Baryshnikov Arts Center
BAC invites writers to interview our Resident Artists and observe them working in the studio. The resulting BAC Story essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process.
Jan 9, 2013
How about choreographic inspiration from Stephen Sondheim musicals, unhappy endings, and the busy sex life of Bonobo apes? Unlikely? Not to Sally Silvers.
Silvers, a veteran choreographer known for her smart, collage-like dances, used her BAC residency to develop Bonobo Milkshake, a dance premiered in November 2012 at Roulette in Brooklyn and described by New York Times dance critic Claudia LaRocco as one the “happiest sightings” of 2012.That’s welcome acknowledgement for a choreographer who’s been making eclectically influenced (some say radical) work for several decades, but who described herself in a 2009 New York Times interview as “old-fashionedly interested in movement.”
A native of Tennessee, Silvers is soft spoken and articulate. During an interview at the East Village apartment studio where she lives and works, Silvers explained her unexpected exposure to dance while a student at Antioch University in the early 1970’s. She’d signed up for modern classes as exercise, but was soon performing in the works of an artist friend. “People started noticing my performance and I felt like I’d gained a new source of power,” she said. After graduating, she moved to New York, fell under the spell of the cross-disciplinary Judson Dance Theater, and started auditioning for dance gigs.
“I was looking for something radical in dance and I wasn’t finding it,” she said. “I was finding kind of smoothed out, lyrical, contact-improvy based stuff…and so I think I just put together my first concert and said, OK, I’m going to do this myself.”
Influenced by, among others, the work of Simone Forti and Yoshiko Chuma, Silvers eventually started piecing together text, movement, voice, and music into crazy-quilt dances underpinned by big themes such as gender and race, but rooted in Silvers’s love of the human body in motion.
Bonobo Milkshake is no exception. According to Silvers, the dance isn’t directly about apes or musicals, but about the intricacies of human behavior, particularly as explored by Sondheim in his dark, irreverent lyrics and inherently un-danceable scores.
Sondheim “represents a real change in looking at society with more realism,” says Silvers. “He tackles things like aging, melancholy, things that don’t work out.”
But during the choreographer’s rehearsal time at BAC, gloominess was refreshingly absent. There was laughter and a free exchange of comments and suggestions as Silvers carefully edited and embellished small chunks of movement with the dancers.
One afternoon she had dancers Dylan Crossman, Elisa Osborne, Miriam Parker, Veraalba Santa, and Christopher Williams cluster front and center. She asked them for a titillating show of leg like they were old school chorines trying to impress a director. The dancers suggestively pulled at their sweatpants and Spandex, but the result was more aggressive than Silvers wanted. She directed them to soften everything. Less movement and more intent, she suggested. “You kind of have to believe in it,” she said.
There’s a sense that this is how Silvers works – the intellectual framework of the dance is pulled from wildly divergent sources and fastened together gestalt-like in her head. The piece is then built in rehearsal as the dancers experiment and layer movement onto that framework. Silvers appears fearless when it comes to marrying disparate ideas, and the dancers follow her lead with the willingness of converts.
During her residency Silvers pushed this approach even further. Bonobo Milkshake is a multi-layered mash-up with choreographed movement for six dancers (the five listed above plus Jeremy Pheiffer), structured improvisation for three more performers (Carolyn Hall, Jonathan Kinzel, and Edisa Weeks), semi-improvised duets for Silvers and Rebekah Windmiller, and monologues and movement solos for actor David Greenspan. Michael Schumacher composed and performed the music with original text and sound design by Bruce Andrews.
“I think the scale of this piece was made more possible by the BAC residency for sure,” says Silvers. “I was able to think bigger.”
In performance at Roulette, Silvers reversed the usual seating arrangement so that the audience, elevated on the stage, looked down at the dancers, and up to the balcony area where Hall, Kinzel, and Weeks periodically slunk through the seats in a sort of mating ritual. The effect was intriguing, but the space between floor and balcony made it hard to absorb everything all at once. And Silvers’ choreography is compelling enough that it was easy to lose track of the improvised bits even when they happened down at dance floor level.
In our interview before the premier she spoke of the challenges of overlapping choreography with improvisation. “Improvisation you really have to dive in and get involved with what you’re doing,” she said. “It’s hard to coordinate because [the improvisers] can’t be there as much as they would normally need in order to get something actually worked…They’ve got to be aware that that’s their time and that they have to be off the stage or they’re going to get run over by the next section.” In an email after the opening she said that if she presents Bonobo Milkshake elsewhere she’ll intertwine the two elements even more.
Silvers has an internal presence, call it confident calmness, that somehow makes the simple act of standing and tilting her head a potent comment on life’s absurdities. When asked about the dance’s title, she said, “My dance is not about Bonobos, it’s more about the spirit of the Bonobo…Bonobo Milkshake just sounded to me like a title that meant something hopefully exciting was going to happen.”
And her response when asked what Sondheim might say if he saw Bonobo Milkshake?
“I would be very curious what he had to say about what he saw,” she says with a slight smile. “I don’t know that he would see any relationship.”
Aug 26, 2012
Rashaun Mitchell, an eight-year veteran of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, isn’t afraid of getting lost. Literally. To prepare for his BAC residency, he and a few other dancers set out into the woods of southeastern Connecticut for a hike into unfamiliar territory. Without speaking, one dancer was expected to lead until another felt compelled to take their place.
