May 2nd, 2019
Pam Tanowitz has been making compelling dances since 2002, and yet has been passed over until just recently for choice commissions. Now, we can finally stop wondering: why isn’t Tanowitz asked to create work for major companies? She is currently one of the most in-demand choreographers, with recent premieres at New York City Ballet and Martha Graham Dance Company, and dances in the works for Paul Taylor Dance Company, another for NYCB, and others. She is a prime example of some unspoken but persistent systemic bias, whether it be pro-male, anti-female, or most likely both. Nevertheless, she persisted: presenting work on her own company in many smaller venues. Shockingly, she was passed over five times by the Choreographic Institute, a commissioning entity of NYCB and a major crucible of talent development in ballet.
NYCB commissioned Bartók Ballet, a world premiere, after another choreographer dropped out. The piece is accompanied by Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 (played live by the FLUX Quartet); the Bartók in many ways suits Tanowitz’s fractured phrasing and penchant for taking classical vocabulary and tweaking it. The steps are often recognizable from ballet, but they always feel like a new concatenation of familiar pieces—a rethinking of the canon while paying homage. She creates formal constructs and plays with familiar poses, with each dancer making crisp arabesques but facing different directions, or contracting the torso to deflate a geometric shape.
Tanowitz studied with Viola Farber, one of Merce Cunningham’s original company members,
and even as she has created a distinct lexicon, elements of Tanowitz’s style can be compared with Cunningham’s. In Bartók Ballet, the stage space expands to become a field, something that Cunningham explored extensively; the traditional focus on front and center, onstage and off, dissipates. Dancers move in the far corners, pushing off of the stage’s vertical legs, at one point leaning against the gold proscenium frame (a hue that, incidentally, matches the under-costumes of gold leotards, by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, revealed after the dancers remove long-sleeved, sheer bronze chemises).
Tanowitz also evokes Cunningham in the endless varietal combinations of arm and leg positions. In the ballet canon, certain upper and lower body position pairings are standard, but in Bartók Ballet, there isn’t any predictability to the recombinants. This seemingly limitless creative math is also found in Cunningham’s oeuvre, where the arms can be flat, bent, curved, flung back, etc., no matter what the legs are doing. Tanowitz’s shapes are often unfamiliar, sometimes awkward, and never rote, creating the anticipation of constantly seeing something new.
There is little interaction between the dancers, at least in the traditional norms of ballet, and almost no man-picks-up-woman stuff. (Once, that I noticed, and only sort of—a woman slides over to a man, wraps her leg around him, and poof, she’s off the ground.) The 11 onstage dance in pairs, trios, and large groups. The dancers become set elements—crossing in silhouette upstage; two women hold each other’s shoulders, forming a human barre, which another woman uses to steady herself in arabesque. Men bourrée—a step pretty much only done by women on pointe as a way to appear to glide. As several women piqué in a circle, one woman walks casually alongside them in a mix of formal and relaxed phrasing. The viewing aspect skews; a passage with a brushing leg and fouetté is done perpendicularly to the audience, instead of the typical cross-stage or diagonal line for maximum visibility. A stride becomes interesting as the front leg unfolds, taking an extra-long step. A woman crosses the stage by planting her toe shoe box and sliding the other leg. Toward the end, the dancers, now nearly all in shimmering gold leotards, uncovered by their peasant blouses, cluster at center stage and move in a circle, finally forming a united group. The curtain mysteriously lowers a third of the way down, presumably on purpose, keeping the audience in suspense, before lowering fully.
Justin Peck’s Bright preceded Bartók Ballet on the bill. At eight minutes, it was an amuse bouche to Tanowitz’s, at 35 minutes. Done in a fairly classical ballet vocabulary, there was nothing particularly quirky or distinguishing about this sextet; even the (very busy) Bartelme/Jung-designed costumes—pastel chiffon separates—left a fleeting impression, as did the warm symphonic score pierced with gongs, by Mark Dancigers. But it was a reminder of the extent of Peck’s breadth as a choreographer. In just the past couple of years, he’s given us this type of organic, lovely classical ballet; a more modern-inflected, youthful genre, with sassy gestures, such as Rodeo; his remarkable street-contemporary, sneaker-ballet style that distinguishes The Times Are Racing; and musical theater Broadway pizzazz (Carousel); among other gradations.
The gala program, which was introduced by the warmly-received new artistic leadership team of Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, closed with Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3, a kind of Frankensteined ballet. It comprises three sections from 1970 with cotton candy-hued costumes, bare feet, and long hair indicating its decade of origin. The strongly contrasting finale from 1947 (incorporated in 1970), Theme and Variations, represents the imperial tradition of high classicism—a crisp, upright carriage, pointe shoes, and formal tutus and waistcoats. (The music attempts to unite the sections, with tempered success.) Theme is one of Mr. B’s most beloved “imperial” creations, and that night perhaps made history at NYCB, as I counted at least six non-white faces onstage in this icon of classicism. It’s still a fraction of the 25 dancing, but it shows a rapid, and overdue, increase in diversity. And while it certainly felt like a new era at City Ballet in that sense, as well as with its change in leadership, controversy still hovers with the reinstatement of principal Amar Ramasar, who was dismissed last year for sharing lewd photos and texts, and who is cast in upcoming ballets this season. Time will tell if his physical presence, missed in his absence, can override any lingering psychological trauma.
As much as the company’s recent turmoil has been unsettling for its members (and, to an extent, audiences), it’s good to remember that we’re witnessing a period of historical change for one of the country’s great cultural institutions. New, well-liked, homegrown leadership replaces a long, entrenched tenure by Peter Martins, who displayed questionable behavior and who commandeered untold resources to fund his own artistically bereft choreography. A quickly diversifying company, plus commissions by a broadening multiplicity of choreographers, are all reasons to be optimistic for the company’s present and near future.