Finally launching her 40th-anniversary season, two years late, choreographer Sally Silvers returned to the austere precincts of Brooklyn’s Roulette with Pandora’s New Cake Stain, an updated version of her first evening-length work. Originally commissioned in 1996, when it was performed at The Kitchen, in Chelsea, the new production featured cameo performances by Silvers herself, along with members of the original cast, including Sean Curran and Koosil-ja, both now in their 60s. Rounding out the current cast was a younger cohort of gorgeous movers, long of limb and ambiguous of gender. All three performances were sold out, and those on the waiting list were ultimately ushered into the theater’s balcony; those who stayed home were able to watch a live stream of the performance.
Perhaps the most charming of Silvers’s innovations here was the inclusion of S.C. Lucier, a young roller-derby champion serving as a stage manager on skates, a head taller than everyone else and swathed in a pleated, translucent cape tricked out in a rainbow of tiny lights. Watching this new Pandora, I lost track of time and space, genre and gender. The work was billed as dance, but it included themes and music from German composer Alban Berg’s 1937 opera Lulu, which in turn derives from Pandora’s Box, a 1904 play by the German dramatist Frank Wedekind. This was augmented with new ideas swiped from the Italian-Mexican revolutionary and photographer Tina Modotti (1896–1942), and graced with complex, almost cinematic scenic and video design, projected on a set of oblong screens, by Swiss multimedia artist Ursula Scherrer.
The plot of Lulu is tangled, tracking the descent of a beautiful street urchin from her position as the wife of a physician to the wife of an artist to the wife of a Svengali-like journalist who exploits her; she winds up imprisoned, works the streets, and is murdered by Jack the Ripper. As Berg’s work emerged, in the early 1930s, it was thwarted by the rise of Nazism—many hands have brought it to the form it takes today. Silvers’s version earns its place in a complex lineage.
The most consistent aspect of this new production of Pandora is Silvers’s longtime collaboration with Bruce Andrews, who provided, with Michael Schumacher, sound design and live music. Andrews (who describes himself as a “poet, performance writer, poetics theorist, sound designer, and retired social scientist”) has partnered with Silvers for decades; their joint undertakings are among the smartest and most challenging works in the downtown canon.
For all of Pandora’s multiple aspects, the stage is most illuminated by human bodies in motion—lots of bodies, 18 in all, often barelegged and barefoot, upside-down and backward, tangled and contorted, hoisted into the air and scrambling along the floor like large lizards. Silvers’s Lulu is represented by five different women, but you don’t have to follow the convoluted dramaturgy to take pleasure in the work, just keep your eyes on the dancers, who sometimes show up in choruses of three or four, grappling with one another and with male figures in encounters that start out romantic but wind up resembling rape, as in a man standing on the back of a crouched woman. The moves are often athletic, almost acrobatic. The style evolves from Weimar-era formalism, with beautiful women displaying themselves, in pre-Spandex bathing attire, for the sexual delectation of partners and audiences, the dancers serving as what Silvers calls “synchronized abstractions,” as well as figures from fairy tales and opera. There is a tropism toward storytelling, but narrative is not the central point. Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting design keeps your eyes in motion, landing on a kick-line here, an interaction between a foot and a neck over there, the transfer of power from an older to a younger military figure, which passes in an instant. (The primary distinction between Koosil-ja and the dancers half her age is that she wears kneepads.)
Scherrer’s video scenery is moody: light on water, a staircase, a breeze on curtained French doors, the occasional actual dancer filmed in color, contrasting with the mainly gray-scale images. A coffin-like shape descends from a balcony to become a shadow image on a screen. Mexican music floats in; 12 dancers couple up in ballroom formations. Ultimately, the tallest dancer, Burr Johnson, lifts and tosses four dancers, now “swimmers,” who collapse onto the floor. Silvers, a ministering angel, tends them as the lights fade, straightening their gnarled limbs, mourning.
Silvers claims that this undertaking will be her final large-scale piece. But I’d gamble big bucks that we haven’t seen the last of her rigorous choreography, or of her brainy collaborations with Andrews and the rest of her crew. I urge you, if you didn’t make it to Roulette (and even if you did!), to check out the website and enjoy the live stream of Pandora’s New Cake Stain. Shot from several angles by traditional and robot cameras and startlingly clear, the video, superintended by dance filmmaker Alla Kovgan, allows you to ponder whether you’re observing the dance or dreaming it. Trust me, and trust the tape: It all really happens. ❖
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.