THE DEVIL YOU SAY? Well, the dance was intriguing even if you didn't.
Last Friday night, the performance space at the ICA was masked by a white scrim when the audience entered. Clouds shifted imperceptibly across this quasi-sky, sometimes letting us see beyond, into an empty distance. An electronic drone began to break up into sharp splinters of sound. Then bright, blurry snow was falling on the scrim, and blue-ish, dancerish shadows tumbled across it and disappeared, like Wilis. Before I could sink into a trance, vague figures emerged in the space behind the scrim.
This was just the beginning of Seattle-based Zoe|Juniper's the devil you know is better than the devil you don't, an hour-long mystery piece sponsored by CRASHarts. Choreographer Zoe Scofield has Boston roots, having studied at Walnut Hill School with Diane Arvanites-Noya and Michael Owen. She and videographer/designer Juniper Shuey have been collaborating since 2004, and this piece integrated their five-member company with 10 Walnut Hill student dancers and an evocative mix of sound and visuals. Although their stated "devil within us" theme eluded me, I found the piece fascinating anyway.
In a small square of light, Scofield was sitting on the floor, perhaps doing yoga meditation. After a while she stood and began a series of stressed lunges and jerky steps, tethered to the square but angling out around her body with arms that never entirely straightened. You could make out a dozen or so other individuals in the background, all dressed like her in white short tunics. She freed herself into a strange, crabbed locomotion that was held back by a crooked arm or foot even as it propelled her through space. The others slowly spread out around her, with the same kind of strained movement. On the scrim, snow fell upward.
The dancers moved in individual spheres of light, not traveling very much but sometimes assembling into unison clusters and lines. Just as I was admiring how well Scofield could choreograph this large group into smaller counterpoint units, and how well Jessica Trundy's lighting showed off these effects, the scrim dropped away, and I admired them even more.
I don't know whether the movement was actually changing, but I began noticing how balletic it was against the white floor. It seemed every distorted gesture and strained action came out of the ballet vocabulary: port de bras, pliû/relevû, extension, jumps and changements. The dancers traveled mostly on their toes or sank into low, lumbering squats. Two women occupied another rectangle of light, scooching and throwing themselves into knots on the floor, then locking together in a tortured embrace. A man and a woman surfaced out of a slow duet and crossed the space. He rolled over and over; she stepped carefully over him, keeping one foot curved around his neck. Two people did shoulder stands with their legs snaking around in the air.
As the dancers went off and reappeared, their costumes changed little by little, from the tunics to halter tops and shorts. A couple of the women wore furry sleeves across their shoulders and upper arms for a few minutes, looking like golden birds in a sunset. The five core dancers stepped around with bustles made of brightly colored ribbons, thrusting their necks out and poking their elbows back, like egrets or peacocks.
I don't know when it was that I began thinking of this as an archæological discovery, a parade of extinct beasts dug up from the tar pits, like the ones they found in Los Angeles last week. The five Mesozoic peacocks morphed into vultures, reptiles.
The 10 other dancers stepped in and out in their original white tunics, sidestepping in wide pliû line-ups and whirling away on tiptoe, leaving and returning in unpredictable groups. They were like timekeepers or guardians, steady, inexhaustible, while the five evolutionary ghosts skipped and galumphed and finally rolled away. By that time, brown snow was falling all over the white floor.