In Jane Austen’s 1803 novel Northanger Abbey, seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland spends the winter in Bath, a town tucked away in the English countryside. While there, Morland finds herself at a series of balls and social dances. She also finds herself in the company of new friends—and suitors. One is Isabella Thorpe, a society sweetheart who deals—and delights—in gossip. Another is her brother John Thorpe, a wealthy young man whose arrogance and entitlement is evident even when he dances. As Morland spends more time with these characters at community dances, her view of wealthy English society evolves: although society culture at first seems enchanting, it quickly becomes indulgent and, ultimately, off-putting.
That Morland’s worldview develops at community dances is no coincidence: these affairs were a microcosm of society at the time. And at the center of any gathering would have been a dance known as a quadrille. In it, eight dancers pair off, arrange themselves in a rectangle, and perform a series of steps with different partners.
More than two centuries later, choreographer Lar Lubovitch is giving new life to this social dance. For the Joyce Theater’s latest festival, Lubovitch commissioned four artists to reimagine the quadrille and, implicitly, the environments in which the dance flourished. He also worked with the Joyce to redesign its seating configuration for the first time in nearly four decades. Instead of a proscenium stage, the space is transformed into a theater in the round—or, more accurately, the square. Audience members sit on all four sides of a raised platform that spills off the theater’s usual stage and into space that is, for other occasions, designated for the first few rows of seats.
This design transforms the Joyce into a sort of ballroom: as in the days of Austen, dancers in “NY Quadrille” navigate the floor’s four sides, and onlookers sit around the performance space. There is, however, one fundamental difference between a traditional quadrille and this modern take—namely, that the Joyce bill is presentational, not social. The patrons at the theater are never performers. The performances, however, do address social and political conditions beyond the stage—and beyond Austen’s time.
During the first week of the festival, Pam Tanowitz and RoseAnne Spradlin present their takes on a contemporary quadrille. Tanowitz’s performance is sharp and kaleidoscopic. Spradlin’s, in contrast, is rough and ruminative; her dancers heave and grind their way through the performance. Like Austen’s novel, both engagements throw into question the quadrille’s elite origins.
Tanowitz brings her signature post-modern, angular, and abstract style to “NY Quadrille.” Her evening-length “Sequenzas in Quadrilles” features six dancers: Jason Collins, Dylan Crossman, Sarah Haarmann, Lindsey Jones, Victor Lozano, and Christine Flores. It is with the number four, though, that she is primarily concerned; her choreography is riddled with squares. Her dancers trace boxes with their big toes, cross their arms at the wrists to create right angles, and stand in diamond formations. Tanowitz’s interest in geometry extends to her set and music choices. Lighting designer Davison Scandrett projects colored squares on the stage to mark scene changes. And the Knights, a New York-based orchestral collective, fan themselves around the theater’s wings to play their respective instruments, one at a time.
This obsession with squares gives the piece order. But there is still a rich, looming instability in Tanowitz’s work. The engagement begins, for one, with a dancer who takes a single step before she promptly falls to the platform. Four other company members step onto the stage and observe her as she pivots, calculated and calm, on her hand. Like anthropologists, they seem curious about the creature at their feet. Who is this creature? What is this sylph? They look to different corners of the stage, then tilt towards the center. How does her world operate? Only silence accompanies this exchange. This silence, though, just like the first dancer’s steady step, doesn’t last, and the Knights step in to accompany the dancers. Immediately, viewers are thrown into an environment that is more natural, ethereal, and potentially feral than that of a courtly ball.
In another jolt to patrons’ expectations, a sixth dancer joins the fugue of five performers more than halfway through the piece. When Flores finally makes an appearance, she wears a white leotard with indecipherable writing scrawled on it. The other dancers wear colorful costumes—teal, neon, Easter yellow—from Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme.
Flores’ function here is not, it seems, to throw the performance off balance. Instead, she reinforces that in the world of this dance, order is unnatural. And through moments like this appearance, Tanowitz brilliantly frames the company’s ability to build, break, and recycle physical connections, emotional links, and simply body angles.
Throughout “Sequenzas in Quadrille,” Tanowitz tinkers with partner changes, the pace and pressure of her dancers’ movements, and the planes that these performers occupy. In one emblematic pas de deux, two dancers pike roll towards each other—slowly, until the woman whirls into the man’s arms, the pull between the pair apparently magnetic. He stops moving, the stage lights rise, and he picks her up. They move in step, with the man clasping her arms from behind, a sort of shadow both looming over her but also, in a way, protecting her. Even when he drops her for a split and she rolls off the stage, her magnetic charge directed elsewhere, one feels a sense of fondness or at least familiarity between the performers. That this partnership is temporary does not diminish its delicacy or its drive.
