Roulette has always maintained a relationship with dance artists, and I pride myself with being part of the adventure since the early 1980s. Jim Staley was the first to ever ask me to improvise live in concert (in 1982) and there has been no looking back—on stage or in my studio.
Beyond the world of improvisation, I also trace my choreographic roots to Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s Judson Dance Theater of which she was a founding member. When she asked me to be part of her newly formed dance group in 2005, I had been choreographing for over two decades. Although I had never wanted to be a dancer in anyone’s company before, you do not say no to your dance hero—and it was an unforgettable experience from 2005 to 2011.
Before, during, and after, Roulette has been a cherished source of support for me and so many others in the performing arts community and is still introducing me to a wild range of incredible artistry. My admiration for the legacies of experimental dance and movement, music and sound arts, and everything in between overflows in celebration of Roulette’s 40th!
On November 29th through December 1st, artistic director and choreographer Sally Silvers presents the three-night run premiere of her dance piece ALONG at Roulette. A low-tech, science fiction based “girl power” adventure, ALONG imagines a place where different worlds and body languages confuse, collide, and waveringly communicate. The piece is intended to be a stark meeting of “super-heroes” stranded on a desert isle. Since there is no shared language, it starts from scratch to build a communality of difference. The cast includes dancers Brandon Collwes, Dylan Crossman, Megan Curet, Lindsey Jones, Cori Kresge, Benedict Nguyen, Veraalba Santa, Melissa Toogood, and Joshua Tucson and features three Gotham Girls Roller Derby Skater All-Stars: Lauren Corry (aka Caf Fiend), S.C. Lucier (Fast and Luce), and Katherine Rugg (Space Invader).
ALONG features live sound design and electronics by Bruce Andrews and Michael Schumacher, video by Ursula Scherrer, lighting design by Joe Levasseur, costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, and drones by Charles Dennis.
For Roulette’s 7th issue, here she is in conversation with friend and collaborator, Yvonne Rainer.
Yvonne Rainer: How do you begin to make a dance; what are the very first “moves”—physically and cognitively?
Sally Silvers: I usually start a new piece cognitively with literature (in the past: Jean Genet, Gertrude Stein, James Ellroy), or movies (eg. Hitchcock, Godard), or music/opera (Berg’s Lulu, Hindemith’s The Four Temperaments, Luigi Nono’s opera on revolutions), or a famous figure or concept (Tina Modotti, Sor Juana, cyborgs, women scientists, girl/group/power) and do a lot of watching, reading, listening for months—or mostly at the beach—trying to get a feeling, an instinct, and a grasp. I’ll start saving pictures, writing down movement ideas, daydreaming—in the past I would find some music that seemed relative and record myself improvising to it for movement ideas. To be honest, these days at my age, I have such a backlog of improvisations, I’m often reaching out to my younger pre-recorded self for current ideas.
I’m not sure why I chose science fiction this time. With few exceptions, I have been a true reality-based choreographer who wants to problematize the relationship to the body and others as a practice of social/political commentary hard-wired into the composition. I think it’s the current political state we are in now that maybe brought me to sci-fi to escape with utopias or with dystopias. I’ve narrowed myself to sci-fi written by women and that addresses my theme of communication (such as Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison), which hopefully takes up some of the problems we’re having now, however obliquely. I think of myself as a social modernist somewhat—I know that’s contradictory. I might be an abstractionist at heart.
YR: To what extent do you want your sources to be recognizable in the finished product? I think I’m more of a literalist in that I want my literary affects to run parallel with movement in the form of readings, but if my memories of your work are accurate, you seem to let your literary influences lie kind of subliminally in relation to the “choreography.”
SS: My experience of your work is you want parallel tracks but often they don’t seem related. They seem like you want associations that don’t connect; that are related only by time. I think I’m going for a connection, but a mystery as to why.
YR: It’s true, I deliberately go for the obvious “radical juxtapositions”—connection between word and image comes and goes, maybe usually “goes,” but the “mystery,” and perhaps the power, of your dances is not the why but how it works. Do you consider what you do more narrative than abstract?
SS: I think “mystery” might have been a cop-out word. Maybe I meant I was going for a connection that is a by-product of a constellation of all that is going on in the moment—things that link but can also contradict, therefore creating a challenge or dialogue. I really fight against the word “narrative.” Even if there is a story, as in [the Hitchcock-inspired dance pieces]: Actual Size (2014) and Tenderizer (2017)—which both premiered at Roulette—or when I did a version of Berg’s Lulu (1996), I make the “story” into situations or references, or abstractions (like making a space pattern that occurs at three different times out of the design of the opening credits of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). The dancers can play any and all of the characters at any time or do many things that don’t seem to refer to an identifiable character at all. (Is a sequence of moves without characters really a narrative?) Although I’ve noticed I don’t do much gender-crossing. Maybe that’s next. ALONG is going to be very influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness about a genderless society—anyone can give birth—on a planet with entire vocabularies for ice. I see the derby skaters as a kind of “set design” of the constancy of “ice” while still operating as superheroes, for instance.
