Sacred Harp singing is full-bodied and jagged, with lyrics about trials and redemptions. Its roots run to rural English church music, but it solidified as an American tradition largely through the work of two Southerners, B.F. White and E.J. King, who published The Sacred Harp tunebook, which uses a shape note system that people who don't read music can sing.
It was here, in our slippery Southern region, that Georgia-raised, Seattle-based choreographer Zoe Scofield first became acquainted with that ecstatic yet doleful sound. A few years ago, in southern Georgia, Scofield saw a video exhibit at the Okefenokee Heritage Center in which a well-known Sacred Harp singer, David Lee, led a singing class. Scofield felt an immediate, albeit complex, connection to the music.
"It felt both very foreign and very familiar in a way I couldn't entirely understand or place," she says. This experience formed the kernel of zoe | juniper's new piece. Scofield tells the story while driving with visual artist Juniper Shuey, the company's cofounder, to North Carolina from New Orleans, where they premiered Clear & Sweet. This week, Chapel Hill audiences will be the second group to see it, courtesy of co-commissioner Carolina Performing Arts.
Concerns of voice and collaboration are central in the pair's dynamic repertoire, in which they work their respective art forms into all-encompassing sensory experiences. The company, which is now ten years old, pursues continuity across media, materializing works in a swirl of sonic and sculptural motion. In Clear & Sweet, Scofield's angular riffs on balletic forms resound through Shuey's video installations and set design.
"Zoe | juniper pull away from the pack in that they have combined two unique voices—a dance voice and a visual voice—into something that is absolutely more than the sum of its parts," says Amy Russell, director of programming at Carolina Performing Arts. "We value collaboration so highly, especially when it serves to blur and bend boundaries like genre, discipline, tradition, and place."
Like the communal singing tradition that inspired it, the piece is structured around a hollow square. The audience sits in four sections that face inward—in this case, toward the dancers. Local Sacred Harp singers will be scattered throughout the seating, and attendees will receive songbooks so they can join the performance.
This reflects the inclusive ethos of Sacred Harp. The four shapes of the shape note system—fa sol la mi—aid sight-reading. The singing itself doesn't demand technical mastery. It's often free, or costs little, to attend concerts or classes. Scofield is interested in how this spirit diverges from that of the professional dance world.
"It's very different from my, and probably most people's, experiences in classical dance training, or any classical art form, which is very much about ability," says Scofield. "The better you get, the higher up on the pyramid you are and the more alone you are."
Clear & Sweet outlines the space we create together between our similarities and differences. Sacred Harp, which uses religious songs but attracts plenty of nonreligious devotees, led to thoughts about the concept of sacred space. What can it look like, and what compels us to create it? In this, Clear & Sweet's hollow-square construction is evocative of the desire to create home on one's own terms, to hold multiple origins at once.
"We wanted to create something that felt like a porous container, that could contain something literally and figuratively, and that also wasn't confining, binding, or trapping," Scofield says. "It's a funny thing that something that originated in religion—something I'd found very exclusive—ended up being the thing that would bring me back to the South."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Square Dance"