The second night I was in Seattle in August, I caught the bus up to First Hill to go to an event at the Frye Art Museum arranged by The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly. Every year, The Stranger gives out a series of awards to artists called the "Genius Awards." There are five categories, of which performing arts is one, and this year, Zoe and Juniper were nominated (and ultimately won). In the past, the awards were limited to a one-night affair: A big award-show in which the pre-announced semi-finalists found out who won, down at the Moore, a beautiful historic theater where a veritable who's-who have performed over the last century.
But in 2013, The Stranger expanded the affair into a series of evening showcases of semi-finalists by category, leading up the epic final party. By coincidence, the night for the performing arts semifinalists was during my brief stay, so I was granted one of their precious guest passes, and headed to the Frye for a quick cocktail before heading into the auditorium for presentations of the nominees, which also included my old friend Amy O'Neal and Pat Graney, one a long-time Seattle dance presence and the other an even longer-time one.
The MC and moderator for the event was Brendan Kiley, the performing arts editor of The Stranger and one of the last staff performing arts critics in the U.S. I worked with him earlier in the year on Everyone's a Critic, the event I helped produce at On the Boards as part of Culturebot. He's a swell guy. But when it came to interviewing Zoe and Juniper (second in the line-up) I found myself cringing a bit. In his introductory remarks, before screening their 60-second video sample, he referred to Zoe's movement as "feral ballet."
"Feral" is a term that comes up with surprising frequency regarding her work. The first time I recall it was from a curator I shared a cab with to a showcase of her work during APAP a couple years earlier, but Kiley seemed intent on framing it conceptually as "feral ballet."
The "ballet" part is itself problematic; Zoe has occasionally described herself as a dancer "ballet didn't want," and there's some truth to that. She's too short by a bit for your standard ballet company, and her body too exaggerated and extreme. The ballerina's body is required, even in the contemporary, to be subsumed within an idealized feminine. Female attributes are de-empasized through costuming and hairstyle, a bizarre anachronism that eroticizes the de-sexualized female body, a truly strange bit of socially acceptable pedo-eroticism. The term I usually use to describe Zoe's movement is "highly articulated," which is both a euphemism and an allusive dodge. There's a peculiar quality about her body--its litheness coupled with subtle muscularity--that serves to highlight shifts to the extreme. When I describe it as "articulated," I mean in the sense of an articulated antenna or robotic arm; the effect is an exaggeration of angularity at the joints coupled with a fluidity of movement. But "feral" doesn't quite capture it. As Zoe told me a few hours later, as we were heading for their car after leaving the after-party at Greg Lundgren’s art-hipster bar the Hideout, as a Southerner (Zoe's from Georgia, an accent that occasionally peeks it head out), "feral" isn't a conceptual term, it's what you use to describe wild dogs and cats. It suggests not ferocity or wildness so much as a mangey, probably half-starved former pet threatening you with rabies.
But that was what provoked me so much by the literal darkness of the staging I saw during the residency. Zoe's particular sort of movement is problematic--it makes her a very unique dancer, but it's difficult to set on another body, particularly since its effect seems so tied not to the gesture or pose itself but the body that enacts it. But one of the through-lines I saw in the material for BeginAgain was a sort dematerialization of the body. From the plaster casts that formed a key scenographic element in early studies, to the dirt floor employed during a residency in Atlanta, to the perspective shift of Velocity showing, to the elements of shadow and video and haze that marked the design elements the company played with during the tech residency, there was a marked shift from focusing on the dancer's body towards ways of isolating line, shape, and movement outside of direct embodiment.
It was almost like Zoe was trying, by turning over more of the concept to Juniper, to evaporate the body which had been so much so the critical fascination with the company's work. Zoe the "ballerina that ballet rejected" seemed tired of being the same old object of spectatorial fascination that ballet itself proposed. The company's work had always been defined by the close and intense collaboration between her and Juniper, a visual artist with a background in dance whose scenographic environments more successfully integrated the physical presence of the dancers within the conceptual space than most other contemporary American companies.
"This is really Juniper's piece," Zoe had said to me earlier that day outside On the Boards, where we retreated to the sunlight for lunch. BeginAgain, if nothing else, enacts a new attempt at trust between the artists working together to produce it. Zoe subsuming herself, her body, in a heretofore unimaginable way, into the visual landscape of the piece. One which she was a co-creator, for sure, but an aesthetic scheme in which her ability to achieve it was less than Juniper's, who, as a visual artist having worked as a dancer, was uniquely suited to enact.