Choreographers make dances. The experimental choreographer Sally Silvers puts a twist on that: She turns fantasies into dances.
One of her most memorable, “Pandora’s Cake Stain,” from 1996, was her first evening-length work. Eccentric? Dreamlike? Definitely. Its wealth of intersecting influences included Lulu, the fictional character from Alban Berg’s 1935 opera, and the photographer and revolutionary activist Tina Modotti, who lived and worked in Mexico. In Silvers’s work, Mexico is usually somewhere behind the scenes.
“I went to Mexico when I was 16,” she said in a recent interview at her East Village apartment. “I was coming from Tennessee, and I was basically a rube. My father let me do a summer session in Mexico learning Spanish.”
She had never been anywhere except to visit relatives near Washington, D.C., and in Kentucky. “I arrive in my home economics-made outfits — my little skirt below my knees and my little jacket — and all the other girls wear miniskirts and are from Long Island and are talking about their nose jobs. It was just a culture shock. I don’t think anybody liked me. I was just too different.”
But being different has long served Silvers, now 70, as a dance artist. It’s part of what sets her work, collagelike and surreal, apart. In it, movement is robust, intricate and ever flowing; transitions seem oddly absent. She operates on another rhythm — both off the beat and offbeat — a factor inherent in her own dancing body.
“I don’t want to claim I’m so unique,” she added. “But I did have some quirky aspects to the way my body wanted to move
In honor of her 40th anniversary season — a couple of years late because of the coronavirus pandemic — Silvers has assembled an outstanding cast of new and former dancers to present an updated version of her Lulu dance, now called “Pandora’s New Cake Stain,” at Roulette in Brooklyn beginning Thursday. It will most likely be her final large-scale work. The cast, including Melissa Toogood on video as well as Silver, tops out at 18 performers. Six are cameos by original cast members.
In the production, six dancers play Lulu; there are a few Modottis, too, but the delicately elegant Myssi Robinson plays the main one. There is Mexican music, and what Silvers referred to as science experiments — explorations of synchronized movement performed in colorful lab aprons, turned backward — as well as more playful “girl group sections.”
S.C. Lucier, the stage manager, will be on roller skates. A member of the Gotham Roller Derby league, Lucier is also known as Fast and Luce. Silvers has a long interest and history of working in roller derby, which she started following in 2008 and has incorporated into dances since 2016. In “New Cake Stain,” part of Lucier’s job is to deliver costumes to the performers onstage while wearing a shimmering cape. She glides like a butterfly.
The staples of Silvers’s choreographic approach remain: fractured storytelling, flamboyant theatricality and wily partnering. The intergenerational cast features Seán Curran, who reprises his opening solo, and Koosil-ja, who dances her original role in its entirety. “She’s in the girl group,” Silvers said, “which has the most intensely Sally movement of any of the sections, I would say, because that was this intention — to be this kind of female Sally-centered self.”
Koosil-ja, a contemporary choreographer in her own right who has also performed with the Wooster Group, is 62. “Sally emailed me, telling me that I could suggest a dancer to dance my role,” she said. “My question was immediately: Why would I want to do that?
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy,” she added, “but it’s actually possible. I’m doing it.”
When she reflects on what it was like to work with Silvers in 1996, she thinks about the East Village. “It had a certain hype and energy, and P.S. 122” — or Performance Space 122, which is now Performance Space New York — “was kind of central to those artists with particularities. All of these young pioneers were there. Sally was sort of, to me, like an East Village star.”
But at the time, Silvers felt stuck. Before she created “Pandora’s Cake Stain,” Silvers had been praised by critics, but it was hard for her to get producers, aside from Performance Space 122, to notice her. “It was really a struggle to get out of the neighborhood,” she said.
When “Pandora’s Cake Stain” was commissioned by the Kitchen in Chelsea, she wanted to create something grand for the occasion, a dance worthy of the prestige of being at that institution. Her focus — female artists and icons, Mexico, Berg’s “Lulu” (based on Frank Wedekind’s plays “Pandora’s Box” and “Earth Spirit”), which she had started to listen to — struck her as meeting the moment.
“The ‘Lulu’ really just stuck with me as an incredible piece of music,” she said. “The story was very sordid and burlesque-y and soap opera-y in a really trashy way, but it had a lot of symbolism about women in it,” she said. “And I wanted to bring that to attention by comparing Tina and Lulu as characters. Somehow it just all came together like that: a catalog of my interests back in 1996.”
There is a kind of theatricality in the dance that Curran, 61 and also a choreographer, said he doesn’t see much anymore. “I’ve forgotten how densely packed it was, how detailed it was,” he said. “Sally is a stickler — you know, heart of gold, but tough as nails kind of choreographer. She wants things very specific, whether it’s the movement or how you’re responding to the music.”
His solo, at around three minutes, is full of angles and prickly jumps — essentially, nonstop. “It’s kind of a strange old friend I’d forgotten about,” he said. “It has a weird dream logic.”
And while it’s not easy, being asked to perform it “is a gift from Sally,” he said. “I just have to get Zen and deliver the three minutes.”
But how did Silvers’s idiosyncratic dream logic reveal itself? The search for her own style produced something rare: “I want to present something that gives people a view of dance that they can’t take for granted somehow with the way that they normally look at dance,” Silvers said. “A lot of people don’t like what I do for that reason — that it doesn’t bring forth those feelings that dance gives people. And I like those feelings, too!” But, she added, “it’s not what I can do.”
When she decided that she wanted to become a choreographer — her first dance concert was in 1980 at a studio she rented on Mercer Street — she stopped taking dance classes to find her voice. “Dance is so easy to mimic, and it becomes something that once you learn it, you can’t get rid of that posture. You can’t get rid of naming a movement, and it limits what a dancer thinks they are.”
The only choreographer Silvers has danced with was Yvonne Rainer, and that came late in her career, when she was already in her 50s. But dancing in a company was her original plan. While at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the 1970s, she was encouraged by the choreographer Ken Miller to use the college’s cooperative education program — students needed to spend six months away from school — to study dance in New York City.
“I was just a fly on the wall,” she said. “I was very shy. And the dance world here was really intimidating. There was a true hierarchy in where you were on the floor and where you stood.”
Silvers returned to school believing that she wouldn’t be able to make it in New York; all the while, she continued to study dance. When it came time to graduate, her credits were divided between political science and dance.
“I was offered a job in Wheeling, W.Va., to go work on an independent coal mining magazine that was sort of in a fight with the hardened union people who were not so pro-worker at that time,” she said. “This was an alternative paper that was trying to build a different kind of movement with the unions. And I had a choice of that or coming to New York with no plans.”
She laughed and added, “I went to New York.”
And what happened there? She became an East Village star.