Sacred Harp or shape note singing is a communal form of singing that arrived in the U.S. from England, became popular in the early 1800s and spread across the country largely in religious communities. It took root in some Baptist communities in the South, and though it has been practiced for quite some time, dancer Zoe Scofield had never heard it until she returned to her childhood home in Gainesville, Georgia a few years ago.
"I heard it and started crying," Scofield says. "I had such a visceral reaction. It was foreign and also something I had a relationship to (being from the South). It felt like the first time I saw (dancer) Pina Bausch (perform)."
Scofield was inspired by the communal music, and she and artistic partner Juniper Shuey thought about using it as the base of a new dance piece. They started attending Sacred Harp events in their home in Seattle.
Scofield had met Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) Executive Director Neil Barclay, and she shared the idea with him. Clear & Sweet makes its world premiere at the CAC this week, opening the center's 40th season.
The name Sacred Harp comes form a songbook titled The Sacred Harp, which used "shape notes" — literally featuring shapes on musical notes to help singers find the appropriate pitch within scales. It simplifies reading music for lay audiences and facilitates a cappella singing. Scofield and Shuey liked its accessible, nonhierarchical use.
"It felt like the meeting of the secular and sacred," Scofield says.
She found the communal singing to be the welcome dividend of focused activity.
"It's like what John Lennon says, 'Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans,'" she says. "On the journey of seeking in life, there's all these other relationships and interactions."
At the CAC, the piece will be performed in the round, similar to how shape note singing happens — divided into four sides, for basses, trebles, altos and tenors. In Clear & Sweet a singer will represent each side for the performance, but there also will be shape note songbooks so the audience can join in, making it an immersive experience.
Zoe | Juniper is a dance company, but the duo's process is unique. Shuey is a visual artist. He was focused on ceramics in college when he started exploring video projection, using video to build on sculpture, which evolved toward performance. Clear & Sweet incorporates video projections, including images of the company performing.
The company has been in New Orleans for three weeks getting the show ready for its premiere. With grant support from the CAC, it's also working out how to tour the show. The CAC warehouse space has allowed them to develop and work on the piece.
The show also is indicative of Barclay's desire to have the CAC bridge connections to the South with national artists. It's also working with local performers. Local dancer Meryl Murman and her company Flock will present The Lipstick at the CAC Sept. 30-Oct. 1, a piece reimagined from a smaller show with support from the CAC. The season also includes New Orleans native Rashaad Newsome bringing a vogue dance performance and interdisciplinary presentation. Goat in the Road Productions also will present a new show.
"Increasingly, we're thinking about opening possibilities for artists," Barclay says. "The CAC was founded by artists, so what can we provide artists?"