Baryshnikov Arts Center
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.”