I first encountered Sally Silvers’s work in 1981, a year after she arrived in New York. She and Lisa Kraus, who couldn’t have been more different, had collaborated on a long duet. Kraus was one of Trisha Brown’s most luxuriously fluid dancers. Silvers, I wrote, was “wiry, rail-skinny, and jumpy. Folding down into a squat, she becomes a study in jutting knees and elbows. In one solo, she keeps lurching and crashing to the floor with a disconcerting bang of knobby body parts. Everything about her bespeaks fast-twitch muscles . . . ”
Silvers is celebrating her 25th year as a choreographer, and her retrospective season at P.S.122 shows how polished her non sequiturs became, how slyly fluid her movement style, and how elegantly structured her work. She began as a scamp of a mover, without, she admits, the sleek line and technical chops that would have sailed her through auditions. (Her early kids-in-the-sandbox aspect is acknowledged in an opening improvisation by Silvers and two eminent former colleagues, Pooh Kaye and Cydney Wilkes.) The oddities of the style she developed, as well as everyday gestures and expressions, coexist with pointed feet, leaps, chaining turns, and high leg lifts, but her movements look nothing like, say, William Forsythe’s deconstructions of ballet. If anything, some of her earthy solo works, with their dramatic use of distortion and mysteriously extravagant poses, have reminded me of silent films and early German modern dance.
Her new Puppy-Skills—”reconfigured” vintage solos embedded in a group work—is performed by postmodern stars Paige Martin, Vicky Shick, Julie Atlas Muz, Marion Ramirez, and Jamie Di Mare, plus gifted newcomer Liz Filbrun. They’re up for anything, but as Silvers told interviewer Gia Kourlas, “It’s more about bringing beautiful dancers with good techniques down to earth. Bringing the angels down to the ground.” Where they still look very beautiful. Wearing customized black, silver, and dark-blue outfits by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, shimmering in David Fritz’s lighting, animating Silvers’s imaginative patterns, they suggest eccentric sirens. One minute they pose with offhand sensuousness or open their arms lavishly; the next they shift their limbs as if calmly ripping their bodies apart. Even exiting with a lurching walk, grabbing their butts at each step, they’re cool and refined. The curious confrontations and tangled clumps that develop are never drastic; they seem simply by-products of Silvers’s design—a world of congenial individuals with private dreams. The live sound mix by the choreographer’s longtime collaborator Bruce Andrews with Michael Schumacher keeps remaking the landscape the women so intently occupy.
A similar clarity and precise awkwardness animate Rupt, created last May for six talented female students at Sarah Lawrence, where Silvers teaches. According to the program, a 1950s handbook of mental aberrations inspired the work. Maybe that source influenced the opening moments: Two dancers stand side by side, assume fashion model poses, and then repeatedly loosen and cramp their positions as if prey to inner eruptions. Several times the performers cross the space in pairs arranged in a line. As they go, one woman in each couple asks difficult personal questions that her partner must answer immediately. Each repetition increases in speed and cacophony, despite the stony manner of both questioner and respondent.
Two solos fine-tune our sensibilities. The marvelous Carolyn Hall performs the 1989 Flap to Lawrence “Butch” Morris’s whistly percussive score, in front of a standing screen showing a film (by Carolyn Avery) of soft-edged white shapes. Hall’s long limbs give Silvers’s wheeling straight-armed gestures, complex angular torsions, jumps, and precipitate falls a power threatening to force the boundaries of the medium-size screen that defines her space. Silvers dancing Oven Rack (a remodeled older work), to an audiotape of country music tunes sung by Iris DeMent, is a more compact performer. What comes first to mind when I think of her is curled and twisted shapes. A glimmering beetle in her bronze shot-silk outfit by Clancy, she transforms those bundled body designs into complicated lunges, scuttles, and scampers to a faster fiddle, and expands elegiacally when DeMent sings “Our Town.” Twenty-five years of quiet innovation: well worth saluting.