I felt like a creeper, watching dancers from high above their unsuspecting heads during the 14-minute virtual reality video of zoe | juniper’s Clear and Sweet. A few times dancers looked up and I fought the urge to smile back. Their faces were slightly distorted by pixels, the show's accompanying recorded music and live sacred harp singing felt like ghosts in my experiential periphery. It was cool and confusing. I had seen the dance/installation performance live last year, so I thought I knew what to expect. But strapping on those VR goggles thrust me into what felt like a first date with someone I thought I already knew.
On Sunday afternoon at Northwest Film Forum, the Local Sightings Film Festival presented virtual reality and 2-D film versions of Clear and Sweet, along with a music listening station and panel discussions with local dance, film and dance-film makers. Clear and Sweet was already a hit—both the world premiere in New Orleans and the Seattle production at On the Boards in the fall of 2016 were loved by audiences and critics, and the show will tour nationally through 2018.
After attending the Seattle premiere, I was so overwhelmed by the social, emotional, historical and artistic complexities of Clear and Sweet that I was glad I wasn’t writing a review. My experience was so personal and spiritual that simply describing what happened onstage would have felt disingenuous, and I didn’t want my experience at Clear and Sweet to color any future viewer's reaction.
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one struggling with this. During the Local Sightings panel with the choreographic half of zoe | juniper, Zoe Scofield, and dance-film artist Dayna Hanson, Scofield mentioned how difficult it is to answer when an audience member, rather than trusting their own experience, asks her to confirm their interpretation of her work.
“We make work that doesn’t require that kind of thinking, we want to relate to the audience because we’re both here,” Scofield said. This approach can make zoe | juniper’s work harder for audiences to “get.” Audiences who are used to classical ballets may be confused by the absence of a plotline; even many contemporary dance pieces communicate a clear agenda or message through movements or program notes. That absence can be challenging but also immensely freeing. Clear and Sweet gives us the opportunity to observe, listen and react naturally without feeling like we’re being manipulated into a particular emotion.
Clear and Sweet is an intimate experience. The audience surrounds the dancers on all four sides of the stage, the front rows dotted with sacred harp singers. The voices of the bass singers vibrate through the floor, which is painted with a giant, apocalyptic sunburst. Five dancers move in and out of a delicate chandelier of what looks like a million silken threads. The dancers talk to each other and tell stories, sometimes moving so close the audience that they smile and say hi.
According to the Clear and Sweet program notes, sacred harp singers sit in a formation called a “hollow square,” with each voice part (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) taking one of the four sides and facing the corner. Where you sit in relation to the singers affects your experience, as you’ll hear different parts of the music at different concentrations.
However you see Clear and Sweet, your experience—and the thoughts that follow you home afterward—belongs to you, is yours to evaluate and incorporate (or forget!) as you wish. I watched the virtual reality film through eyes that had wept at the live production. I sat in NWFF’s Cinema One auditorium and listened to the live sacred harp singing with the ears of a tired mother of a toddler that just wanted to be lulled to sleep. Eyes closed and head resting on the back of the seat, I let the sounds from the seated singers swirl around me until I could feel the vibrations from the bass voices in my belly. The American tradition of sacred harp singing is centuries old, and my mind drifted to mothers past who might have listened to the same songs in the same mood, knitting forgotten in their laps and the needs of babies forever resting at the forefront of exhausted brains.
Watching the 2-D and virtual reality versions of Clear and Sweet didn’t really add to my experience of the piece itself, but it did broaden my thinking about what performance could be in the future. Live dance is inaccessible to many for many reasons, including ticket prices and the perception that dance is a highbrow art form that only people with a prior understanding of dance will enjoy. But dance film and virtual reality offer a more relatable, easy to access experience. And maybe 50 years from now, a mother will goggle up while feeding her baby and listen to sacred harp songs from the middle of their welcoming hollow square.