The Work of Reworkingby Erica Getto
PAM TANOWITZ DANCE
THE JOYCE THEATER | FEBRUARY 18 – 21, 2015
To understand Pam Tanowitz’s style, it seems fitting to start where she ends. As her two-part piece the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces comes to a close, Tanowitz’s dancers show no signs of slowing down. Or speeding up, for that matter. Clad in street clothes, they stalk the perimeter of the stage. Lindsey Jones mechanically mimes slapping her face. She and Sarah Haarmann then link their arms around one another’s waists and glare at Melissa Toogood, over whom multiple men—one at a time—are doting. This slow, roiling drama has been building for nearly an hour. And then, without notice, it concludes. One man picks up Toogood and trots off the stage carrying her. The string quartet breaks. The curtain falls. Nobody bows. The house lights go up. The piece is over.
Tanowitz, a Bessie Award winner, returns to the Joyce Theater with Heaven on One’s Head and the world premiere of the story progresses. Both pieces are patient, persistent, and technically precise. They are also delightfully playful—if you know where to look.
In the story progresses, Tanowitz treats audiences to what she describes as an abstract love letter to romantic ballets of the mid-19th century. In a nod to the era’s style, she vests her dancers with a degree of weightlessness and mystery. The period also marked ballerinas’ rise to prominence, and Tanowitz features three strong female leads in her work. This trio calls to mind the period’s three leading ballerinas, known as “the three graces:” Marie Taglioni, who performed as the Sylph in Filippo Taglioni’s 1832 ballet La Sylphide; Carlotta Grisi, who played Béatrix in the 1842 ballet La Jolie Fille de Gand; and Fanny Elssler, who danced as Florinde in the 1836 ballet Le Diable boiteux. Tanowitz’s dancers even perform hints of these iconic roles. When Haarmann repeatedly spins towards Jones and sits at her feet, docile and dainty, she is not unlike a sylph. When Toogood attracts attention wherever she moves on the stage, she resembles Béatrix, a sought-out maiden. And when Jones pounds the stage with her feet and vigorously brushes her hands on her thighs, her movement could derive from Florinde’s Spanish dancing.
Despite the women’s prominence in this two-part piece, Dylan Crossman dictates the mood of each movement. At certain points, he places his hands on the dancers and adjusts them with visible force and frustration. At others, he fixes his gaze on the dancers. And sometimes he simply storms off the stage, leaving one or more of the women in his wake. the story progresses is, in this capacity, more than a love letter; it is also a piece about love, lust, and disillusion. After each woman dances with Crossman, she develops a sort of tick or shift in energy. Toogood crumples, and then fights back when Crossman engages her again. Jones becomes manic, flailing her arms and sometimes dragging herself, prostrate, across the stage. And Haarmann, perhaps the most eager for Crossman’s attention, sheepishly stakes out a space on the stage where she can escape Jones’s judgment.
These reactions develop and repeat themselves over the course of the piece. With each iteration, the dancers seem to understand where they fit into the work’s tangled social and physical dynamic. In an interview with Laura Diffenderfer for the Joyce, Tanowitz explained this feature of her work. “For me,” she stated, “it’s working and reworking the elements. I go at it like it’s a puzzle. Sometimes I feel like I’m a detective—like I’m trying to figure out what is happening while I’m making it.”
As part of this “working and reworking,” Tanowitz splits the piece into two parts. She returns to certain phrases and motifs in the second segment, but she changes just enough so that the performance takes on a different tone. At one point in the first piece, Toogood stands behind Crossman. She slips her right wrist around his waist and swats his left arm upwards so that it is level with his shoulder. This move is aggressive and stern but steeped in romantic tension; Toogood seems to scold Crossman for an earlier slight. Toogood later moves through these same steps with the evening’s surprise guests: Alan Good, Reid Bartelme, Victor Lozano, and David Rafael Botana. One by one, these men enter from stage left. Each moves with Toogood for a few moments before another takes his place. In contrast to Crossman, they all treat her with tenderness and care. Tanowitz’s choice in music is also significant here: the first half of the piece is set to a haunting minimalist composition from Julia Wolfe, the second to a more eclectic electronic score from Dan Siegler.
In Heaven on One’s Hand, which premiered at the Joyce in 2014, Tanowitz further explores this concept of “working and reworking.” She slots similar phrases into both pieces—her dancers pedal their feet and swivel their hips, for one, to break up otherwise methodical, angular movements. And yet if the story progresses is about spotlighting individual dancers’ steps and phrases, this second work is more about meticulously arranging a group of dancers. Tanowitz’s formations are stunning; on this scale, she is sharp and symmetrical.
Still, Tanowitz focuses on the minutiae of choreography—she adds a twitch here, tweaks a tableau there—and this precision has the potential to be exhausting. But she deploys well-timed wit to enliven her performance. In the story progresses, she shocks the audience with the addition of a fifth principal dancer. When a sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth special guest take to the stage (Good, Bartelme, Lozano, and Botana, in order of appearance), the element of shock has faded, but this playful, daring addition of dancers propels the piece to its close. Tanowitz is also playful in her timing: at the top of Heaven, Haarmann and Crossman take to the stage, its red velvet curtain half-raised, without music and with the house lights still up. It takes the audience a few moments to realize that the performance has begun without them, another few for them to power down their cell phones and reposition themselves towards the stage.
Tanowitz is also clever in her use of space. In both works, she makes use of the stage’s depth, breadth, and wing space. In Heaven, one of Tanowitz’s male dancers enters from stage left with a fall. After a few still moments, he presses himself up on his side, his arm raised to the sky. Several moments later, another dancer’s phantom hands reach out from the wing to retrieve the man. This sequence recurs three times, without modification. Tanowitz has not strayed from her focus on “reworking,” though: while the man continually hits the floor, Maggie Cloud dances a delicate solo with few repeated steps. In another prominent moment, Toogood steps beyond the stage and onto a raised platform. The curtain drops behind her, and she dances a solo during which viewers still—or, perhaps, only—have a partial view of her motionless counterparts on stage.
In Heaven and the story progresses, Tanowitz creates flexibility within rigidity: through choreography that looks, occasionally, like stop-motion animation, she stretches time to its limits and reveals the infinite possibilities that can stem from a single step. She also primes her audience for sharp tonal and technical shifts in her work. It is a delight to be brought into Tanowitz’s process, to be privy to how she tweaks and twists phrases. In her conversation with Diffenderfer, Tanowitz noted that she wants “the audience to be suspended between meaning and movement. I want them to live in that place.” Tanowitz has built “that place” with care, intricacy, and wit. It is worth living there.
ERICA GETTO is a New York-based writer whose interests include dance, comedy, and television. She holds a BA from Columbia University, where she studied the intersection of pop culture and politics.