“There is only the dance” T.S. Eliot wrote in 1936 in “Burnt Norton,” the first poem in his seminal late work, Four Quartets. Yet there has only been an actual dance set to this quartet since 2018, when choreographer Pam Tanowitz became the first person granted permission by the Eliot estate to choreograph to the text. The resulting work had its NYC premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week. The Four Quartets really speak to dance lovers, as was evidenced by the large crowd of balletomanes at BAM. (I confess they among my favorite poems.) Dramaturge Gideon Lester explains in the program, “the poems themselves . . . are shot through with dancing and dancers.” He notes how Martha Graham and other choreographers were fans. But Tanowitz did the honors, and her career-long interrogation of the language of dance made her an ideal interpreter of these verses. Her expansive treatment, which cannily roped in painter Brice Marden’s images, Kaaijo Saariaho’s music, Clifton Taylor’s lighting and set design, Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costumes, and Jean-Baptiste Barriere’s sound design, is a monumental achievement.
Marden’s “Uphill 4” hung at the front of the stage while the audience ambled in and sat. The top half was a deep scarlet, which dripped in bloodlike rivulets down the amber background of the bottom half. “Four Quartets” began with a sudden lighting change as this scrim became see-through, and the majestic Lindsay Jones was visible at the center of the stage, wearing a spectral, off-white jumpsuit in a gossamer fabric. In this split-second shift, which seemingly peered through plasma and dermis to the soul, Tanowitz and company charged into one of Eliot’s main themes: the clash of the corporeal and the spiritual.
Actress Kathleen Chalfant commenced the reading of “Burnt Norton” in her wise and honeyed voice: “Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past.” As she spoke, Jones turned, and her spins suggested the complicated cyclicality of Eliot’s lines. (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a double swivel turn spotting straight down before, very cool.) When Chalfant described a thrush in the English garden, Jones made darting, avian head movements; and when Chalfant described roses overhanging an empty pool, Jones bent her tall form at the waist and peered at the stage floor as if on the brink of a pond. Not all Tanowitz’s steps were so literal, but thus began her game of supportive versus distractive movement. She anchored her audience in the text right away, before later pushing against it. To cement the connection, this opening solo had no music, as alluded to in Eliot’s text: “And the bird called, in response to/ The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery.”
Though the interplay of dance and language was overt at first, Tanowitz and her collaborators mostly bolstered Eliot’s words and ideas in a stealthily additive way. For example, Tanowitz echoed Eliot’s musings on the circular nature of time through the piece’s structure. There were no clear breaks between the four poems, or the five sections within each, though there were indeed four different sets and distinctive choreographic sections. Tanowitz let them bleed into each other, leaving no obvious gaps for applause or the digestion of a chapter. The slow transitions were often destabilizing, but significant.
Set changes happened piecemeal, and costume changes too, as when Victor Lozano appeared in a green version of the diaphanous jumpsuits long before any of the other nine dancers (the whole cast was wonderful). New step motifs were introduced seemingly at random, often hitting before or after the language they described. And like Eliot’s key refrains (“[a]ll shall be well” and “[i]n my beginning is my end,” they kept returning. When Maile Okamura was lifted in a chair position and turned very slowly around, it looked more like a ride than a pas de deux step. She resembled a merry-go-round horse: frozen, yet in motion. When Chalfant said, “with slow rotation suggesting permanence” it clicked. Birdsong also made frequent, flitting appearances in the soundscape—just as birds do in Eliot’s text and throughout the history of classical ballet (in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Harlequinade,” “Firebird,” and of course, “Swan Lake”). And potently, Tanowitz herself appeared a few times in the final section—unannounced in the program: the Creator briefly alighting onstage to walk amongst her work, recognized perhaps by some and certainly not by others. What a ballsy way to tackle Eliot’s abiding Christian religiosity!
Many important, though scattered, elements wafted in and out; but every so often the piece’s various components would crystallize around a passage of poetry and you’d realize, aha—we are now squarely in the realm of “East Coker,” or, “The Dry Salvages.” These moments of culminative awareness were absolutely thrilling, and I was blown away by how well-integrated the choreography, lighting, scenery, costumes, and music were into Eliot’s text. One of my favorite examples of this was a solo for Lozano in the “East Coker” section. As I mentioned before, he was an early adopter of the green jumpsuit. Like a crocus at the tail end of winter, he was a bright, springy shoot heralding a shift. By and by a similar hue was injected into the scenery, with long green columns floating in. More shafts of scrim in red, black, and gray arrived to assemble Marden’s painting “Thira.” By the time this new scene was settled, one of Eliot’s pastoral passages came to vivid life, and I think it bears quoting at length:
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
A short spell after Chalfant spoke these lines, Lozano performed brisk, skipping enveloppés. The step looks just like it sounds: enveloping—one leg kicks out straight and then bends and folds back into the body. As he did so he caressed himself, moving his arms down along his torso and gesturing to his crotch. These movements enacted the sustenance and fecundity of Eliot’s harvest imagery, and he looked like he was doing a giddy hoedown jig in the fields to boot.
But just before this happy confluence, Tanowitz had Lozano and Jason Collins, separately, make brief waltzing passes around some of Marden’s columns as if holding imaginary partners. They wandered in and out, alone, though in Eliot’s text the dancers around the bonfire are always joined two by two, man and woman, in “necessary conjunction.” Here and throughout, Tanowitz played a shrewd game: on one hand she enabled exact lines of language to explode off the page and dance before our eyes. On the other hand, she subtly defied the words. What does it mean to have these uncoupled ballroom dancers—both male—counteract Eliot’s utopian vision of mating, reaping, and ritual? Of course, even as Eliot references jubilant heteronormativity, his tone is not altogether straightforward. And there is that bit about the corpses and the crops.
