Pam Tanowitz was among the busiest choreographers working when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Over the past year, she premiered commissions at New York City Ballet, Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, Martha Graham Dance Company, and London’s Royal Ballet. At the exact hour that we spoke by phone in May, her own company had been scheduled to perform New Work for Goldberg Variations at the Sadlers Wells in London, which was canceled in the worldwide shutdown.
Susan Yung (Rail): How are you? Are you keeping in touch with your dancers, and working at all?
Pam Tanowitz: When this started we didn’t know what was going on. Every phone call was something being canceled, very depressing and upsetting. It was hard for me to muster energy and inspiration, but I also felt it was important for everyone. I tricked myself into thinking it was for the dancers, but it was actually for me. I wanted to figure out a way to keep working, stay engaged, be able to pay them. As a project-based company, the cancellation of all these shows—performances, rehearsals—was so hard. We’re supposed to be performing Goldberg Variations at the Barbican, right now. But it’s happening to everyone.
A lot of the time I start with a new phrase, movement, or idea, but I’ll also bring along old material that feels interesting, that could be worked on more, or failed in another piece but I want to bring it forward, because part of the nature of a project-based company is that we don’t have a repertory to rehearse. That always inspires me. We’re not like Mark Morris Dance Group, working on a new piece in the morning, and rehearsing old pieces in the afternoon. What we’re working on is what we’re working on.
It’s also bringing my history forward. I had a phone call with each dancer. Dylan [Crossman], Lindsey [Jones], Maile [Okamura], Melissa [Toogood], Jason [Collins]—I keep track of what I’m doing with each in a file folder. A lot of it’s similar, but they’re all on different tracks. We make a list of all the dances they’ve been in—what material is interesting to me, what’s interesting to them. It’s a collaboration, like it always is with dancers. Sometimes it’s another dancer’s movement they never did that they loved. Part of the process is to relearn old material. I say, “Whatever you remember is what it is; don’t look at the video.” It’s interesting what you remember, and then how you manipulate it. We do reversals and splice phrases from two different pieces.
In Dylan’s folder, he has material from Spectators. Half of it is reversed, and the other half is taking a duet he does with Melissa, reversing that. From another piece called The Story Progresses…from 2016, he’s splicing it with a different piece from the Guggenheim. It gets very complicated. So each dancer has their own specific list. That’s one of the assignments.
We come up with a list of what we’re interested in doing, and then they work on it by themselves. Then we FaceTime; I’m manipulating, and we’re working on timing and rhythm, or I’ll rearrange the order. It’s good, but hard—you’re not in the room together; the screen is an extra layer of buffer. Every session starts out with an emotional check-in. “How are you? What’s going on?” It’s harder to create mental space for this—even though we all want to do it.
It’s really sad. New York City is broken. You’re in your house and go outside for groceries in your mask, and everything’s closed. I come back and I’m like, why am I even doing this? What’s the point? So I go back and forth between feeling inspired by the limitations and really devastated, and not sure if I should try to just get a new career.
Rail: Do not do that! After the pandemic started, for a month, I couldn’t do anything. Then I rewatched a video of New Goldberg Variations, and I thought, this is why I do what I do! It was the most beautiful, touching thing I’d seen in months. It really did stir something in me—to summon up energy. It does make a difference. I know performance is the last thing on the list of things to go back to normal…
Tanowitz: It’s literally the last thing.
Rail: People say, who needs the arts? But that’s why people come to New York—for dance, and museums, everything you can’t do right now. So don’t stop!
Tanowitz: I don’t know if I could…but it feels like “why?” when everyone’s feeling that way.
And then I come back to the work…I was looking through my old dance history books, which I usually never have time to do. I went to Kinko’s with my mask and gloves and xeroxed all this stuff. I’m making these storyboards from iconic photos. It’s the basis for what we come up with; we manipulate shapes, create transitions. One is a written exercise, where I make a “list phrase.” Sometimes the phrases are very specific—saut de basque, arch—or very open-ended—do an arabesque, and then comment on an arabesque. Different ways of getting at movement.
Amazing pictures of Doris Humphrey, Helen Tamiris… It’s like putting together a puzzle. Agnes de Mille, Katherine Dunham. Some are ballet duet photos; sometimes my dancers are doing both parts: Vaslav Nijinsky, José Limón. Or chance procedures: I made a pattern based on this poem, a sestina. I’ll give the dancers the pattern, and they can choose which movements are A, B, or C. It’s hard to work on space; everyone’s in their living rooms doing it with me. All the composition stuff is hard. But I’ve been working one on one, which has become more intimate than I thought.