YR: I’m intrigued by your “…making a space pattern out of the design of the opening credits of North by Northwest”—do you mean all those diagonals followed by the milling crowds? (I looked up the credits on the internet). Ha! I thought my huge collection of newspaper photos and sports videos was an inexhaustible resource, but I never would have dreamed of going to movie credits—which suggests a modus operandi that might be described as “eclectic incongruity” in addition to your “social [post]modernism.” The world-is-your-oyster kind of thing—but I’m still curious about how much of these resources are buried or recognizable in the final product, and I can’t remember if you credit them in your program notes or if that’s even an issue for you.
SS: I like that—“eclectic incongruity”—because there is a layering beyond just using the credits as a potential space pattern. For instance, the “diagonals followed by the milling crowds” led me to my movement instruction library where I found my book on billiards and chose a pattern illustrating how to get a particular ball in the pocket, so I layered that on top of the idea that came from the diagonals in the film. And the milling crowds, from an overhead film shot became a small triangle of people in the downstage left corner of the space who moved using vocabulary I learned from my book on beginning Labanotation. How recognizable these resources are in the final product is not very important to me. You would be surprised how many people have not seen North by Northwest or any other film of Hitchcock’s for that matter. Although I’ve chosen a particular book, or artist, or film, because I am interested in it or it brings up issues that I am exploring, I think of the resources more as treasure chests of potential ideas to make a dance out of—blueprints or roadmaps to lend structure or ideas to start with in rehearsal: a way to both enhance and limit my imagination. Not chance procedures at all, but still a way to get outside of what’s typical or habitual in my own decision-making—I would probably never have chosen to pack six people in a small space downstage left on my own—I will identify the overall resource in the program i.e. “channeling Marnie, Psycho, and The Birds but nothing internal. I think the piece has to stand for itself, and I don’t like being too literal. Here comes that abstractionist again. Or that impressionist.
YR: Yeah, dance is such a drag in that way: unless you’re doing pantomime it is inevitably abstract and ambiguous with regard to MEANING despite the materiality of the actual bodies; so it remains always self-referential or tied to our familiarities with particular dance histories or training and so susceptible to interpretation. We give names to our configurations: clump, milling, collision, et al, which brings me to what you describe as “the current political state we are now in” and how to unpack that via “dance” in these perilous times. This may be my dilemma right now, more than yours in that I’m currently more interested in writing than in choreography.
SS: It’s true in dance–meaning is mostly in the eye of the beholder. That’s either delightful or frustrating, but it goes with the territory. The less literary an art form, the more ambiguous—though my literary tastes and collaborations tilt pretty severely toward ambiguity. But isn’t that part of the attraction too? And even when the movement goes against the grain of anything literal or character/narrative based, I still think it can have some leverage. When I’m choosing material that is socially-charged and make it collide in drastic or weird juxtapositions, it seems capable of making sparks for or marks on the viewer.
YR: How do you deal with your aging body as both performer and maker? Will you be one of the sci-fi “girls?” (One of my most brilliant choreographic decisions was to have you imitate right on the spot in performance the bravura male solo in Agon as it played out on a DVD with the player facing upstage, for your eyes only). Does the geriatric belong somewhere in what seems like your infinite collections of subject matter? Will you be performing in the new work? Knowing you, I see you reluctant to give that up. As I am. (Let’s go walking and running and gesturing into that good night!)
SS: Right now (as of August 13th, 2018), I don’t plan to be in the current piece. That will be a first for me in presenting one of my larger dance evenings. I know I’m not giving up performing as you haven’t (your many geriatric versions of Trio A and your “interventions” in your own recent work when a dancer is sick, injured, or otherwise unavailable are priceless and thrilling), but for sure I am cutting back. There are all the societal pressures of being an older woman, much less an older dancing woman. Coming to terms with decreasing physical prowess is an ongoing conversation with myself in relation to the times and the patriarchy in which I live.
YR: All the more reason to challenge those norms. A fantasy just entered my brain: you and I make a talking/dancing geriatric duet. But we should wait until you’re as old as I am!
SS: Well, Yvonne, you would be 102 when I get to be your age. Fantasy remains fantasy—which is a category of sci-fi—but I love the idea.
CONTRIBUTOR: Yvonne Rainer
Yvonne Rainer is a dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker who has been recognized as one of the leading conceptual artists of the past fifty years. She emerged in the 1960s as a pioneer of the Judson Dance Theater movement, an avant-garde performance style that blended elements of dance and visual art, and later turned to experimental film. Rainer is the recipient of numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, three Rockefeller Fellowships, a MacArthur Fellowship, a Wexner Prize, and in 2015, the Merce Cunningham Award. She currently lives and works in New York.