Pam Tanowitz
Pam Tanowitz. Photograph by Erin Baiano

In Praise of Pam Tanowitz

Setting the terpsichorean world on fire

There’s praise and then there’s praise! Indeed, it’s safe to say that the celebrated New York-based choreographer, Pam Tanowitz, is having a moment now. Not only did the New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay recently cite her “Four Quartets,” as one of the top 10 works of 2018, but in reviewing it last July, he declared it to be, “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century.”

The commissions are also coming fast and furious: Tanowitz is doing a piece for Paul Taylor’s company and a pair of works for New York City Ballet’s spring and fall galas. In addition, she has been named the first choreographer-in-residence at the Bard Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. (a three-year position), where she’ll create a trio of commissioned dances.

The good news for Angelenos is that local dance fans will be privy to seeing a world premiere by Tanowitz on March 2. That’s when her “Untitled (Souvenir)” debuts at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (The Soraya). Part of the Martha Graham Dance Company’s two-year initiative, “The Eve Project,” which will also include Graham’s 1962 “Secular Games,” “Chronicle” (1936) and her “American Document” from 1936 (performed by students), as well as Pontus Lidberg’s “Woodland,” the Tanowitz opus features music of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw and will be performed live by members of the ensemble wild Up, directed by Christopher Rountree.

“I’ve been a Graham fan for a long time,” said Tanowitz, 49, by phone from Manhattan. “My mother brought me from Westchester to City Center to see the company when Graham was still alive. It was my first show and I remember them bringing her out for a bow. That stuck in my mind.”

It seemed like kismet, then, when two years ago, Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Graham company first spoke to Tanowitz about a collaboration.

“We weren’t sure how this would happen,” explained the choreographer, “and Janet wanted to find the right project for me. Because I’m also interested in dance history and the lost works of Graham—the works they don’t perform—I got to go to the archives. Janet gave me DVDs and I chose “The Legend of Judith,” pulling out movement from that piece as source material, and one of my favorites, “Dark Meadow.” It’s also one of the hardest works I’ve ever made, because I’m dealing with Graham material and my material, and putting them together.

“Sometimes I’m opening them up,” said Tanowitz, who founded the project-based Pam Tanowitz Dance in 2000, “and talking to the dancers about different ways to perform than what they already do. Other things I do is put Graham stuff next to my stuff, so they’re talking to each other, in a sense, so I grappled with how to present the Graham material. What does it mean in 2019? What does it mean to mix it with my movement? I address these questions in different ways.”

Pam Tanowitz
Lorenzo Pagano and Leslie Andrea Williams in a rehearsal showing of Pam Tanowitz’s “Untitled (Souvenir).” Photograph by Melissa Sherwood

Tanowitz, who is known for her postmodern interpretations of classical dance forms, has been on a decidedly upward career trajectory for the last decade. In 2009 she received an Outstanding Production Bessie for “Be In the Gray With Me.” That was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, and in 2016, Tanowitz received the 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.” Known as well for collaborating with composers and visual artists, Tanowitz received the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Cage Cunningham Fellowship in 2017.

But it wasn’t always that clear a path. Having grown up in New Rochelle, NY, and dancing in high school and then at Ohio State University, it was not until her junior year, when Tanowitz went to American Dance Festival that she says, “I opened my eyes and became more serious, and started choreographing.”

After graduating from OSU, she moved to New York, and in 1993 attended graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, where she was mentored and taught by Viola Farber, a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company. (Farber died in 1998 at age 67.)

“That changed my life,” Tanowitz recalled. I got the last two good years of Viola, who retaught me how to dance. She was a formidable woman and inspiring. She taught me not to be precious, really. She was amazing and very old-school and had a really interesting way of looking at things. And she also had a wicked sense of humor.”

Tanowitz explained that working with eight Graham dancers (three men and five women), was a true collaboration. “One example was I took a male solo from “Dark Meadow” and broke it into three parts. One person does arms, one does legs and torso, and one dancer reversed it all. Another way I approached it was as an exercise I call splicing—putting my movement together with her movement.

“They’d show me a phrase,” she continued, “and there would be one Graham and one Pam movement. Once we had the material, then I had to figure out what it meant. I would ask the dancers about Graham, as they’re experts—and different ways of approaching it.”

