Pam Tanowitz in Conversation with Ryan Wenzel
Choreographer Pam Tanowitz presents two new dances February 4–6 at the Joyce Theater—her first time showing her work in this venue, and her first attempt, in one piece, to reconfigure past material with the benefit of hindsight.
Ryan Wenzel (Rail): Tell me about your two new pieces.
Pam Tanowitz: Originally, the Joyce dates were in August, and then they were moved up to February, much closer to after I premiered “The Spectators” [May 2013]. I was worried. I didn’t know if I had it in me to make another 60-minute work. “The Spectators” took me 10 months. Martin Wechsler [the Joyce’s director of programming] suggested I make a new work and revisit an old work. I wasn’t sure about that, and it wasn’t something I had done before. I started looking through old dances, and it was horrifying. I cringe—all I can see is what went wrong. I wasn’t that interested in doing a “Be in the Gray With Me” section or a “Wanderer Fantasy” section. But as I looked back, I realized there was a through-line in many of my full-length works: a central duet for two women. I thought, “That’s interesting. Why do I keep doing that? What if I pull this duet from all of my different dances and pull it together, reframe it, reorganize it, and set it to new music with new costumes and dancers?” So this is a mini-retrospective in 15 minutes. I don’t know if it will be successful, but it was exciting to me. Mellissa Toogood and Maggie Cloud are performing it.
Rail: What music did you choose for that piece?
Tanowitz: It’s to John Zorn—a piece called “Passagen.” It’s played live by a violinist, Pauline Kim Harris, who is an amazing musician and was part of the composition of the piece. She’s not on the side standing still. We have her moving around and changing the space. It’s almost a trio, really.
Rail: And what is the second piece?
Tanowitz: The second piece has a nine-person ensemble—the most I’ve worked with, outside of working with students at Juilliard and Purchase College. The FLUX Quartet, which I collaborated with on “Blue Ballet” and “The Spectators,” gave me a list of music to listen to, and I was really drawn to these string quartets by Conlon Nancarrow. He’s famous for his player piano pieces, and other choreographers have used them—Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham—but I don’t believe anyone has ever used these particular string quartets. They’re complicated, but they’re not “in your head”—they’re full of life, earthy, and funny. I wanted to do the opposite of what I did with “The Spectators.” In “The Spectators,” it was important for me to “announce” right away that it was an experiment, and from the start, you knew what I was experimenting with. With this work, there’s some experimentation, but it’s nuanced. I’m not commenting on traditional dance—I’m making one, and I’m making one to music.
Rail: To what extent have you choreographed closely to music before?
Tanowitz: This is new for me. Sometimes music is more of an atmosphere in my work, more of a mood. In the past, if something in the dance worked with a point in the music, I’d say, “Let’s make that work.” It wasn’t steps to music, but it wasn’t Cage-Cunningham separation either. I don’t read music at all, so FLUX worked with me on this new piece. I borrowed Nancarrow’s structures and used them or, knowingly, didn’t use them.
Rail: When I read an interview with you in the New York Times last year, I was struck by how you openly admitted that your “Blue Ballet” didn’t work.
Tanowitz: People were shocked when I said that. Some people said, “You should have owned it.” I said, “What am I owning?” The dancers in that work were amazing, though. They busted their asses for me. It was on me—I couldn’t get it to gel.
Rail: Are you afraid of failure?
Tanowitz: I don’t worry anymore—not after I did “Blue Ballet.” I know it will be okay, even if it is humiliating on some level. You wonder, “Are you as good as your last show? Will audiences stick with you and see the next piece if they don’t like this one?” I would be lying if I said I don’t care what people think. Of course I do, and everyone does, but it won’t stop me from trying what I want to try. And I couldn’t have made “The Spectators” without making “Blue Ballet.”
Rail: It’s easy to forget that even choreographers like Balanchine had the occasional flop. Sorry, I’m a bit of a Balanchine fanatic.
Tanowitz: So am I. Every piece I’ve made has a Balanchine step. I have three in the Nancarrow piece—three little nods to Balanchine. See if you can find them.
Rail: I’ll do my best! Did you feel redeemed when “The Spectators” was a hit with audiences and critics?
Tanowitz: A little. I’m never happy, though, really. All I see is what doesn’t work. But I achieved some of the things I wanted to in “The Spectators.”
Rail: David Gordon mentored you during both of your residencies at the Joyce Theater. Has he continued to give you feedback?
Tanowitz: Yeah. He’s not on the clock anymore. He says the things that are so obvious—the things that I don’t see because I’m so close to the work. He has helped me arrive at things quicker than I would have on my own.
Rail: To whom else do you turn for advice?
Tanowitz: I have friends who don’t blow smoke up my ass. My husband is pretty straightforward and frank. Tere O’Connor is someone I invite into rehearsal. Sarah Michelson too.
Rail: What do you look for in a dancer?
Tanowitz: Technique and line—but more than that, I have to get along with the dancer. I need smart dancers, who are willing to go through the process with me. One section in the Nancarrow piece was so hard to make. Every day, the dance changed. I need a dancer to go along with that. They have to trust me. I also need them to be human when they perform. Does that make sense? I don’t want to see two Pams, or two Melissas, or two Maggies.
Rail: Your work has been compared to ballet and Cunningham. What role does tradition play in your work and your process?
Tanowitz: What interests me is the tension between tradition and what’s happening now. “How do you make a pas de bourrée important right now?” is a problem I want to solve. It means something when you’re watching a temps de cuisse at New York City Ballet, but what does it mean when one of my dancers is doing it at the Joyce in between a box step and a bunch of step touches?
Rail: What dance do you make an effort to see?
Tanowitz: I see everything. I don’t only see things at are like my work. If it’s good, it’s good. And I get great ideas from seeing bad dance.
Rail: [Laughs.] How does that happen?
Tanowitz: I try to fix it. I take it, and I try to fix it. Maybe it didn’t work for them, but sometimes there’s thought in it, and it gives me inspiration.