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Juilliard Dance

Published: February 1, 2016
Category: profile

Musical America Artist of the Month: Pam Tanowitz

By Rachel Straus

Pam Tanowitz is an ideal example of why we opted to call this column, which this month celebrates its seventh consecutive year, “New” Artist of the Month rather than “Young” Artist of the Month. We at MusicalAmerica.com believe in equal opportunity.

Let’s hear it for late bloomers with unconventional career paths. Unlike almost every American choreographer of her generation being presented in prestigious venues, the New York-based dance maker Pam Tanowitz, age 46, did not begin her career with a renowned company. While her peers who began as performers developed an instant network and a professional identity, Tanowitz labored in near obscurity for ten years, making dances wherever she could after graduating from Ohio State University (BFA dance, 1991). “It actually was a great thing for me to be anonymous for the first part of my career,” she says, “because I could make work and not worry about what anyone thought. I could mess up. I could do little shows. I could get better. I’m grateful for all that time when no one noticed me, even though it was really hard.

Photo by Brad Paris

Photo by Brad Paris

That time has clearly passed. This month (February 18-21), the Joyce Theater will present Tanowitz and her eponymous, 16-year-old company in a program that includes the world premiere of her newest work, The story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces, a Joyce commission. You could almost say Tanowitz has become rather famous (in the slow-burning flame school as opposed to 15-minutes-of-fame). Last February the Guggenheim Museum’s Works & Process series invited her back for the fifth time since 2001; Tanowitz presented her full-length Broken Story (wherein there is no ecstasy)—with the Flux Quartet playing David Lang—while her performers broke the fourth wall, extending their dance terrain across the circular walkway that divides the theater’s seating. “Ecstatic is a good word for how it made me feel,” wrote Times critic Brian Siebert.

A few months after the Guggenheim event, Tanowitz’s One Last Good Chance, made on three American Ballet Theater dancers, was premiered by the Vail International Dance Festival, a co-commission with New York City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. Bard College’s 2015 Summerscape music festival, “Chávez and His World,” presented another new work, Untitled (solo for Ashley Tuttle), a piece d’occasion for the former ABT principal on a shared Chávez program with the Flux Quartet. The newest work, The story progresses… is set to Julia Wolfe’s Four Marys, also played by the Flux Quartet, with an original sound design by Dan Siegler.

The Flux–violinists Tom Chiu and Conrad Harris, violist Max Mandel, and cellist Felix Fan–is arguably becoming Tanowitz’s in-house ensemble. Celebrated for its interpretations of Morton Feldman’s music, the group has been performing on Tanowitz programs consistently since 2012. Co-founder Max Mandel explains their shared approach: “There is an attitude toward the work that is super rigorous, but is also light hearted. We are perfectionists and obsessive about detail, but we know not to take ourselves too seriously.”

Tanowitz’s current interest in choreographing within technically-based dance forms was preceded by experiments in dance theater. For example, in 1993, when she was 22, she made a work with plungers and rubber gloves at the CBGB gallery. Later, while attending Sarah Lawrence (MFA 2000), she came under the mentorship of the late Viola Farber-Slayton, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company. That she solidified her aesthetic at this juncture is most clearly demonstrated in her long-time association with the critically acclaimed dancers Melissa Toogood and Dylan Crossman. Both were part of the last iteration of performers that made up Cunningham’s troupe.

Crossman and Toogood, as well as Tanowitz’s other company members, share a movement style that bears the unmistakable mark of Cunningham’s technique: They execute impossibly-long balances on one leg, have developed highly articulated, staccato use of their feet and legs, and coordinate their upper bodies in isolation from the lower body’s action—as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. They dance with an intensity, tranquility and specificity that Crossman describes as “being oneself” on stage, and “making each moment count,” regardless of whether the steps are virtuosic. Tanowitz draws heavily from her dancers. She doesn’t set steps on them as much as make steps in conjunction with their experience and stylistic background.

Tanowitz’s impulse to make dances shows a retrospective and critical frame of mind. She is also inspired by fragments of other’s work, such as a dance critic’s description, a moment inside a canonical dance work, a passage in a book, or a trope developed from a contemporary aesthetic movement, like French New Wave cinema. Watching a Tanowitz work is like looking at a cubist painting. One of its great pleasures arises from the kinds of relationships she makes to well-known dance, film and musical compositions.

The story progresses… is quirky, elegant, elegiac, and edgy. That said, Tanowitz understands this and her other recent works as being part of a classicist formalist aesthetic. To paraphrase New York Times Senior Dance Critic Alastair MacAulay, Tanowitz speaks the formal languages of ballet and Cunningham in ways that don’t look old fashioned.

Though Tanowitz has received much critical acclaim, her consistent plumbing of a feminist perspective is little discussed. Her current investigations of the supported pas de deux—in which the woman is present and lifted by the man–draw inspiration from what she has been seeing. “All last year,” she explained, “I kept on going to see ballet and all of these duets were so boring. They were always the same–men throwing women around. I hate that. And they were all made by men. Does anyone see anything wrong with this or what?” In her new piece, the story progresses…Crossman and Toogood alternate between being the partner and the partnered. Toogood says the duet, and the overall work, has a dark quality, reminiscent of story ballets in which “Romance is often inherently tragic.”

But Toogood doesn’t not die or sacrifice herself for her man. With Siegler’s diffusive industrial soundscape, interrupted by snippets of melodies suggesting a bygone era, Tanowitz’s performers appear to be channeling the history of Western theatrical concert dance: its conventions, presentations of men and women, steps and architectural tableaux. Tanowitz, however, isn’t mimicking these conventions. Like anatomist, or an expert car mechanic, she is looking under the hood of concert dance, exploring its ideals of beauty, its gender norms, and its lexicon in new, subtly inventive ways.


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