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Adjacent Meanings

Law of Mosaics” is a great title, and one that would befit almost any dance by the deconstructivist choreographer Pam Tanowitz. It just so happens that it belongs to the third ballet she has made for the New York City Ballet, and it stems from its Ted Hearne score. “Mosaics” premiered in 2022, but excitingly, Hearne was back to conduct his piece for the entire Spring Season run of the ballet. In Hearne, Tanowitz has found an ideological soulmate: they play similar syntactical games. Tanowitz breaks down conventional ballet steps and mismatches their components; Hearne rearranges and distorts clips from famous classical pieces. In “Law of Mosaics” their efforts align in spellbinding ways.  

Performance

New York City Ballet: “Law of Mosaics” by Pam Tanowitz, “This Bitter Earth” by Christopher Williams, William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux,Kyle Abraham's “Love Letter on Shuffle”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, April 22, 2024

Words

Faye Arthurs

Adrian Danchig-Waring and Mira Nadon in Pam Tanowitz’s “Law of Mosaics.” Photograph
by Erin Baiano

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One of Hearne’s tricks in “Mosaics” is to turn musical phrases into palindromes. Tanowitz has been doing this with ballet steps for a long time. In “Mosaics” she included several unusual pas de bourrées sandwiches, several of which were flat-footed and featured high passés like in Irish step dancing. Similarly, Ruby Lister’s solo took the temps de cuisse step apart and reconstructed it in various box configurations. They also explored the gamut of low degagé pivots. Lister was impressive—all that controlled tinkering looked like a real standing leg buster. Elsewhere dancers did inverse Italian fouetté turns, kicking à la seconde and flipping to attitude front instead of back. I had never seen that step attempted inside-out before, which was surprising given how well it worked. In ballet, some chains are seldom broken and nobody questions why. But just as Hearne proved with his melodic symmetries, Tanowitz showed that sometimes backwards is just as good as forwards. 

Structurally, “Mosaics” flaunted convention as well. Two incredible solos were the meat of the dance, though they held the bread positions in the lineup. After an introductory group number, statuesque Miriam Miller performed a long, exhausting dance in silence. Her vocabulary included skittery toe and heel tapping and awkward bourrées straight backwards in 6th position. At one point she opened her feet sharply to 1st position like in the beginning of Balanchine’s “Serenade,” at other times she did lumbering jetés like a hurdle-jumping thoroughbred. Miller was fabulous. She excels in Tanowitz’s style, but she’s been strong in everything this year (like headlining Peck’s “Copeland Dance Episodes” and Garner’s “Underneath There is Light,” and much Balanchine). She appears ready for more. 

At the other end of “Mosaics,” Mira Nadon debuted in the solo created for Sara Mearns. This closing dance is a wonder, and Nadon was wonderful in it. It is a surprisingly dramatic passage for Tanowitz, including the way she sets the stage for it. As a group dance wound down, Adrian Danchig-Waring (also making a great debut) gestured with ringmaster flourish to the back corner of the stage, which was spotlit but empty. After he exited, Nadon emerged there, barefoot—for the first time in the ballet—to commence a fragmented yet legato solo.  

Miriam Miller in Pam Tanowitz’s “Law of Mosaics.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

This dance gradually built to an extraordinary sequence in which Nadon bourréed back and forth across the stage while performing a series of arm choreography. It was a classic Trisha Brown accumulation: gestures were added to the sequence one at a time, with Nadon going back to the start and through the whole series before tacking on each addition. The gesticulations came from standard story ballet mime, and the final pattern translated roughly thus: “me, strong, banish, cry, shield, hide, pray, sleep.” Nadon’s mien was neutral throughout; she was not emotive like a Giselle or a Manon even though she was cycling through their fervent bits. Hearne was on the same page musically, he toyed with this idea throughout “Mosacis” by taking climactic string motifs and removing their context or distorting their tempi.                                 

Hearne’s score notes for this composition include the statement: “Meaning is a matter of adjacent data.” These steps, in this order, suggested a dancer having a nervous breakdown, or maybe a malfunctioning ballerina robot. The bizarre pacing and repetition of Nadon’s sign language sentence approximated a Swan Queen speaking like a caveman: “me tough, me tough push, me tough push sad,” etc. This section also could’ve been an AI answer to the prompt: choreograph a postmodern accumulation out of classical ballet mime with slight Merce Cunningham vibes (the latter were provided by the impulsive thrust of the movements as well as Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s bright pastel unitards). But this was pure Tanowitz, and so it was all and none of those things. It made you question everything you thought you knew about the signification of ballet mime and the fabrication of meaning in art.  