A lot of the time my work is really about the people in the room. Whether it’s Goldberg, or Four Quartets, a piece for City Ballet or Royal Ballet, it’s about who’s with me. I also play off of how the dancers are together in that room, and how they’re with me. It becomes about my relationship with that specific dancer.
Rail: Apropos of relationships, New Goldberg Variations is imbued with greater emotion than many of your works. Did you feel that choreographing it? And how did the music affect that?
Tanowitz: It’s the way Simone [Dinnerstein] plays the Goldberg Variations. She plays it for the Paris Opera Ballet for Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations. Her style is very different—more open and warm. When I started working on it, I started with steps, but in my gut I knew it’d be more communal, more open. In recent work, I’ve been trying something different; I don’t want to keep making the same thing. I want to work and evolve, push myself in ways that feel uncomfortable. I had a lot of history on top of me this year—it was Graham, Taylor, City Ballet… it started with New Goldberg Variations. “Robbins, what is she thinking? He did a dance with 50 or 60?” I had eight. But why not try?
Rail: Good thing you tried. That said, would you ever consider doing something like a story ballet, or something with a narrative?
Tanowitz: I think I could try at some point in my life, but I love making work that comes from somewhere else. There are people who do that really well. What can I add to the continuum? I guess I should never say never… I didn’t want to do Four Quartets or Goldberg, so who knows. Maybe a Nutcracker only because there are so many of them that I feel like it would be okay!
Rail: Some dances can be formal experimentation, and some can be about dance, or in reaction to a genre. How do you think your work fits into those ideas?
Tanowitz: I think about that a lot. Each dance I make is an experiment; it confronts questions raised by dance traditions, but I want them to be unannounced experiments, where the dance is a dance, but it’s also a critique of what I’m questioning. It’s both things at once. It’s an unannounced experiment that’s embedded into the dance but can be enjoyed and viewed as a dance piece, and not a comment. Sometimes it leans in one direction or another.
Rail: That was interesting what you said before, about telling your dancers, “do an arabesque and then comment on an arabesque.”
Tanowitz: Right. Those who know me well don’t ask; they go with their gut. Over the years, even though I’m really into formal problems to solve, it’s not enough. Going back to Goldberg, I want it to have head and heart together. I’m not an alienating artist where that’s what the work is about; there are many artists who do that, and I like that work—but that’s not who I am. Audiences are smart and you don’t need to pander; everyone can learn and grow together.
Rail: When you’ve made works for iconic modern companies, like Graham and Taylor, how do you pay homage to their styles while retaining your own voice?
Tanowitz: Both the Taylor (all at once) and the Graham (Untitled (Souvenir)) pieces I see as experiments. It’s very interesting coming into these companies as an outsider; each company has its own culture. Say my rehearsal is at two o’clock; they’ve already been rehearsing all day—Taylor pieces or Graham pieces; then I come in and say don’t do what you just worked the full day on! I do this with ballet companies too. I have my vision, my steps, and a plan—because time is of the essence when you’re working for other companies, particularly with ballet.
It was hard; when I walked into Paul Taylor, he had just died. There was the feeling that it was important, and it was really moving to be with them. Originally, I thought I’ll just work with everyone and pick 10 to 12 of the 18 in the company. I worked two days with them, gave them specific dance steps, saw their personalities, and manipulated them together—the collaborative process. After two days I didn’t have the heart. I read the room, and I thought that everyone should be in this piece. I wanted to honor Michael Trusnovec, who was retiring; I was so honored to be able to work with him before he left… I think he’s one of the best dancers.
With Graham, I felt the weight, way more than with Taylor. It’s so iconic. So is Taylor, but Graham felt heavy, like what am I doing with this? I talked with Janet [Eilber], the artistic director of the company, for years. We decided it’d be based on archival material; she asked if I’d like to look through past work. I love shopping, and I love dance history and dance steps. Put it together and it’s like Christmas!
I picked out interesting steps from Legend of Judith. I watched them rehearse Secular Games and Dark Meadow, which is genius. I thought, “I need those steps!” What’s amazing is that Graham had nearly all her music commissioned. To her, dance was number one; she wasn’t at service to the music. That’s really important. Basically, I had my steps, and I had Graham steps. It was interesting to have the male dancers learn female roles and vice versa, because those are so separated in her work. I tried to drain the drama out of her steps and that was challenging with the dancers. There’s an iconic male solo, and I separated it into a trio for men—one did the head, one the arms, one the body. One day they were rehearsing Maple Leaf Rag with the sets out in Westbeth and I thought, I need this! So I got to use the set for Maple Leaf Rag. There are Steps in the Street blocks in the back; the idea was that whatever pieces they toured with, we could use—they weren’t extra.
