but not this time. In this piece, she allows the other performers (mainly Wallich, but also Rachel Green, Kim Lusk, and choreographic collaborator Ariel Freedman) to command much of the onstage energy.
All along the back wall is a piece by paper artist Celeste Cooning, trees and subtle silhouettes of kneeling women cut deftly into delicate paper. It put me in mind of a black-and-silver forest. Meanwhile, the woman onstage at first in the plaster cast has by this time separated from her shell, circled the stage, and laid down again. She’s in the same pose as before, but nearly naked. A man poses above her, humming a soft tune and gently dipping bits of paper in water and laying them on her still body. He is loving, an artist passionately connected to the object taking shape in front of him. It could all be very Adam and Eve in its symbolism, it could be an allegory for Scofield and Shuey’s creative partnership or that brutal phoenix-like process from which the best art emerges, or it could be all and none of these things entirely.