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Parks and Rec

The haute joaillerie house Van Cleef & Arpels has a long history of supporting dance, since Louis Arpels attended the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1920s. In the 1940s, the company began producing jewel-encrusted ballerina clips. When Claude Arpels met George Balanchine in 1961, it led to the New York City Ballet’s first abstract full-length ballet, “Jewels,” in 1967. Since 2012, the house has sponsored the L.A. Dance Project, and, in 2015, they began awarding the Fedora–Van Cleef & Arpels Prize for Ballet. Winners include Alexei Ratmansky, William Forsythe, and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. So it was fitting that VC&A commissioned a new dance to be performed during its second annual Fifth Avenue Blooms festival, an outdoor celebration of spring running along NYC’s Fifth Ave from 50th-59th Street throughout the month of May. What was less fitting was the choice of downtown experimentalist choreographer Pam Tanowitz to headline this floral-festooned uptown stretch of consumerism—and the incongruity was a delight.        

Performance

Pam Tanowitz Dance: “heart of hearts”

Place

Pulitzer Fountain, Plaza Hotel, New York, NY, May 21, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Pam Tanowitz Dance in “heart of hearts” at the Pulitzer Fountain, New York. Photograph by Ryder Washburn

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“heart of hearts,” was performed before the Pulitzer Fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, amid various components of VC&A’s “enchanting floral universe,” which featured art by Charlotte Gastaut. (The seeds for this garden party were planted weeks ago, when a packet of VC&A temporary flower tattoos designed by Gastaut was tucked into my New York Times.) There were old-timey carts heaping with free tulips which were individually wrapped in brown paper sleeves. There was a string quartet playing pop tunes like “Riptide” and “Seasons of Love.” One could imagine Eloise herself donning a tutu and coming out for tea. Into this fantastical milieu, which seemed tailor-made for a romcom musical scene, rolled a trio of dancers in bright blue sweats. They commenced a circular dance, hunching forward and back over occasionally flexed, grapevining feet. For the next 20 minutes, they danced in various configurations in silence to the bewilderment of the passing Fifth Ave shoppers. At one point the dancers removed their sweatshirts to expose quirkily cut leotards, by frequent Tanowitz co-conspirators Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. (The duo nailed it once again; their talent for keeping Tanowitz dancers clad in basics that aren’t boring is boundless.) Tanowitz sat off to the side bedecked in a floral jumpsuit—Bloom fest camo—and held a roll of astroturf until the dancers retrieved it for a floorwork section. She seemed to relish the absurdity of the event.

The choreography was a mix of high and low—quite literally at times, as the dancers stood on the edge of the fountain or lay down on the patch of faux lawn. Figuratively, it ranged from situational jokes to Balanchine quotes. The dancers held an attitude front pose for a very long time a bit like the Phlegmatic man in “The Four Temperaments,” but in this case they also evoked a geriatric park Tai Chi class. They rotated through a series of poses on the plastic patch of lawn like the statues facing them across the way in Central Park, and Christine Flores executed some yogic moves during her grass mat solo—as if channeling the various Sheep Meadow recreationalists nearby. Flores gazed up to the top of the Plaza Hotel at one point, prompting spectators to include the skyline in their purview too. Jonathan Fahoury and Zachary Gonder stood along the fountain rim and clapped along as in the Bransle Gay from “Agon.” 

Pam Tanowitz Dance in “heart of hearts” at the Pulitzer Fountain, New York. Photograph by Ryder Washburn

Claps were a thematic tool throughout. Dancer claps incited either rhythmic participation from the audience or else spontaneous applause—as when the crowd was tricked into thinking the piece was over when it wasn’t. The quizzical interface between the meticulous dancers and the ad hoc spectators seemed to be the point of this dance. Though there were a few signs posted around the fountain listing performance times for the dancing and the string quartet, there was no formal announcement made to the crowd milling around the plaza when the show was about to begin. A few people pulled up chairs and settled in for the unheralded event, but many strolled in and out of the dance confusedly. I was amazed at how many passersby felt comfortable investigating the act from within it. Anyone with a general idea of theater conventions should know that a ring of people watching a group in uniform means that something is afoot. But a great many pedestrians felt comfortable walking right through the middle of the active trio and blinking puzzledly at the situation from what was basically centerstage.

Several others thought nothing of cutting through the dancers’ zone with baby carriages or open cups of coffee. There was little concern for self-preservation and lots of faith that the dancers in coordinated blue would not bump into them or their children. I kept thinking about how, if the show had taken place underground, people would have fled from the dancers in haste or switched subway cars to avoid them. Context matters so much in NYC. How could costumed weirdos doing strange things around a fountain be dangerous in such a chichi floral wonderland? Most oblivious of all were the Central Park tourist guides, who apparently viewed a semi-captive ring of people as a gift not worth questioning. They wandered right through the “stage” with their rickshaw advertisements held high, without any regard for getting kicked in the head. But Tanowitz too had the dancers leaving the central area and running around and through clumps of people at times, further confusing the situation.

Pam Tanowitz Dance in “heart of hearts” at the Pulitzer Fountain, New York. Photograph courtesy of Pam Tanowitz Dance

It all felt playful, like a game. The excellent dancers grinned at each other when dealing with the pedestrians’ spatial intrusions or gaping stares. At one point, Fahoury shouted “seven nine” loudly. Those are mysterious counts for dance—destabilization was the impish point. Fahoury, who left the New York City Ballet earlier this year, is relatively new to the Tanowitz universe, but he looked at home alongside her longtime collaborators Flores and Gonder. Fahoury is incredibly talented, with the ability to shapeshift between styles and genres, but he did not quite yet have the deadpan, matter-of-fact approach of the other two. He still performed a few steps—like a flexed-foot rond de jamb leaning around a circle—as if his soul was being summoned by the dance gods. I rather enjoyed his poetical interpretation of the Tanowitz deconstructions though. And the contrast between the impassive old pros and the eager rookie was fun to watch up close.     

This contrast also made me think of the iconic photos of Suzanne Farrell being draped in diamonds by Balanchine and Pierre Arpels in VC&A’s Parisian showroom in 1976. I couldn’t imagine Melissa Toogood, Tanowitz’s muse, in the same kind of publicity stunt. “heart of hearts” was a good title for this dance, because Tanowitz delivered a wryly pleasant dance for a storied diamond house’s floral extravaganza—staying true to herself the whole while.  I brought my children along, and I asked them afterward if they liked the dance. “Not too much,” my 6-year-old said, “I didn’t understand what it was about.” I told him it wasn’t about anything at all. He said, “oh, then they did a great job.” I agreed.  

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.

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