We were standing on a deck leading into the Doris Duke Theater at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, a cool early spring breeze blowing past. Ariana Brawley, Jacob’s Pillow associate producer, gave us instructions to drop off any anything we were carrying and take off our shoes in the next room. The work would be in two separate pieces, she explained, divided into two spaces.
In the first room, Brawley said, we were free to place ourselves in relation to the work in any way we felt like: standing, sitting on the floor or in a chair, lying down, anything at all. In the second room we were to lie down, with pillows to keep us comfortable. I shivered slightly with incoming breezes. Running out of the house in the morning, I had forgotten a light sweater.
Earlier that day, I had cab hassles and my mind was occupied on other work as I made my way to the Pillow. But with these unusual instructions, I no longer cared about any of that. I was only fascinated. I’ve been to many dance performances in my life, and never I have been given instructions like these. I wanted to get right into the experience. And Jacob’s Pillow director Pamela Tatge had just called it exactly that, an experience.
The historical weight of the site, being one of a few main nurseries for modern dance, was also feeling more and more meaningful to me as the minutes ticked by.
I was there to view the In-Process show featuring in-progress work by Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield. She presented her work at the Pillow with additional support from The Princess Grace Foundation.
The first thing I noticed when walking into that first room were clumps of hanging string, like those doors made out of bead strings. The center of the room was clear of these, however, with three bowls in the very middle: two with water, one with a murky tannish substance that I couldn’t identify. This center was brightly lit.
I saw the performer, Navarra Nova-Williams, at another corner of the room. She sat with her knees slightly spread apart, another bowl of water in between them.
She rocked gently back and forth. None of this seemed conventional for a dance performance, but the first thing that truly shocked me was when she began to drink from the bowl. She hinged forward to drink, and water dribbling down her shirt as she rose. After some time she walked to the center, to the other three bowls.
She raised her arms to a “V” shape and slowly hinged side to side, her body remaining in a straight line. It was both impressive and beautiful. Soon she was again crouched on the floor, and began to push one of the bowls of water to another corner of the room with her head. Once there, she again made contact with the water, this time dipping her hair in it. Sliding back with her hair dragging along the paper-covered floor, she created a wet line.
She did the same in a line perpendicular to that one, creating another V. Sounds of children playing in the schoolyard, parents’ deeper voices calling to them, rang through space. She dipped her hand in the murky substance and painted it along her collarbone and neck. It seemed to be some sort of clay. The substance was literally part of her. I had noticed an abdominal bump on an otherwise slender figure.
The water, the “V” shapes, the clay, it all came together. To me, this was a pregnant woman reckoning with the power of bringing life into the world, and the life with her child that would happen thereafter. Scofield said my interpretation was valid, “there to see.” But for her, the dancer was a joining of the masculine and feminine to bring forth someone “pregnant with possibility.”
Scofield added that most of the work, from concept to performance, evolved right there at Jacob’s Pillow during the residency. Perhaps, if performed again, her conceptions may change. Perhaps not.
This imagery of pregnancy got clearer with her ripping the paper, with her teeth, into multiple raised strips that remained in oval-shaped bumps. Then she rose and danced among the hanging strings, one foot chasing the other — a pedestrian bourree. Her intensity and focus was captivating. In the last section, the dancer returned to the bowl of clay and painted her arms.
Throughout, given the freedom to do so, I crept, lunged, sat, stood, lay in prone position — whatever helped me to best experience the performance. I felt as if I were living the emotional and psychological shifts, those that her physicality evoked, with her. I don’t think that would have been as possible sitting in a chair, watching a performance on a proscenium stage.
Scofield grew up dancing in Gainesville, GA. She attended The Walnut Hill School in Natick, Massachusetts and the Boston Conservatory. Scofield relocated to Seattle in 2002, and joined visual artist (and her husband) Juniper Shuey in 2005 to form zoe|juniper. In 2015, she was a Guggenheim fellow.
In a New York Times review, critic Brian Seibert said, in their work A Crack in Everything, “dance design and video design are on unusually intimate terms.” Whatever the team presents, they have clear intention to do so with extreme clarity, she told me, to offer “a structured container [within which] audience members can have a distinct and personal experience.” In that idea of experience, she said she’s very interested in what’s happening “within the now” of artmarking.
Pamela Tatge, Jacob’s Pillow director, explained how the In-Process program is built to help artists with the common dance field challenge of having uninterrupted time in rehearsal space.
“Our spaces became fully winterized, and we wanted to take advantage of the space we have to support artists,” she said.
Artists chosen for the residency receive two weeks in the space, along with the full technical support of Jacob’s Pillow theatrical designers and crew. Artists also receive housing for the two weeks and a stipend. They additionally have access to the Pillow Archives, thus “connecting contemporary artists with dance history,” Tatge said. An in-process performance concludes every residency.
With Scofield in particular, Tatge has known and admired her work for some time, having awarded Scofield with the McClone Emerging Choreographer Award in 2008. Previous In-Process Series artists include Michelle Dorrance, Sonya Tayeh, and Cuba’s Maltaso Modern Dance Company.
During the last part of Nova-William’s performance, voices from the other room rang out. It sounded like one person’s narrative account, rather personal and emotionally raw, but spoken by many. I wondered what this signified for the piece. I had wondered the same about certain sounds coming from the other room during the work. Was it simply a lack of a way to shield this room from the sound of the other?
In any case, after this speech, a few people drew the curtains to the other room. They guided us in, and encouraged us to lay on our backs, on the pillows and furs that were set up in lines. The dancers told us that we would probably miss moments of the work, and that was all right.
The lights faded, and they began to move. The dancing was full of ease, yet with accents and strength, like water hitting rocks in a stream.
From the absolute beginning, with individual dancers speaking to us personally to help us settle into the space, I noticed a lessening of the distance, literal and metaphorical, between performers and audience members. I have extensively trained in and learned about post-modern art methods and trends, and even I felt a twinge of discomfort, or perhaps awkwardness, with the decrease in this distance.
Dancers jumped over me — the physical distance eliminated. Never have I been so literally in the action as an audience member. At another point, the dancers executed a beautiful phrase that lessened that distance even further — they turned, lunged, and then raised a knee with a light point of the foot, like a proud showhorse. One made direct eye contact with me, and out of the corner of my eye. I saw another make eye contact with another audience member. The focus of gaze was undeniable.
That discomfort, that awkwardness, stirred up within me again. If felt as if they were challenging us to be more present as people, their souls to our souls, in that moment. A silky yet assertively strong duet, between Kévin Quinaou and Gilbert Small, soon occurred. The adversarial quality in the relationship between their bodies was striking. At one point, one of them forced another to a certain position over and over, one time by the back of his neck.
Who was I in that moment of experiencing this raw connection between two bodies? The performance managed to lead me to this looking inwards.
Towards the end of the work, the dancers went into that script that we heard at the end of the first work. One dancer lay by me and went off script, telling me about social struggles in his childhood. “I got bullied, teased….it’s been a journey to find my place,” he shared. Do I make eye contact, I wondered. The literal distance between myself and the performer was slight, and the metaphorical distance felt like none.
Who was I in this moment?
Again, the performance led me to wonder that.
Scofield explained, how in this work, she intended to surface the idea of lessening the distance between people, finding connection “rather than ‘other-izing’ people.”
Scofield’s Jacob’s Pillow residency, away from city lights and sirens and surrounded by nature, allowed for art that spurred such meaningful self-reflection. Being there in that moment, forced away from my phone, I could look inwards and truly be in that very moment. Our souls can all use moments like that.