The ushers at the New York City premiere of choreographer Pam Tanowitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s New Work for Goldberg Variations at The Joyce Theater warn me that the program is 75 minutes—75 minutes!—with no intermission. It’s possible they have to tell me this, but either way, the length of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (which, apocrypha alleges, he composed in 1741 as an anti-Scheherazade to help an insomniac count finally sleep) intimidates.
New Work For Goldberg Variations
December 10 – 15, 2019
The score is warm and well-known, comprised of a single aria tinkered thirty ways. Choreographer Pam Tanowitz was one of the intimidated when pianist Simone Dinnerstein initially invited her to collaborate. The choreographer worked mostly with contemporary composers, and there was always the risk that audiences might hear the “Variations” and immediately conjure the choreography of Jerome Robbins. This fear was not unfounded; his 1971 New York City Ballet gold standard Goldberg was nearly unanimously heralded as a new classic.
But Tanowitz, whose subsequent stream of commissions in the past year—including pieces for Martha Graham Dance Company, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and New York City Ballet—solidified her star in the dance world firmament, has long found power in the creative potential of reconfiguration. Her dances are researched and intertextual, citing passages from the works of Graham and Taylor and Balanchine, then fractaling them into her own capricious movement vocabulary.
Robbins’s Goldberg presents a ballet history from the 18th century to the present, the story represented in dancers shedding their formal period dress for 20th century practice clothes. Tanowitz takes a less narrative approach. Her mode is the poetic and imagistic, following the modernist compulsion to acknowledge the ur-text, then “make it new.” Her New Works, which first premiered at Duke University in North Carolina in 2017, deconstructs the ornate architecture of the score, presenting each individual part of the performance to us, without apology or adornment, as something deserving of attention and care.
Hers is not the only contemporary Goldberg in recent years, nor is it the latest. In summer 2020, the renowned Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker will attempt her own interpretation. While Tanowitz whittled Robbins’s 39-member cast into a piece for seven dancers and a pianist, De Keersmaeker will distill even further, and dance it as a solo. Twice as long as State of Darkness, Molissa Fenley’s 1988 endurance performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” De Keersmaeker’s solo will be something of an artist’s statement, according to a recent press release: “posing today’s questions in her ongoing search for a personal choreographic idiom.” More than anything, however, this project seems to be a way for De Keersmaeker to continue her exploration of Bach, which she also takes on in her February New York premiere of Mitten wir im Leben sind/Bach6Cellosuiten (In the Midst of Life/Bach's Cello Suites) at NYU Skirball. For both Tanowitz and De Keersmaeker, Bach’s music is a primary motivation.
Tanowitz’s performance begins as sound: a dark stage holding space for Dinnerstein and her piano. One often takes music for granted in dance, so the decision to start here, with Dinnerstein coaxing Bach’s aria into a quiet theater, is revelatory.
Lights dawn, and six dancers (Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Jason Collins, Maile Okamura, Melissa Toogood, and Netta Yerushalmy) traverse the stage, just walking—until, as with each of the “Variations’” complications, Tanowitz introduces a shift. Their walks graduate to movements that gesture at classical ballet steps, waving to them from across the room.
As Bach’s aria morphs into canons and fugues, the movement style becomes more intricate and off-kilter. Dancers skitter and glide through each new stanza with repeated motifs of windmilling arms and flexed feet. The cast’s attitude to the movement feels natural; hands are allowed to toss and slacken, first positions aren’t torqued to 180 degrees. Dancers occasionally slap their knees, wobble around. Tanowitz preserves each dancer’s individual approach, along with the sense that they are dancing more for each other than for us.
Throughout the Tanowitz pieces New York has seen in 2019, including her Untitled (Souvenir) for Martha Graham Dance Company and her mercurial Bartók Ballet for NYCB, Tanowitz’s partnering sequences consistently fascinate. The relationship between the dancers is always equitable, communal—more a platonic sharing of weight and responsibilities than ballet’s charged (and often gendered) pas de deux. A recurrent afterimage: dancers arranged in a rotating tableau with interconnected arms, a pivot or leg lift nudging the structure to motion like a mobile or a wind chime.
With every new addition the choreography offers to our visual vocabulary, the dance stanzas retain a sense of play. The piece keeps recalibrating and collapsing on itself—and has to, for the span of 30 “Variations.” Tanowitz never finds herself backed into a corner she cannot invert, seeming to derive inspiration from looking closer and closer at the structure and source.
Everything that can change does change. Tanowitz, via the work of lighting designer Davison Scandrett, isolates the architecture of the proscenium stage, elevating it to a performance element in its own right. Tanowitz lowers the curtain, then turns on a house light and illuminates the audience. Light, volume, speed, technique, costume, and architecture can all be abstracted and isolated—and thus, exalted.
In New Work, we are made to see the most regular parts of performance as things worthy of reverence. For instance: Maile Okumura standing at the piano and holding it like a barre, her movements as measured and calm as a Saturday class.
Choreographing to the baroque spectacle of The Goldberg Variations could merit an equally labored project, adding and adding effects to hold an audience’s interest. Tanowitz is smarter than that. She knows how to compel without crowding, how to create wit and humor without telling you to laugh. In her New Work, virtuosity is not prioritized over grounded simplicity, which means the piece could very easily have tired itself out. Instead, the 75 minutes came and went much quicker than I anticipated; I assumed the piece was halfway through when Dinnerstein circled back to Bach’s slow, simple aria. I still can’t fully understand how she configured it, but the sensation of watching Tanowitz’s brain work was startlingly propulsive.
Maybe it’s this democratic approach that earns Tanowitz her grace notes. Nothing is staid, nothing too sacred. Leaving the theater, I remember warm gold light irradiating the dancers as they stand around Dinnerstein; a head lifted up mid-jump, as if staring at sunset through a skylight.