Choreographing a multimedia 'devil'
By Valerie Gladstone, Globe Correspondent | February 20, 2009
NEW YORK - Ominous crackling sounds drift through Manhattan's Dance Theater Workshop as choreographer Zoe Scofield's wild and mysterious piece "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't" begins to unfold. Blurred video images of snowflakes appear on a scrim, and as they gently fall through space, Scofield can be discerned kneeling in a square of light, rotating her torso and rising to kick her legs.
Other dancers appear like shadows on the dimly lit stage, all in white, moving to the dissonant chords in an electronic score by Morgan Henderson. Before the tumultuous 70-minute performance ends, they go through startling transformations, from graceful vulnerability to the ferocity of untamed beasts, exotically decked out in brightly colored plumage and wearing brilliant face paint.
Scofield and her husband, the video artist Juniper Shuey, established their company just four years ago in Seattle, but the 30-year-old choreographer has already attracted a good deal of attention, winning prestigious commissions and festival invitations. The Seattle critic Brendan Kiley called "the devil you know is better than the devil you don't" "a beastly ballet, both harrowing and gorgeous."
Scofield, who got her start as a dancer in the Boston area, made sure that her first tour included Boston, and she's drawing on her roots in a special way: A graduate of Walnut Hill School in Natick, Scofield is having her five-member company perform with 10 ballet students from the school at the Institute of Contemporary Art tonight and tomorrow.
Among those happy to see Scofield back is dancer/choreographer Diane Arvanites-Noya, a Walnut Hill School dance teacher, who was struck by Scofield's originality from her first choreography class. "Zoe has a powerful visceral language," she says. "She's fearless and determined to say what she has to say. She's extremely educated as an artist and lives her life like poetry."
This becomes evident in conversation. A pretty woman with abundant dark hair and an intense gaze, Scofield sets high standards for herself. "I want my work to be human, vulnerable, and passionate," she says, munching a salad in the lobby at Dance Theater Workshop before a recent rehearsal. "I want to create a heightened sense of reality, a spectacle, something outside the normal, not anything linear. I don't want to dictate either; I want the audience to have their own experience inside what I choreograph."
An avid reader, Scofield came upon the book "The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil" by Philip Zimbardo a few years ago, and she says she was fascinated and horrified by what she learned. Based on some scientific evidence, the author theorized that given certain circumstances, good people would engage in evil action. The findings affected Scofield deeply enough to inform the new piece.
"I hope to convey the emotional pressure, both internal and external," she says, "that occasionally comes to bear on all human beings to act irrationally and badly." Adding 10 students to her troupe for this work, she decided, would more powerfully transmit the feeling of oppression, of "outside forces bearing down." In the recent New York performances, Barnard College students took part.
This kind of provocative choreography is a far cry from Scofield's early years in dance. Growing up in a small Georgia town, she took ballet classes from the time she was a little girl, dreaming of one day becoming a ballerina in traditional roles. With life there stifling, she says, ballet was an escape for her, a safe haven. Things improved when her family moved to Boston so she could attend Walnut Hill School.
But no matter how hard she worked, when she was about to graduate from the school, a teacher warned her, "You'll never be a ballerina. You don't look like a swan. You'll never be happy in ballet. You're too independent." Though she came to realize that he was right, at the time she was devastated. Afterward, she briefly danced with Arvanites-Noya's Prometheus Dance company and a couple of other troupes, including one in Toronto, before giving up dance altogether to study Ashtanga yoga.
That might have been the end of her dance career if she had not met Shuey when she moved to Seattle in 2002. "I was drawn to him right away," she says, smiling. "I felt a ridiculously powerful force to be with him." After two years together, he insisted she return to dance. "I saw right away that dance is who she is," Shuey says. "We soon began to dream about pieces we could do together."
Trained in theater at Emerson College, Shuey also had a good business sense, and they began writing proposals and applying for grants. Their efforts paid off with their first collaboration in 2005 in Seattle's Northwest New Works Festival, and other important engagements have followed. Shuey aimed to create another emotional dimension for her works through his visual design. They added Henderson to the team to create their scores and Kamran Sadeghi to incorporate and electronically manipulate live sounds from theaters during performances. The result is an engulfing experience.
Scofield draws on everything that has formed her in the new piece. She likes ballet for its clarity, verticality, and discipline. She uses aspects of yoga for flexibility and modern dance technique for its fluidity. By combining these elements with her own directness and partiality to angular and jagged movements, she produces thrillingly dynamic and baroque work.
Her dancers thrive on performing it. "I've been with Zoe four years," said Christiana Axelsen, "and I love being in her magical world. Every dance includes so many crazy things, like this one, with the snow and face paint. She's full of creativity, and it's so much fun to be part of it."
© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company