Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey are controlling the information. The dance-design duo (which won a Stranger Genius Award last year) has always strictly, almost religiously, deflected any literalism about their work—though it's tempting to go there. Scofield's dramatic choreography, which carries the angular and rigorous legacy of her ballet training, and Shuey's viscerally evocative lighting and stage aesthetic have an iconic quality that feels mythological. More than most contemporary dance, each of their full-length works seems like a fully realized world with its own laws, personalities, and forces of nature. Our urge to decode them is a kind of compliment.
But during a rehearsal at On the Boards this week, while Scofield and powerhouse dancer Ariel Freedman (who performed with the legendary Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv) were quietly working through a section on the dirt-covered stage, Shuey sounded the familiar refrain: We don't want to tell people what to think, we want the audience to let the work wash over them, we don't want their experience to be mediated by what critics say, etc. "We want to give you hints, this chiaroscuro look at your life, and you're filling in all the dark parts," he said. "Dance asks you to go harder than theater because you're not following a story line—we give you hints, and either you get sucked in or you get bored."
Their new piece, BeginAgain, controls the visual information even more than usual. Where their previous works have treated the stage as a big, bright box in which to make dance, BeginAgain is literally chiaroscuro, sometimes so dark that all you see is a brightly lit part of a performer's body floating in a borderless blackness. "I'm excited by this," Shuey said while cuing up subtle black-on-black projections he'd designed for the show. "It's fun to project into darkness."
They've cut the stage into five sections—further controlling what we can see—with two floor-to-ceiling scrims coming at an angle from offstage left and right, and an open corridor in the center. The entire upstage wall is covered in a black sheet of Tyvek, meticulously cut by Celeste Cooning to look like an enormous piece of symmetrical paper-cutout art with abstract patterns, framing the dark silhouette of Scofield in a ponytail. "When I was young, I was fascinated by paper cutouts my grandmother had," she said. "I like the simplicity of it—it's a nice contrast to the high-techness of the work that we do." Depending on how it's lit, the stage can look like a void, or a charcoal drawing, or—when the Tyvek monolith is lit from behind, its cutout holes glowing like stars in an aesthetically self-aware constellation—an eerie, alien dream world.
The company describes BeginAgain as a duet between Scofield and Freedman, but there are some other performers who pop out of the darkness. Some of them were planned and some are the result of a vicious knee infection Scofield suffered recently, which sent her to the hospital, kept her off her feet for more than a week, and threatened to put the whole show (for which she won a Princess Grace award in 2011) on ice.
True to form for BeginAgain, Scofield is skittish about what she wants audiences to know about the other performers beforehand. The reveals are significant but small—it's not like they're lighting a marching band on fire and setting it loose on the stage. "Art is where we truly get to be alone together," Scofield explained, and she wants to protect that. We might all be in the same place at the same time seeing the same thing, she argued, but allowing people to see what they see without feeling like they're getting it wrong "helps people feel less alone."
"Forced homogenization is one of the worst things you can do to people," she said. "Not to say that our work is combating the evils of fascism or anything." But it's interesting, she noted, that she grew up in the world of ballet—of formalism, unity, and idealism—and is now trying to keep secrets in the name of diversity and protecting human difference. "There is," she said, "an interesting tension inside that."