A choreographer and a designer.
Unsettling dance dreamscapes that make theaters feel like bottled lightning.
Gold leaf, nudity, severe angles, Greek mythology, red yarn, people falling from great heights, plaster casts of dancers' body parts, light, dirt, fear.
The dance creations of choreographer Zoe Scofield and designer Juniper Shuey are masterful, but they're not what you'd call soothing. They feel mythological and unsettling, like a dream that's urgently trying to tell you something in a language you used to know but can't quite remember. The pair began working together almost a decade ago, and the intimacy of their collaboration has grown so tight, it's sometimes hard to tell where the dance ends and the design begins. Scofield's choreography has the sculptural rigor of ballet (it prefers angles to undulations), and Shuey's kinetically manipulative lighting work can completely change the shape of a theater, shrinking it to a claustrophobic bar of light trapped in a black void or expanding it to the grandeur of a Technicolor snowfall on a vast Midwestern plain.
Their most recent full-length performance, A Crack in Everything (which premiered at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival before touring nationally), was a parade of difficult, visceral images: taut red thread extending from unseen hands offstage into the mouths of the performers onstage, who danced on the ends of their lines like hooked fish; a large hooded figure (death? Fate? Eternal recurrence?) who would appear and interrupt dancers' progress by picking them up and moving them back to where they'd come from; a tiny white woman (Scofield) and a tall black man (the astonishingly lithe and graceful Raja Feather Kelly) sitting nearly naked, their faces inches away from each other, erupting into furious barking; Scofield playing a frighteningly fast round of "five-finger fillet" (the knife game in which a player splays her hand on a flat surface and quickly stabs at the gaps between her fingers) before Shuey blinded the room with a blast of light from bulbs pointed at the audience. The power of their work lies in troubling images, and their ability to linger and haunt.
Their work also has the invigorating scent of rebellion—which, given their backgrounds, makes sense. When she was 14 years old, Scofield moved from Gainesville, Georgia (the self-proclaimed "poultry capital of the world"), to an arts boarding school in Massachusetts to study ballet. She and ballet had a painful breakup (she got expelled). Scofield took a hiatus to sort things out before moving to Seattle and meeting Shuey, who encouraged her to start dancing again.
Shuey, in the meantime, had dropped out of Emerson College, where he'd danced in a few school productions (he got his start when his roommate had a crush on a dancer who wanted "regular people" to be in one of her pieces) but also debated with his fellow artists over their tendency to make what he considered aggressively abstract, audience-alienating, "art star" bullshit. Shuey moved to New York, wasn't satisfied there, and eventually moved to Seattle to finish an art degree at the University of Washington with an emphasis on ceramics. In other words, the future award-winning designer of light majored in earth.
"I was the ceramicist who rebelled against objects," he said. How so? "Oh, I just never really made any." Instead, he took the materials assigned to him for various projects (for example, a one-to-ten ratio of white clay to red clay) and made performances using projected light, movement, and surprises. For one project, he hung himself in a gallery (like a painting, not like a suicide) with clay smeared on the floor to capture people's footprints as they walked past. He graduated anyway.
Their overturn-the-applecart histories are evident in their work, where Scofield and Shuey tend to harness conventions, rigor, and control, only to explode them. During their acceptance speech at the Genius Awards ceremony, Scofield said (after confessing that she didn't expect to win, so she'd hadn't thought about what to say, only what to wear): "I'm really glad that we're in Seattle, because we wouldn't be able to do what we do if we weren't in Seattle. And I'm also really glad and thankful for everybody who said that I couldn't do what I was doing and shouldn't do it—and that I just kept doing it anyway."
The following day, she added that Seattle has more time, resources, space, and institutional advocates (including On the Boards and Velocity Dance Center) for their work than other cities do. Creating part of A Crack in Everything in New York, for example, was a serious struggle.
"And it sounds overplayed," she said, "but this DIY-ness, this self-inventiveness is available in Seattle. It allows people to do what they want to do." It's a place where she, at least, has had room to forge her own aesthetic despite a series of professional rejections: She was asked to leave her dance conservatory, she didn't get into Juilliard, she didn't get into companies she auditioned for, she didn't get some grants she applied for. "I was told I couldn't make it because my family was poor," she said, "or because I'm from the South. But sometimes, being told 'no' is a great thing. The nos help you get clarity and strength. They refine your understanding of why you're doing this."
The duo's hard-won rebellion is an affirmative rebellion. They didn't simply reject the received wisdom—what to do with clay, how to be a dancer—but, through their rejection, created something new. "Nature abhors a vacuum," Scofield said. "Maybe art in Seattle is the same way. If it's not already there, it gets made." Scofield and Shuey are the kind of artists who make it.
For their most recent experiment, at Velocity Dance Center, a small group of audience members lay on their backs on the floor, looking up at projections on the ceiling while performers danced over them, just inches away from their faces. It was a bracingly intimate performance in which the audience got to examine things one can only barely see from a theater seat: the precise articulation of a hand gesture, the texture of skin on a dancer's elbow, each vertebra of a spine twisting and releasing. The audience members weren't just scrutinizing, but were scrutinized back—it was not unlike lying on a table before a surgery, before the anesthesia kicks in, with highly trained professionals hovering and working right above you.
The new project (currently called BEGINAGAIN) is another Scofield/Shuey revolution in the relationship between audiences and artists—which remains, all these years after Shuey argued with his college "art star" peers, a guiding obsession. "It's not just a 'me make it, you like it' kind of thing," Shuey said about their work. "It's more like 'me make it,' and then maybe we can have some kind of connection because of it—we can meet somewhere in the middle."