Rail: Your company seems really constant and loyal. How does that contribute to the artistic process?
Tanowitz: I think a lot of my dancers stay because we have a good working environment. We are serious about our work but don’t take ourselves too seriously. Each person I bring in, I have to fall in love with; I have a gut feeling and I know they’re gonna work. I’m so lucky because I have the best dancers in New York. For my work you need to be highly technical, but you also have to be super smart; they’re always problem solving. I would be nothing without them.
Rail: You’ve collaborated with artists such as Brice Marden and Cecily Brown. What kind of give and take did you have?
Tanowitz: I collaborated with Cecily long ago, 2004. I’ve only worked with two visual artists. It’s hard to figure out, besides using their paintings as a backdrop, how else can I use them? Brice said yes to Four Quartets as I told him I wanted to use the paintings to change the space and not just have it be a backdrop—which is beautiful, but I wanted to see what else was possible. I worked with Clifton Taylor, the genius lighting designer. We went through Brice’s material, and he suggested some paintings—of course we said yes to the ones he suggested (they were gorgeous)—and Clifton executed replicas as scenery, with lights.
Rail: Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung have made some of the most beautiful, functional costumes for your dances. How much artistic direction do you provide?
Tanowitz: Not that much. Sometimes I have a color concept, an idea, but they take it and do their own thing. With Four Quartets, they had to consider the Marden paintings with their costumes. I told them I was really into ruching and jumpsuits. That’s it. Or that I wanted red. For the 2016 Joyce in-the-round piece, Sequenzas in Quadrilles, I wanted it to match the carpet. It’s a really fun, interesting collaboration. They’re so creative, but always at the service of the dance, never distracting from it. Because Reid is a dancer, he knows how to make leotards, how to make things move, and what dancers need. It’s not like a fashion designer coming in and you can’t move your legs. And they know when something doesn’t work. I don’t have to tell them.
Rail: Your profile has risen dramatically in the last few years, after nearly two decades of creating dances. How has that been?
Tanowitz: I’m 50, I moved to New York when I was 24. Five years ago, I never thought that I’d be making dances for Graham, Taylor, NYCB, the Royal Ballet. But any opportunity to make work I’m so grateful for. Some will be more successful than others, I know that. No one really knew who I was for about 15 years. It was hard, but it was actually good for me. All the rejection shaped the artist that I am. I have a folder of rejection letters. You had to send in your VHS tapes and they’d mail you a rejection letter, because there was no email in 1993.
When I first moved here, I worked with friends; we didn’t have money. I did my first show at CBGB’s gallery. We were treated like a band; I got half the door, and I had Glen Rumsey from Cunningham in a CBGB window, improvising. I didn’t know how to make a press kit until a visual artist friend taught me. I wasn’t prepared for any of this stuff; I just sort of did it. When you’re naive, it’s easier to plow through and try stuff and not overthink—like what if it fails? What if nobody comes?
When I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1998, I rented Westbeth for a show. There was a huge snowstorm, and 10 people were in the audience. I was crying, thinking, “why am I doing this?” Then Viola [Farber, Tanowitz’s teacher, mentor, and Cunningham alum] passed away, so I had to do it.
All those bad dances, rejections, and pushing through obviously affected me and shaped my art. I guess I’m in for the long haul. And everyone has a different path in dance. Dance is very hard. I’m a visiting guest teacher at Rutgers University and all students want to know how to do it, how do I have a company? I think what they’re really asking is, how do you be an artist in the world? I don’t know the answer, but I try to help in different ways. A lot of people helped me. At the beginning, no one wanted to book me. But Laurie Uprichard booked me at Danspace Project, Carla Peterson at DTW, and Mary Sharp Cronson, many times at Guggenheim’s Works & Process. She said, “I don’t like everything you do, but I think what you do is important.” Now, that is a person who supports artists. I still have people supporting me, and I try to do that for other artists.
Rail: Any upcoming projects you can talk about?
Tanowitz: NYCB postponed me until next year; it’s the dance they originally commissioned. It was to be earlier, which I couldn’t do; not enough time, so they gave me two. It’s to an amazing score by Ted Hearne. I started it; I made a beautiful duet for Russell Janzen and Sara Mearns, and a group section for other amazing dancers—and then we stopped. I have all my notes; I have my whole plan mapped out on paper, and I can’t do it. I’m dying to do it.