Dancer Sayer Mansfield joined Pilobolus Dance Theater Company as its first-ever female apprentice upon graduating from NYU’s prestigious dance program in 2014. Now, she is back at Skirball Center for the Performing Arts for a two-week run with her company that has “tested the limits of human physicality” since 1971. Mansfield talked to WSN about what it’s like to collaborate with international talents and to forgo her extensive classical training in order to test the limits of her art form.
Washington Square News: How do you think NYU’s dance program uniquely prepared you for your career?
Sayer Mansfield: No one falls through the cracks at Tisch — everyone was very much supported and pushed and challenged. I think it’s also very important to have the push of rigorous academic classes beyond the conservatory training. I think that ultimately makes you a more interesting human being, and therefore, a better artist. We took pretty advanced music classes at Tisch and also acting classes. Pilobolus is called Pilobolus Dance Theater for a reason: it’s not only movement arts, it’s also a lot of theatrics, a lot of character work and a lot of deep investigation into how you act on stage. It requires acting technique. Most contemporary dance don’t go that deep into that realm. Pilobolus has asked me to drop a lot of what I know. It’s not a super technical company and I came in there with a lot of training. I think I’ve kind of let that be my foundation [while being] encouraged to explore beyond that — get a little more messy, a little more raw in my movements.
WSN: I can definitely see where the acting would have helped, especially in the “Wednesday Morning: 11:45” piece from Program B, which you helped create. Do you do choreography for Pilobolus as well?
SM: Pilobolus is a collaboration, so every single piece that you see on stage comes from improvisation of the dancers. Then the directors and the collaborator — we often collaborate with musicians or artists or storytellers — work to clash the piece together. “Wednesday Morning” is a piece that I created with Matt Kent and Renee Jaworski and another fellow dancer, Teo Spencer. It was about a three-or-four-week process, and it’s kind of evolved since its initial creation. Every voice in the room is asked to be heard and used — you can’t just sit there idly and ask for someone to count you in … it’s very much like you’re actively involved, you’re creating movement, you’re creating characters, you’re creating emotions and the environment in which the piece is being made.
WSN: What’s it like to collaborate with so many different talents in different areas?
SM: It tends to be quite a challenge because we all have very different experiences and expertise. I think it’s cool not to have a choreographer coming in and telling you exactly what to do. It’s great to have someone from a different background — from a different art form — and take their view on art and their view on creation. When people come into the studio who are not physical artists, we can find an intention, we can find a purpose, we can find something that we want to say and then we use each other. [As dancers], we know how to voice those opinions and those expressions and [how to] try and expand them together. It’s a cool challenge.
WSN: I know that you guys are on tour quite often. Do you have a favorite place to perform? What is it like to perform in different places for different demographics of people?
SM: I’ve been to a lot of cool places with Pilobolus since I’ve joined. We go everywhere and nowhere, I like to say. We go to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania and we go to Copenhagen, so the demographic is vast and different everywhere we go. I think that’s the real strength of Pilobolus — that we can appeal to a broad audience. We’re not this elite dance company that only the dance literate can understand; everyone can find value and be entertained and be moved by our work. And we get that response all around the world. People haven’t seen anything like us and I think it’s really cool that we get people into the theater that wouldn’t come otherwise.
Find WSN’s review of the Pilobolus dance showcase here.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 5 print edition. Email Natalie Whalen at [email protected].