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Layered and Redolent

In 2019, Pam Tanowitz gripped London with “Four Quartets,” an ode to T.S. Eliot that sparked five-star reviews and declarations of her supremacy in the 21st-century dance theatre scene. Her latest work sports the same delicate composition and taut formalism that made “Four Quartets” a riveting watch, this time splicing Jewish dance influences—including Israeli folk traditions—with Tanowitz’s own crisp brand of modern dance to create something layered and redolent. “Song of Songs” is liquid at times, fragmented at others, a bodily manifestation of the tumult and ache coursing through the biblical love poem it’s named after.

 

Performance

“Song of Songs,” Pam Tanowitz Dance and “MOS,” Ioanna Paraskevopoulou

Place

The Barbican, London, UK, October 11, 2023

Words

Sara Veale

From left: Melissa Toogood, Zachary Gonder in Pam Tanowitz and David Lang's “Song of Songs.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

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Between them, eight dancers summon shades of devotion, uncertainty, caprice and conviction. It’s not a display of romance but desire, their bright, vivid steps yoked to the coils of David Lang’s sublime score, which twists imagery from the hymn into a haunting vocal arrangement helped along by a cello, viola and percussion. The musicians perform stage right, flooding the space with piercing invocations: “My head is filled with doom/Let me come in.” The dancers rejoin with precise, sharply defined lines and poses, usually accompanied by a wistful outward gaze. Clear-cut steps finish with filigreed touches—an extension topped off with a flickering foot, runs fine-tuned with a heel-toe gait. Even the squallier sequences feel gracious and introspective. No moves are fastidious, but none are casual either.

From left: Zachary Gonder, Maile Okamura, Victor Lozano in Pam Tanowitz and David Lang's “Song of Songs.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Maile Okamura dances a series of central solos, bringing a gentle plasticity that gives even her stillest moments a living quality. Contrast this with the deadlock pauses of Christine Flores, who appears unshakeable, and the skittering footwork of Melissa Toogood, who gallops in a deep second, halting in sync with the warbling music. The choreography darts between solos and small group arrangements, its geometry sharpened by an angular set design that frames the stage with long rectilinear blinds. The pace, however, is spongy, hypnotic at times, with each phrase melting into the next. As the final moments unfold, the dancers swap their flowing neutrals for shiny unitards, reappearing one by one in a shift that’s so organic it’s almost imperceptible. 

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou and Georgios Kotsifakis in “MOS.” Photograph by Pinelopi Gerasimou Photograph by Pinelopi Gerasimou

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou’s “MOS,” which premiered in the Barbican Pit an hour before Tanowitz’s mainstage work, is a quirky, quick-witted play on sound production. Together with Georgios Kotsifakis, Paraskevopoulou spotlights and sometimes warps noise to explore the relationship between audio and motion. The stage is strewn with miscellany for sound effects: leaves, plungers, ropes and more, all kitted with mics to amplify their various crackles and whooshes. An early scene takes on an ASMR vibe, the dancers stroking items to coax out a relaxing whisperscape; later, silent cinema footage flashes on a screen behind them while they soundtrack it with uncanny precision—coconut hoofbeats for galloping horses, splattering water for kaleidoscopes of synchronised swimmers.  

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou and Georgios Kotsifakis in “MOS.” Photograph by Pinelopi Gerasimou

The work loses some of its charisma when the projector swaps direction, beaming the tape behind the audience instead of on stage. The duo’s efforts become the show itself at this point, but it’s hard to appreciate them without the corresponding video in view. There are better inversions to come, including a surprise minute of silence that takes on its own intriguing texture as breathing and shifting bodyweight fill the air. A long tap dance sequence makes a similar splash—an intricate tapestry of percussion—and the closing scene too, a furious running sequence that ends with mics on chests, Paraskevopoulou and Kotsifakis’s thumping heartbeats taking centre stage.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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