“Four Quartets” was jampacked like this, with some moments that were theatrically overdetermined and others that punched back at Eliot’s whole enterprise. It was both exalting and exhausting to watch. My wrist ached from taking notes, but what food for thought! It’s surely as ripe (and bottomless) for analysis as Joyce’s Ulysses. For now I will limit myself to two more examples of how Eliot, Tanowitz, and friends worked their collective magic. And I want to skip to the very end, or rather, the beginning—which, according to Eliot, are one and the same. But not…
I described how “Four Quartets” began with Jones in dervish mode—as if in the middle of something. It closed with Jones standing perfectly still, in a simple tendu croisé devant (for non-dancers: a kickstand pose with the weight on the back leg, the front leg extended and with the toe touching the floor and crossing the center line of the body). The pose was ostensibly static and final, but if you know ballet at all it was not. This is a standard preparatory position. Baby ballerinas stand thus before leaping across the floor at the close of elementary lessons, and professional danseurs pose this way before tackling their trickiest variation and coda entrances in performance. It is a stance of embarkment and anticipation, not completion. In fact, its opposite, tendu effacé derrière (weight on the front leg, back leg lightly touching the floor, open across the center line), often signifies finality. See: a zillion classic female variations, from “Raymonda” to “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.” (Interestingly, one of George Balanchine’s most jolting ballet openings employs this inverse: when the long diagonal of women in “Symphony in Three Movements” all stand in tendu effacé derrière waiting for the conductor’s cue and dive suddenly into action. But I digress.) So at the top of the piece Jones was already spinning her wheels, and at the end she looked ready to get started. Tanowitz nailed the “Little Gidding” lines: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”
Just before Jones was left alone, the entire cast (Tanowitz included) performed the same pose scattered about the stage. They made odd head motions while they tendu-ed: they looked side to side, up and down, and front, as if surveying the space—or like they had nervous tics. These twitchy adults in shroud-like gauze somehow reminded me of the children performing as bugs at the start of Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A little tweaky, eager to go. As you see, Tanowitz presented Eliot’s musings on the circularity of time in multiple ways, from the overarching structure of the piece to the semantics of basic ballet vocabulary. When the uber-famous lines from the last stanza of “Little Gidding” finally arrived, they really landed: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I have touched upon how Tanowitz tackled many of Eliot’s tentpole themes, but I have saved her best coup for last. Eliot and Tanowitz’s winningest convergence concerned their exploration of representation and meaning. Several passages in Four Quartets grapple with this conflict. For example, this nugget from “Burnt Norton”: “Words strain, / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.” Tanowitz is the reigning queen of deconstructivism, but here she coupled that technique with Viktor Schklovsky’s concept of defamiliarization, to outstanding effect. Like how the best poets manipulate common language, she managed to dissolve certain steps’ identities and redefine them.
Tanowitz constructed the most stunning moment in “Four Quartets” by defamiliarizing a classic ballet jump, the sauté arabesque. A sauté arabesque normally surges forward into space, with the dancers’ arms and legs extending into infinity, their gazes aimed high over a slightly-raised front arm. When Tanowitz first introduced a stilted sauté arabesque in “Four Quartets” I thought it was funny—like a bad ballet impression. (Much of Tanowitz’s work is quite humorous in this way. It is part of the fun of questioning and dissecting the classical canon.) The dancers here sautéd practically in place, as if hitting an invisible wall. Their front arms stuck almost straight up and they gazed only slightly above the level of their armpits. (For the record: her dancers are massively adept, this execution was clearly a choreographic choice.)
In the transition into the final section, Melissa Toogood and Zachary Gonder (both extraordinary) picked up this thread and ran with it. They circled each other, performing the skimpy sauté here and there as if it was part of an animal mating dance. It still read as slightly silly to me. They sat on the ground together and held hands. Suddenly Gonder stood and, keeping her hand, did the sauté in place over and over at a frantic pace—a sign of twitterpation. Then he sat back down and gazed at her. She stood and did it back to him, conversing in his language. This passage was not quite as lickety-split as I’m describing, there were steps and gestures in between. But somewhere along the way, the sauté evolved from a comical distortion of a flying balletic leap into a stamping, intimate, declaration of love that felt earnest and mature.
And though the step was completely distorted, on some level it surely tapped into the move’s usual implications: soaring, sending. Therefore, this new step/word served, subliminally, as an abbreviation for a leaping heart á la Wordsworth. Toogood and Gonder’s duet was one of the most romantic vignettes I’ve seen in a while—in any medium. How surprising to find such a tender moment in this densely cerebral work. Even though love and redemption are principal themes in the Four Quartets, I didn’t expect such emotional candor to emerge from Tanowitz’s sea of formal experimentation. It was the week of Valentine’s Day, and I thought of the saccharine J. Lo Marry Me trailer that is everywhere, and romcoms in general. They try to do, through every conventional cinema contrivance, what this piece brilliantly succeeded in doing through a Russian-formalist skewering of the dynamics of a centuries-old French ballet step. Incredible. I would never have guessed that stunted sautés could be made to convey a profound love, but here we are. And isn’t that the precisely the work of poetry—to unlock deeper meaning through new turns of phrase? In the language of dance, Tanowitz matches Eliot’s rhetorical greatness toe to toe (quite literally). With “Four Quartets” she has proven herself to be a major bard.