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Sally Silvers’s ‘Bonobo Milkshake’: Whimsy? Sondheim? Send in the chimps!

Sally Silvers & Dancers in “Bonobo Milkshake” at Roulette. (Julie Lemberger)

To answer the obligatory question: Yes, there were bonobos (sort of).

At least twice during the whimsical “Bonobo Milkshake,” performed by Sally Silvers & Dancers at the American Dance Institute on Saturday night (the run concluded Sunday), dancers sat on the floor and groomed one another like socializing apes.

Zoological references didn’t pervade this vigorous piece, inspired by the musicals of Stephen Sondheim and eccentrically peppered with recitations of oblique text supplied by poet Bruce Andrews. Still, “Bonobo Milkshake” rolled out a choreographed spectacle of tender, egocentric, besotted, convivial and bullheaded human behavior in a manner that often suggested a naturalist’s marveling eye. Here a dancer walks, stooped and laborious, with another dancer plastered on her back. Don’t members of Homo sapiens burden their mates like that? There, two women scuffle and pull one another’s hair while, nearby, three couples dance romantically in pairs. Doesn’t that exemplify the variety of human love? Here are threesomes; there, pairings fissured by partner-swaps. Make an entry in the lab notes!

The air of distanced bemusement dovetailed nicely with the references to Sondheim’s works, which often ponder human neurosis and deflate romanticism. “Bonobo Milkshake” reveled in allusions to specific Sondheim musicals, too, aided by sampling in composer Michael Schumacher’s hyper-quirky score. To snatches of “Beautiful Girls” from “Follies,” the dancers paraded like showgirls, wickedly tugging at their drab shirts and leggings to reveal thighs and midriffs. To “The Little Things You Do Together,” a cynical look at marriage from “Company,” two performers toggled from foot to foot, straight-kneed, their motion growing increasingly frenzied, as if matrimony were turning them into agitated robots.

But choreographer Silvers, who performed at the ADI engagement (I think she was one of the scuffling hair-pullers), avoids implying that human behavior is predictable. “Bonobo Milkshake” included scored improvisation (by Scott Heron and others): A tableau of isolated figures, including a dancer lunging on her knees and another doing crunches, seemed resonantly ad-libbed. And Schumacher’s score (Andrews designed the sound) teemed with outlandish sound effects, including noises of a buzz saw, squeaky hinges, bouncing ping-pong balls, radio static, beeping electronics and more, suggesting an environment gone haywire. There will always be chaos in the human world.

Wren is a freelance writer.

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