Passion, Abstraction, and Pam Tanowitz

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” How do you translate this, the first line of the Bible’s Song of Songs—or the rest of this ancient collection of erotic poems—into a dance? And how do you do it in pure dance, without kissing or acting? This is the task that the choreographer Pam Tanowitz has set herself in her new work, “Song of Songs,” which recently premièred at Bard’s Fisher Center. The poems, with their sensual exchanges between lovers, famously make no mention of God, and have attracted centuries of commentary—Jewish, Christian, allegorical, feminist. But what about viewing the poems through dance; that is, through the body, which is, after all, their subject?

For Tanowitz, who is Jewish, making “Song of Songs” was deeply personal. She began in 2019, a year after her father died, having found herself wanting to create a dance in his memory, one that would honor their family’s heritage. She asked the composer David Lang to build a score for her dance around 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 called this part of her process. She looked at old films of Jewish folk dances and works by Jewish choreographers, and she became especially interested in the hora, a circle dance popular at Jewish weddings. She made a short film, which juxtaposes archival footage, family history, and clips of her trying out steps she has found in her research—soon to be “spliced,” as she puts it, with her own steps and style.

Splicing is a big part of Tanowitz’s process. She likes to mine steps from past choreographers—George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham—stripping them of their emotional content and intercutting them with her own steps until they meld. (She also once took a solo by Graham and “deconstructed” it, distributing its parts among several dancers.) When Tanowitz settled in New York, in the nineties, she began combing archives for material to use in the dances she was showing. She founded her company, in 2000, at a time when contemporary dance was moving increasingly toward conceptual and political concerns, but she went her own way and spent the next two decades drilling into formalism. Her early pieces were sometimes tough to follow, but you always knew there was a rigorous, independent mind at work.

Tanowitz’s style is often likened to Cunningham’s for its linear purity, but her process may be closer to that of Twyla Tharp, who also draws on a wide range of past material and delights in formal play. But, if Tharp plays, Tanowitz purifies, and her fragmented dances feel oddly whole, a world of abstracted form. Or, as her father liked to say when talking about mistakes 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, raw materials are pressed out. The result may be something fabulous and new, but splicing and pressing can also be a way of hiding: where is Pam Tanowitz in all this formal manipulation?

Recently, she has been exploring older texts. “Song of Songs” is the final dance in a trilogy, which began with “New Work for Goldberg Variations” (2017). “Four Quartets” (2018), to T. S. Eliot’s poem, is the most popular, but I found it overstuffed, its abstract dances vying for attention with a recitation of the text, images by Brice Marden, and music by Kaija Saariaho. The show required a distracting kind of multitasking, whereas “New Work for Goldberg Variations” felt less freighted, with dance and Bach fully joined in a simple and beautiful exposition.

The acclaim of “Four Quartets” made Tanowitz, at forty-eight, one of the most sought-after choreographers in New York. Commissions have flowed in, including from American Ballet Theatre, London’s Royal Ballet, and New York City Ballet. The most recent of these is “Law of Mosaics,” to a score by Ted Hearne. As the title suggests, the dance is made up of fragments—particularly of Balanchine—but Tanowitz combines them in a way that gives the body great geometric lucidity. The key to the piece comes at the end, in a solo for Sara Mearns, wearing light blue against a dark backdrop so that she almost seems illuminated from within. She moves back and forth in a long bourrée—a step best known from “Swan Lake” but also much used by Balanchine—which makes the body seem to skim the ground. As Mearns traverses the stage, her arms make gestures from old ballets: crossed in death, in prayer position, a finger pointing. This goes on until the repetition and the lack of context make us feel an almost Beckettian emptiness—I can’t go on, I’ll go on—and she simply lies down on the floor and the lights go dark: a beautiful statement of meaninglessness.

“Song of Songs” is a study in abstraction. It begins with the formation of a lyrical chorus in flowing costumes, perhaps the “daughters of Jerusalem” mentioned in the poems: a community of women. They perform a crossover step from a hora, but the folk character of the source material is gone. Something similar is also at work in other elements of the production. Lang’s libretto takes words and phrases from the poems—we never hear a full verse—and sets them to a soothingly hypnotic minimalist score. And, in a pre-show talk, Tanowitz described how she, the light artist Clifton Taylor, and the costumers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung had looked at images of the Abuhav Synagogue, in Israel, with its striking bright-blue bimah, a dais from which the Torah is read, surrounded by benches. The production abstracts this setting to a utilitarian blue circular platform and bench, which demarcate the sacred space of dancing. The area is framed by walls made of fabric strips, allowing the dancers to poke through from the profane regions outside. Again, none of the religious context is there for the seeing. These are secret sources.

When a female lover (Melissa Toogood) appears, she wears a darker dress than her choral companions and collapses repeatedly to the ground mid-step, a sign of her weakened, lovelorn spirit. Upon this world of women come the disruptive men: as they race into the sacred space, a male lover (Zachary Gonder) joins the dark-dressed woman in an agitated dance of longing. As the first part comes to an end, we find the woman on her own, comfortingly circled by another community on the blue platform. Bent over, they look up at her in sympathy, but she cannot raise her eyes.

In the dances that follow, there is no overt eroticism. The most we get is the woman’s hand fluttering like a heart on her own shoulder. Even as the lyrics and the music move from “my head is drenched in dew” to “open to me,” Tanowitz holds back. When the woman reclines fleetingly on her lover, her neck gives way: a hint of passion, but no more. We realize that even love has been abstracted—pressed out. Emotion here comes from an intensity of restraint rather than from surrender or sensuality. At first, I admired Tanowitz’s decorum, but there was a sameness to the beauty, and I began to feel that her method stood in the way of her madness. How was all this suppression going to convey the overwhelming experience of losing yourself in physical love, or God, or both?

The piece’s strangest moment came toward the end. The woman suddenly disappears and a new woman replaces her, wearing a shiny unitard. A new man immediately swings this woman almost wildly into a flying circle—the way that parents do with small kids. Soon, everyone seems to be in a shiny unitard. Are we in another realm? Is this twirling excess the erotic release? A community celebration? Tanowitz seemed to be going for an emotional leap, but by renouncing her own language, so meticulous and refined, she left us stranded in cliché. The dance came to a too easy close: another 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 physically exacting method—the source of her best dances and, for now, of her greatest emotional limits. Fusing so many voices makes getting inside the lovers’ experience harder, and the result is a dance that is more about community and peace than about erotic love. This is calming, but peace is not the same as love. I wanted more of the lovers—which may be a way of saying I wanted more of Pam Tanowitz. ♦

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