Front and Center

In the playbill for her latest work, The Spectators, which had its premiere at New York Live Arts in May, there was no program note explaining Pam Tanowitz’s aesthetic, her process, or her inspiration. The costumes, solid-colored unitards by Renée Kurz, and the decor, a simple grid of tape on the stage floor, provided no concrete clues either. None of the performers uttered a word. Yet the steps, crafted with care and detail, spoke for themselves, telling riveting stories. Here is a dance maker who fully trusts her fresh ideas to movement itself.

Sarah Haarmann, Pierre Guilbault, Maggie Cloud, and Melissa Toogood in Pam Tanowitz’s The Spectators. Photo: Ian Douglas.

Tanowitz, who began choreographing in 2000, has often been compared to the late Merce Cunningham, with whom she shares an interest in reimagining the classical vocabulary. These similarities were obvious in the two Tanowitz works I had previously seen—Untitled (The Blue Ballet), commissioned by the Kitchen, and Fortune, made on students of the Juilliard School—but The Spectators reminded me of Cunningham in a more powerful, fundamental way: in its ambiguity. Strictly formal passages give way to choreography that recalls real life—mating rituals both animal and human, domestic tension—without becoming off-puttingly literal. Sometimes an arabesque is just an arabesque. Sometimes it’s something more.

The amount of invention in the hour-long piece is nearly exhausting. Some steps follow a simple logic: one foot taps the floor, sending the other into releve. Others are more lighthearted: a graceful turn on one leg is punctuated by quirky flips of the wrist. I smiled at such unexpected combinations, but most of the piece was tense. Dancers break apart from trios or quartets dancing in harmony to find their way back to the group a few moments later. Two back-to-back scores—original taped music by Dan Siegler and two pieces by Annie Gosfield performed live by the energetic FLUX Quartet—add anxiety to the proceedings but have no obvious connection to the choreography.

Of the six superb dancers, Dylan Crossman, formerly a member of Cunningham’s company, comes closest to embodying a character. He enters a space peppered with his motionless peers, their backs facing him, and touches their limbs as he passes: an invitation of sorts. They tense their limbs and exit, one by one. Much later, he finds the duet he’s been seeking, with Melissa Toogood (also a Cunningham alumna), but their meeting is initially less than ideal. She stands inches behind him as they both arch their backs in unison—proximity without intimacy—and she goes limp like a corpse after leaping into his arms.

I don’t typically give much thought to the titles of dances, but in The Spectators, watching and being watched play important if ambiguous roles throughout the piece. The dancers occasionally pause to stare, with hostility or indifference, at one another or into the audience, and similar material differs in tone when directed at the public, from front and center. After their uncomfortable duet, Toogood and Crossman hold hands and amble down the middle line, a route traveled often by the other dancers. He tenderly adjusts her hair. Any tension, for the present moment, seems to be resolved. Are they performing for a mirror of sorts, an audience—or both? Who are “the spectators” here? The answers remain tantalizingly unclear.

Contributor

Ryan Wenzel

RYAN WENZEL is Dance Editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He also writes about dance on his blog at www.rpwenzel.com. Find him on Twitter at @rpwenz.

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