It wasn’t pretty.
They were quickly lost, and when they finally made it back to the studio, everyone was intensely emotional. Mitchell recalls it as being, “really weird,” but he knew he’d hit choreographic pay dirt. He set up a camera and told his dancers, “OK, let’s dance…let’s see what comes out of our bodies.” Those filmed improvisations became the core material for Interface, an exploration of visceral and emotional reactions that Mitchell expects to be more of a multi-media piece than a dance.
It’s fair to say that this comfort with creative meandering is unusual for a seasoned Cunningham dancer. Although Cunningham often relied on chance operations for how a dance would look in performance (meaning the movement, sound and visuals are independent of one another and order is determined by a roll of the dice), the actual steps, and how they should be executed, were, as in classical ballet, imposed on the dancers by the choreographer. So Mitchell’s willingness to let his dancers’ movements dictate the look and feel of a new work is a certain kind of daring.
“I really like to work with people who have minds of their own,” he says. Mitchell encourages feedback from his dancers while sifting through their improvised movement, discovering the emotional intent behind it, then trying to separate one from the other and recombine them in novel ways – something he describes as a layering process.
In Interface, Mitchell plans to add even more layers including an original electronic score by Thomas Arsenault and design elements by artists Nicholas O’Brien and Fraser Taylor. Factor in the expertise of the dancers working with Mitchell during his time at BAC (Cori Kresge, Melissa Toogood and Silas Riener) and you have a passel of talent converging on virgin territory.
As if that isn’t intrepid enough, Mitchell and Riener will be co-creating an improvisational duet to be performed at Anatoly Bekkerman’s ABA Gallery as part of BAC’s fall gala evening. The challenges for such an event are many and Mitchell admits that it’s scary. Although he’s used to performing in unorthodox spaces from his years with the Cunningham company, Mitchell says a gala event is a little different. “It’s always sort of strange to figure out where people are going to be and whether we’re going to interrupt the socializing.”
Dangerous? Perhaps. Frightening? Yes, but most creative efforts are. Mitchell, however, appears to be willing to pull his collaborators close and step carefully, and bravely, into the unknown.
May 2, 2012
Faye Driscoll is drenched in sweat, smeared with yellow, blue and orange paint, and riding atop collaborator Jesse Zaritt’s shoulders like a Valkyrie charging up out of a dress up box. She stares out and upwards as a synthesized beat thunders through the studio. Zaritt thrusts a wig, a cap and a hunk of velveteen up into her hands. She flings the fabric over her chest like a cloak and plunks the wig on her head.
They are tossed for fur collar, bra and a snarl of netting. Next are sunglasses, red feathers and Mardi Gras beads. Driscoll’s gaze is intense, uncompromising – her expression a twist of smile and snarl. The music fades, Zaritt backs away and she stands alone, breathing hard and twitching with kinetic energy. These are the final moments of Driscoll’s two-week residency at BAC where she’s pulled together her messy, funny, exhilarating and mystifying new work, You’re Me.
It’s the culmination of a year and a half of intermittent writing, solo improvisation and collaborative work with Zaritt as an exploration of the tumult between defining oneself as an individual and surrendering oneself to another in a relationship. If that sounds like grant-speak, a look around studio 4B will dispel any fears of post-modern tedium. The floor is strewn with orange peel, talcum powder, paint cans, cardboard, netting, yarn, fabric, fruit, fake jewels and piles of clothing. “The cleaning guy was really nice about it,” says Driscoll with a disarming smile. After its premier at The Kitchen in April, Brian Seibert of the The New York Times described You’re Me as a work in which “craft blooms into artistry.”
Driscoll has worked at BAC before; first as assistant to Resident Artist David Neumann in 2008, then as chief collaborator with director Young Jean Lee during Lee’s 2011 residency for Untitled Feminist Show, but never before on her own material. She was invited to BAC after her 2010 showing of there’s so much mad in me at DTW. The 38-year-old, critically acclaimed choreographer describes the offer as “a privilege” and a chance to work without distractions. “I was grateful I could just be wrapped up in creativity,” she says, adding that it’s easy to forget how much energy goes into the logistics of trying to make new work in New York City. “These little things pluck away at you when you’re in the midst of trying to dream,” she says. And dream she does. Driscoll’s work is often described as raw and unfiltered; indelicate moves tinged with the abandon of children run amok in the playroom. In You’re Me, she and Zaritt pull and paw at one another, stuff oranges and spray cans into their pants, crawl, moan and, startlingly, arrange themselves into Isadora-like tableaux with all the balance and restraint of a classical frieze. It’s a seductive juxtaposition - a fleshy ride into the dark (and sometimes funny) depths of the subconscious. UCLA dance professor Victoria Marks calls Driscoll a “post-millennium, postmodern wild woman” and Lee has aptly dubbed her “the choreographer of the id.”
But Driscoll saves the extremes for her work. In person she is approachable, articulate and genuine. She describes the sense of being cared for at BAC as validation that what she’s doing is worthwhile. It’s pretty simple stuff - a good floor, nice light, helpful staff and very few parameters, but it’s huge for a creative artist. “It facilitates better art,” says Driscoll.