Time. One of life’s great imponderables becomes one of the topics in a soaring meditation in the T.S. Eliot literary masterpiece, Four Quartets. First published in 1943, the work, divided into four sections/poems, served as the starting point for the brilliant dance of the same name choreographed by the celebrated New York-based dancemaker Pam Tanowitz. First presented in 2018 at Bard College—a co-commission between Bard Fisher Center, Barbican London, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and CAP UCLA, where it was seen over the weekend—the work was hailed by the New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay as “dance theater of the highest caliber.”
And so it was—and so it remains.
Making use of the magnificent score by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, performed live by the contemporary music ensemble the Knights (Colin Jacobsen, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Hannah Collins, cello; Jane Yoon, harp) and the lilting, contemplative voice of Tony-nominated actress Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit), who was seated between the stage and musicians, the 75-intermissionless minutes featured nine dancers, with the addition of Tanowitz in the work’s finale.
Sumptuous designs—artist Brice Marden’s striking use of bold and muted colors in four paintings dominated by rectangular lines—are beautifully showcased in Clifton Taylor’s blissful lighting and iconic set design, which also includes doorways and screens. The opening poem, “Burnt Norton,” comes alive in shades of scarlet; angular reds and greens prove a potent backdrop to “East Coker;” fluidity features in “The Dry Salvages;” and a paleness befits “Little Gidding” (all poems were named for British settings, save for “Salvages,” which is a group of rocks off the coat of Massachusetts, with the final sonnet named for a 17th century Anglican community).
These elements come together to great effect in enhancing the ethereal, profound quality of Tanowitz’s movement vocabulary, an articulated, extremely polished style in which bodies are independent of one another while also maintaining intriguing connections: Split jumps, pirouettes and gorgeous lifts complement static balances, while numerous entrances and exits—evanescent, ephemeral, transient—are lives lived in these brief yet elongated moments; heavenly creatures all.
Abetted by the rhythmic thrusts and arpeggiated tremolos of Saariaho’s pitch-perfect score and the majestic words of Eliot, occasionally wry yet seemingly wedded to pathos, the dancers become the music, transmitting a spirituality rarely conveyed so effectively on stage, a spirituality at times reflective of the Anglo-Catholic poet’s foray into Hinduism. And that the poems, which are not literalized and also deal with themes of the universe, do, indeed, have a sublime connection to dance.
“At the still point of the turning world, there is dance,” wrote Eliot, the moving bodies sharing their secret knowledge of the world with us, mere mortals, wistful onlookers. Yes, at times the music rules, with the performers moving in silence, their footsteps making sounds that themselves are infused with a mystical quality.
Eliot again, proclaiming, “You are the music while the music lasts,” is an inscrutable verse that could be indicative of both the author and the Tanowitz opus that Wagner might very well have referred to as Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete work of art.
And while Tanowitz’s vocabulary features influences from Cunningham, Brown and Graham—she made a new work, “Untitled (Souvenir)” for the Martha Graham Dance Company last year as part of that troupe’s “EVE Project”—it is inherently hers, streamlined, effortless, technically exacting, and exquisitely reflected in the dancers.
In “Burnt Norton,” Kara Chan appears calmly angelic; “East Coker,” features Jason Collins and Victor Lozano commanding the stage with sculpted arms and arched backs, with Lozano also featured in numerous solos, his fleet feet a joy to behold.
With no detail left to chance, the watery-looking costumes, by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung—akin to onesies but elegant and flowing, diaphanous wisps bringing to mind a mild summer breeze—so perfectly captured the feel of the work that can only be described as breathtaking, these clad bodies chrysalis-like.
Tanowitz, who received the 2016 Juried Bessie Award for “using form and structure as a vehicle for challenging audiences to think, to feel, to experience movement; for pursuing her uniquely poetic and theatrical vision with astounding rigor and focus,” is decidedly on a roll. Her work was selected by the New York Times Best of Dance series in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018, and she’s also made or set works for City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival, The Juilliard School and New York Theater Ballet, among others.
Tanowitz, however, does not have a company, per se, but works on a project-to project basis, with this cast completed by Dylan Crossman, Christine Flores, Zachary Gonder, Lindsey Jones, Maile Okamura and Melissa Toogood—all presumably having danced the work previously. And these are exceptional performers, each flawless in their execution, their dedication to craft a marvel. When Tanowitz finally made her appearance—brief but exacting—it was thrilling to see the creator in her creation.
A magical night in the theater, “Four Quartets” remains long after the performers leave the stage. How lucky are we, then, to have shared such a space—a sacred space, if you will—knowing that art, especially one imbued with immeasurable splendor and grace, can truly serve a higher purpose.