Passion, Abstraction, and Pam Tanowitz

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” How do you translate this, the primary line of the Bible’s Song of Songs—or the remainder of this historic assortment of erotic poems—right into a dance? And how do you do it in pure dance, with out kissing or appearing? This is the duty that the choreographer Pam Tanowitz has set herself in her new work, “Song of Songs,” which not too long ago premièred at Bard’s Fisher Center. The poems, with their sensual exchanges between lovers, famously make no point out of God, and have attracted centuries of commentary—Jewish, Christian, allegorical, feminist. But what about viewing the poems by dance; that’s, by the physique, which is, in any case, their topic?

For Tanowitz, who’s Jewish, making “Song of Songs” was deeply private. She started in 2019, a 12 months after her father died, having discovered herself desirous to create a dance in his reminiscence, one that might honor their household’s heritage. She requested the composer David Lang to construct a rating for her dance round his 2014 composition “Just (After Song of Songs).” The piece took three years to make, time that Tanowitz spent “shopping for steps,” as she has referred to as this a part of her course of. She checked out previous movies of Jewish folks dances and works by Jewish choreographers, and she turned particularly within the hora, a circle dance well-liked at Jewish weddings. She made a brief movie, which juxtaposes archival footage, household historical past, and clips of her attempting out steps she has present in her analysis—quickly to be “spliced,” as she places it, along with her personal steps and type.

Splicing is an enormous a part of Tanowitz’s course of. She likes to mine steps from previous choreographers—George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham—stripping them of their emotional content material and intercutting them along with her personal steps till they meld. (She additionally as soon as took a solo by Graham and “deconstructed” it, distributing its elements amongst a number of dancers.) When Tanowitz settled in New York, within the nineties, she started combing archives for materials to make use of within the dances she was exhibiting. She based her firm, in 2000, at a time when up to date dance was shifting more and more towards conceptual and political considerations, however she went her personal approach and spent the subsequent twenty years drilling into formalism. Her early items had been generally powerful to comply with, however you at all times knew there was a rigorous, unbiased thoughts at work.

Tanowitz’s type is commonly likened to Cunningham’s for its linear purity, however her course of could also be nearer to that of Twyla Tharp, who additionally attracts on a variety of previous materials and delights in formal play. But, if Tharp performs, Tanowitz purifies, and her fragmented dances really feel oddly entire, a world of abstracted kind. Or, as her father preferred to say when speaking about errors he made in his life, “In the end it all gets pressed out, like a dry cleaner, everything gets pressed.” So, too, in Tanowitz’s dances, uncooked supplies are pressed out. The end result could also be one thing fabulous and new, however splicing and urgent can be a approach of hiding: the place is Pam Tanowitz in all this formal manipulation?

Recently, she has been exploring older texts. “Song of Songs” is the ultimate dance in a trilogy, which started with “New Work for Goldberg Variations” (2017). “Four Quartets” (2018), to T. S. Eliot’s poem, is the most well-liked, however I discovered it overstuffed, its summary dances vying for consideration with a recitation of the textual content, photos by Brice Marden, and music by Kaija Saariaho. The present required a distracting form of multitasking, whereas “New Work for Goldberg Variations” felt much less freighted, with dance and Bach totally joined in a easy and stunning exposition.

The acclaim of “Four Quartets” made Tanowitz, at forty-eight, one of the crucial sought-after choreographers in New York. Commissions have flowed in, together with from American Ballet Theatre, London’s Royal Ballet, and New York City Ballet. The most up-to-date of those is “Law of Mosaics,” to a rating by Ted Hearne. As the title suggests, the dance is made up of fragments—notably of Balanchine—however Tanowitz combines them in a approach that provides the physique nice geometric lucidity. The key to the piece comes on the finish, in a solo for Sara Mearns, carrying mild blue towards a darkish backdrop in order that she virtually appears illuminated from inside. She strikes again and forth in a protracted bourrée—a step finest recognized from “Swan Lake” but in addition a lot utilized by Balanchine—which makes the physique appear to skim the bottom. As Mearns traverses the stage, her arms make gestures from previous ballets: crossed in demise, in prayer place, a finger pointing. This goes on till the repetition and the shortage of context make us really feel an virtually Beckettian vacancy—I can’t go on, I’ll go on—and she merely lies down on the ground and the lights go darkish: a phenomenal assertion of meaninglessness.

“Song of Songs” is a examine in abstraction. It begins with the formation of a lyrical refrain in flowing costumes, maybe the “daughters of Jerusalem” talked about within the poems: a group of ladies. They carry out a crossover step from a hora, however the folks character of the supply materials is gone. Something related can also be at work in different parts of the manufacturing. Lang’s libretto takes phrases and phrases from the poems—we by no means hear a full verse—and units them to a soothingly hypnotic minimalist rating. And, in a pre-show speak, Tanowitz described how she, the sunshine artist Clifton Taylor, and the costumers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung had checked out photos of the Abuhav Synagogue, in Israel, with its placing bright-blue bimah, a dais from which the Torah is learn, surrounded by benches. The manufacturing abstracts this setting to a utilitarian blue round platform and bench, which demarcate the sacred house of dancing. The space is framed by partitions made of material strips, permitting the dancers to poke by from the profane areas exterior. Again, not one of the spiritual context is there for the seeing. These are secret sources.

When a feminine lover (Melissa Toogood) seems, she wears a darker gown than her choral companions and collapses repeatedly to the bottom mid-step, an indication of her weakened, lovelorn spirit. Upon this world of ladies come the disruptive males: as they race into the sacred house, a male lover (Zachary Gonder) joins the dark-dressed lady in an agitated dance of longing. As the primary half involves an finish, we discover the girl on her personal, comfortingly circled by one other group on the blue platform. Bent over, they appear up at her in sympathy, however she can’t elevate her eyes.

In the dances that comply with, there is no such thing as a overt eroticism. The most we get is the girl’s hand fluttering like a coronary heart on her personal shoulder. Even because the lyrics and the music transfer from “my head is drenched in dew” to “open to me,” Tanowitz holds again. When the girl reclines fleetingly on her lover, her neck provides approach: a touch of ardour, however no extra. We understand that even love has been abstracted—pressed out. Emotion right here comes from an depth of restraint fairly than from give up or sensuality. At first, I admired Tanowitz’s decorum, however there was a sameness to the sweetness, and I started to really feel that her technique stood in the best way of her insanity. How was all this suppression going to convey the overwhelming expertise of dropping your self in bodily love, or God, or each?

The piece’s strangest second got here towards the top. The lady all of the sudden disappears and a brand new lady replaces her, carrying a shiny unitard. A brand new man instantly swings this lady virtually wildly right into a flying circle—the best way that folks do with small youngsters. Soon, everybody appears to be in a shiny unitard. Are we in one other realm? Is this twirling extra the erotic launch? A group celebration? Tanowitz gave the impression to be going for an emotional leap, however by renouncing her personal language, so meticulous and refined, she left us stranded in cliché. The dance got here to a too simple shut: one other collective, huddled on the blue circle.

As I left the theatre, I felt bewildered by this juxtaposition of rigor and cliché and by the paradox of Tanowitz’s bodily exacting technique—the supply of her finest dances and, for now, of her biggest emotional limits. Fusing so many voices makes getting contained in the lovers’ expertise more durable, and the result’s a dance that’s extra about group and peace than about erotic love. This is calming, however peace isn’t the identical as love. I needed extra of the lovers—which can be a approach of claiming I needed extra of Pam Tanowitz. ♦


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