Mira Nadon in Pam Tanowitz’s “Law of Mosaics.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Hearne’s score notes also include a definition of his title: “The law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes.” Both Hearne and Tanowitz futzed with finnicky details instead of carving grand arcs, but somehow along the way they ended up with a meaningful whole in spite of themselves. I found Nadon’s solo to be shockingly profound, even though those melodramatic gestures were silly strung together with no plot. In truth, emoting while bourréeing often seems silly when it is attached to plot. However, as Nadon performed the sequence again and again, it began to accrue emotional weight. It became tragicomic. It was as if to say, these are our stories. This is what we spend our energy on.  

After this narration ended, Nadon stood still and swirled her hands above her head in the traditional mime for “let’s dance.” She repeated her theme step, a stretchy arabesque that she broke by splaying her back and stubbing her toe down to the floor. Then she lay on the floor as the lights dimmed and the curtain fell. Was this a nod to the many classic ballet heroine deaths or just a well-earned nap? Or neither? I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s essay on the banality of plot, “Happy Endings,” which posits that the only real ending to every tale is death. In meaninglessly rifling through ardent mime, Tanowitz hit upon the inconsequentiality of all human feelings and habits. But that reclining finale represented the only other option: the void. Let’s dance, indeed. In her essay, Atwood instructs readers to focus on How’s and Why’s instead of plotlines. Tanowitz and Hearne are her disciples in this respect. They investigate how steps and phrases work and question why we employ them, managing to unearth new meanings through their odd adjacencies.    

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia in William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman Pas de Deux.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

And what ran adjacent to the phenomenal “Law of Mosaics” on the program? The rest of the Contemporary Choreography II pieces were solid, and they demonstrated the evolution of ballet in the past 30 years. While Tanowitz radically breaks ballet down on a molecular level, the older contemporary offerings were more about pushing technique to extremes or smashing genres against each other. Christopher Wheeldon’s “This Bitter Earth,” from 2012, employed a musical mashup (a remix of Dinah Washington singing Clyde Otis’s “This Bitter Earth” and Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight”) and showcased the height of partnering finesse. Tyler Angle and Sara Mearns were incredibly fluid in this tricky pas de deux, which was a good follower to the choppier “Mosaics” phraseology.  William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman,” from 1992, extended Balanchine’s geometries and quicksilver directional shifts in a casually cool way. Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia excelled at the playfulness of this piece.  

Both “Bitter Earth” and “Herman Schmerman” have undergone big shifts since the retirement of Wendy Whelan (as a dancer, she remains on staff as Associate Artistic Director). She continues to cast a long shadow over the contemporary rep, in part because of her inimitable angularity. “Bitter Earth” was made for her and Angle (what a treat to see him in it still), and her wrought-iron sinewiness made it feel like Angle was sculpting something out of clay. The pas had a more abstract feel. But Mearns and Angle are earthier dancers, and together they gave it a more human, romantic cast. It was lovely, both ways work well. But I’m always amazed by how much a body can change the atmosphere of a dance. Similarly, Forsythe reworked “Herman” to suit the different talents of Tiler Peck, so it has changed dramatically as well. What was once an edgy, androgynous romp has become a cute battle of the sexes. It’s less radical now, but the 80s electronica vibe of its Thom Willems score ages it too. To see it today feels a bit like stumbling across an original Pac Man game at an arcade. 

Kyle Abraham’s “Love Letter (On Shuffle),” from 2022, completed the evening. Abraham is the king of mashups, often mixing styles of choreography, music, and costuming. His artful juxtapositions make interesting connections between different genres and can provide fresh social commentary.  But “Love Letter” is strictly set to the music of James Blake, and perhaps for this reason it is less dynamic than some of his other dances. It is still a good ballet, though, and it was enlivened by the terrific drive of young corps member Olivia Bell. Overall, the complex mosaic of choreographers, composers, and styles on this program came together to make a satisfying whole.           

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

comments

Marta

I really enjoyed this review especially because I’ve never seen the Tanowitz ballet. It sounds fascinating.

Nancy Lupton

Wonderful, detailed, informative review – thank you

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