Design literally comes first in Zoe | Juniper's new production BeginAgain.

Juniper Shuey

Seattle’s Zoe | Juniper always approach their dances with an unparalleled sense of design and visual art composition. It sometimes seems like they don't create performances so much as stunning moving paintings. The duos new piece BeginAgain pushes this strength even further. This time around, dancer and choreographer Zoe Scofield and designer Juniper Shuey inverted their normal process; starting with creation of the production elements (set design, sound, lighting, video, and costumes) and crafting the choreography in response to what was already in place. After initially working out a rough version of the show via an On the Boards residency last summer, Zoe | Juniper performs the world premiere BeginAgain for sold out hometown audiences this weekend (March 27–30).

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Shuey about the challenges of designing before there's choreography, the freedom of space, and neurology.

How did you originally come up with the concept of inverting the show’s production process?

I think it had to do with (how) in the last piece (No One to Witness) we started creating installations as a part of the performance, which is basically like you have the same ingredients and then you make a different sort of mix. We realized there was a lot to learn by doing an installation, which was a different kind of performance and had a different set of rules. So in that process of doing those installations, it was sort of thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we did more of the visual elements and had a chance to actually see how the visual elements interacted with the space so that the dance could actually respond to that?”

On your end, how is your approach different when you have to come up with the ideas before the choreography as opposed to the normal routine?

Yeah, it turns out it’s actually quite different. When you’re making kind of a time-based piece, it actually becomes quite difficult to create a kind of visual world without the context of the performative part of it. So that was quite a bit of challenge, because sometimes we came up with different ideas about what we wanted to do and then when we put them into the space they didn’t really inspire movement vocabulary. We kind of learned that, in some ways, they kind of have to go a little bit more in tandem. You can’t really just start with one and then go to the other one. So that was kind of a learning process in this piece. 

Starting with the visual idea is also sort of an installation-type idea, where it’s like, “Well here’s the element that I need to make this visual world occupy this space,” and then we put performance in afterwards. So it’s sort of like taking that installation concept and trying to do it in a performative space, like in a theater space. It’s a little different because theater is so directed, whereas like a lot of the rules of an installation are very different, where you have people coming in and around the space, so what you make visually is also defined by where people occupy the space. And in a performance, generally people are sitting in seats and so you don’t have the same rules, so the visual world that you create also has a very different feel. And so (last) summer we did try to set up a visual world and play around with it, and I think it was good because we learned that the visual world direction that we were going wasn’t the direction that we wanted to go. So we changed it, and now we’re in the space again with a completely different world being set up. It gave us an opportunity to try stuff and not have it have to be the thing that we were doing, which then led us down a new path to where we are today, which I think is pretty exciting.

What are some of the benefits or things you found enjoyable working this way as opposed to having the dance in place and then creating the world around it?

I think one of the things is your constraints about where people are in space are not there. So you can kind of create a space that’s not defined by the patterns of the dance, and then the dance gets patterned by what you put into the space. I enjoy the fact that you can put stuff in the middle of the space and then the dancers have to figure out and negotiate around it. I think that’s been an enjoyable part of the process. Sometimes that also is a hindrance and sort of then redefines the way the dance can happen, so that can be kind of frustrating too. But for me, I really do like responding to the constraints of the dance or the space, so even when I’m doing my own sort of outside work, the idea of the space and what I have to do in that space really defines the idea. And so I don’t know if it’s better per se, but I enjoy both.

Do you any favorite performances that you’ve seen in the past year or so?

There was a piece at On the Boards here at the beginning of the year—Gregory Maqoma/Vuyani Dance Theater—that triggered some stuff in my brain where I was like, “Oh… okay,” and it made me think about stuff in a slightly different way. There were aspects of that show that I really enjoyed, and then other aspects that I didn’t, so there was something interesting to being able to analyze why I liked certain things and why other parts still bothered me. The Jérôme Bel piece I really enjoyed, because I really enjoyed how simple it was for Cèdric Andrieux to talk about his experience of being a dancer, and it was so intimate and personal. But also, like, nothing really was happening except for you sort of experiencing his story, so I appreciated that as a piece of theater. Then the other one that just happened, the Japanese one, Niwa Gekidan Penino, spatially the set was really quite an interesting. It’s kind of a compelling use of creating size by actually making the size of the physical space smaller so that everybody else looks big.

If you weren’t an artist, is there another line of work you think you’d want to pursue?

I probably would have wanted to pursue neurology with a study in motion, like the motion neurons.

Mar 27–30, On the Boards, Sold Out