And although Tanowitz’s choreography is slick, the spirit of the performance is still, somehow, spontaneous. In this capacity, Tanowitz deviates from the social codes that Austen ascribes to the quadrille. She is not concerned with the dance’s courtly, conservative patterns; instead, she seeks more natural movements and motifs. What’s more, for all that Tanowitz delights in sprightly steps and bright costumes, her stage never feels indulgent or forced.
RoseAnne Spradlin takes a starker, more startling approach to a quadrille. “X,” her Joyce debut, begins off stage, along the brick walls that line the theater. Kayvon Pourazar stands next to an usher, unassuming. But when he begins to make a buzzing sound with his lips, then shout, he quickly becomes the center of attention. As the stage lights rise, he climbs to the stage and thrashes, as if he is in a fever dream. His contortions, paired with bouts of retching, are almost painful to watch, yet one cannot help but remain rapt. With his wild black hair, he evokes the horror of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When he collapses, the tension of “X” has only just begun.
Spradlin masterfully interweaves moments of conflict and clarity. In the second sequence, the spindly, clean-shaven Connor Voss joins Pourazar on the platform. He mounts Pourazar, who lies, face-down, on the stage and runs his fingers through his hair. Then, both men are vertical; Voss, upside-down and Pourazar, upright, holding his partner’s legs. They proceed to wrestle, with various limbs entangled at a given moment. But they punctuate their combat with moments of, it seems, genuine care. In one of these instances, the two men hold each other; huddled, they look like starving bodies on a winter’s night. In another, the sturdier Pourazar hoists Voss over his shoulder; he could be a soldier transporting a fallen comrade to safer ground. They are contortionists, prisoners, punishers—but also partners.
When Asli Bulbul joins the two men for the following scenes, she locks in the performance’s post-apocalyptic tone. Dragging a heavy metal bar—a curved “T”—onto the stage, she looks like an ox bearing a heavy load. But her movement is unpredictable. Within moments of setting down the set piece, she pilots her arms and chops through the air. Ninja-like, she chops her way through an auto-tuned pop song. Her jerking is less primal and more mechanical than the men’s. We are no longer in Tanowitz’s territory, where the element of surprise is a delight; if Spradlin wants to drop her audiences down an elevator shaft, she will. And she eliminates escalation—in this repetitive sequence with Bulbul, among others—as a way to throw audiences off her scent.
Repetition is not necessarily a sign of what’s to come.
It is, however, what Spradlin ultimately delivers. The last portion of the performance is dedicated to the arduous, painstakingly repetitive task of moving four rusted metal hurdles from one side of the stage to the other. The three dancers, expressionless and steady, zig zag across the stage, working for what feels like twenty minutes. A voice booms over the sound system: “Close all windows. Turn off the lights. Turn off the sound system.” As they hoist the bars—and each other—from one edge of the stage to another, they initially build a degree of suspense. How will their actions develop? Why are they moving the bars? After a few rounds of labor, though, suspense turns into incredulity: This has to end at some point, right? When one woman laughs at the spectacle, Pourazar glares at her. “Sorry,” she peeps. This is not a joke. Or is it? Elsewhere, Spradlin seems to have a sense of humor: She peppers this sequence, for example, with warped versions of a Barry White song. The incongruity between the labor and lush tune is either funny or horrifying.
At the very least, she plays with her audience’s expectations throughout the performance, particularly when it operates in overdrive. In one sequence, she presents gyrating, pulsating nightclub dancing that would seem crude in comparison to a courtly one-two step. In another sequence, the trio stalks the stage, shirtless, pointing imaginary sniper, rifles at the audience. They crawl and navigate its four corners, training for—or perhaps fighting—an imagined war. When a deep “yeah” booms on the sound system, the audience laughs without reproach. These are some hip hit-men, and it’s hard not to develop some sort of affinity or simply fascination with them.
Throughout “X,” Spradlin’s post-apocalyptic landscape is at once sparse and nuanced. The performance is worth watching simply for the dancers’ sheer strength and stamina; its commentary on excess and exhaustion make it worth remembering. It is the grittier, more mercurial companion to Tanowitz’s “Sequenzas.”
Tanowitz and Spradlin’s spins on the quadrille are, clearly, distinct, and yet they both raise questions about the more staid, stately culture in which quadrilles flourished. Tanowitz transcends this culture by crafting a world that is unpredictable, but natural. Spradlin has her sights on a more dystopian setting, one that straddles hyperactive and monotonous extremes. Both, however, can inform our sense of the world the Morland occupies—and perhaps, by extension, contemporary social interactions. Those who dance the quadrille at a ball move and interact according to a set of social constructs; these rules for conduct are limiting for individuals like Morland, who seeks fruitful conversation and genuine intellectual and emotional exchanges. But they are ideal for people like the Thorpes, for they provide guidelines for social success. By pushing aside these predetermined rules for interaction and channeling a more primal and natural take on human interactions, Tanowitz and Spradlin both suggest that there is more to relationships than a simple one-two step.