And while “The Eve Project,” which will tour the globe and commemorates the centenary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote, Tanowitz said that that theme did not inform her work. “I’m not that kind of artist. I was grappling with what was in front of me and how I’m going to do this.”

Eilber said bringing Tanowitz into the mix proved serendipitous from day one. “A basic element of Pam’s work is that she draws on movement vocabularies, usually classical ballet, and uses them in completely different ways. I asked her when we met if she would be interested in the Graham vocabulary and manipulating it in her own particular style, and she was very excited by that idea.”

Eilber added that Tanowitz also had specific duets and phrases in mind that she knew she could use for her own purposes. “The dancers learned those before she came, and when she arrived she worked with them. They did them backwards, slowly, they switched genders, stripping the movement of its original emotional intent and using it for movement’s sake. Then she meshed that with movements of her own devices, creating almost a puzzle on stage.”

Pam Tanowitz
Martha Graham Dance Company in rehearsal for Pam Tanowitz’s “Untitled (Souvenir).” Photograph by Melissa Sherwood.

Opening up the Graham studio also meant that Tanowitz could use the legendary dancer’s sets, as well. “When we’re in rehearsal for various Graham dances,” explained Eiler, “we might need Noguchi sets, chairs, benches, whatever. We can’t take them out of the studio, so Pam couldn’t resist bringing a few of them onstage.”

Tanowitz, who will clad the dancers in costumes by Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin of TOME—“they’re very heavily pleated”—explained that since the Graham sets were “all over the place, I got the idea when we were rehearsing and said, ‘I need to use some of them.’”

Since Graham was a firm believer in performing to live music, as well as having commissioned a number of great composers, including Aaron Copland, whose score for “Appalachian Spring” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1945, Tanowitz said that using live music is always her first choice. In 2017 Pam Tanowitz Dance performed with pianist Simone Dinnerstein in “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” Set to Bach’s towering solo piano work, the New York Times hailed the collaboration as a “rare achievement.”

“Four Quartets,” which was inspired by T. S. Eliot’s literary masterpiece and featured scenic designs by Clifton Taylor that made use of several Brice Marsden paintings, was set to a commissioned work by Kaija Saariaho and performed live by the Knights Ensemble.

Tanowitz said she had been familiar with Shaw’s work, a pair of string quartets (“Punctum” and “Valencia”) that had been previously composed, but with wild Up’s Rountree orchestrating them and the ensemble performing live at the Soraya, this falls in line with the choreographer’s philosophy.

As for “Untitled” being seen for the first time in Southern California, Tanowitz, who still performs on occasion (she made a brief appearance in “Four Quartets” and will be dancing on April 16 at CAP UCLA in “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event”), says she much prefers process to performance.

“I get anxious before I start, because I just want to start. But once I’m in the studio I’m the happiest. I love process, I love working with dancers. The worst part of putting up a show is the show. I’m not a choreographer that sits in the audience and greets people.”

As the writer Susan Sontag famously exclaimed in a 1987 essay in the London Review of Books, “In my experience, no species of performing artist is as self-critical as a dancer,” Tanowitz would seem to fall squarely into that category.

“I’m backstage, I’m nervous and I’m annoying my dancers. That’s the hardest part for me. I can’t watch people watch my work in the house. I’m always struck when choreographers can do it, but I think if I don’t get nervous, there’s something wrong.”

It’s apparent, though, that Tanowitz is doing a lot right. When asked how she feels reading reviews such as Macaulay’s, she replied, “I’m appreciative of the support and he’s written beautifully about my work and I’m happy about it. I have to acknowledge it, yes, but I need to just keep working. If I stop and think about it, it’ll paralyze me, so I forge ahead.”

As for tackling several projects simultaneously, Tanowitz said she relishes it. “It’s hard working on more than one thing, but I always have projects ready to go and it helps you distance yourself. If you get stuck on an idea for one dance, it’s actually good for me, since I think I work well under pressure.”

Pam Tanowitz
Janet Eilber, Pam Tanowitz, Anne O’Donnell, and Lloyd Knight. Photograph by Melissa Sherwood.

Her love of process also includes research, a trait she attributes to her father, Dr. Herbert Tanowitz, who died last year and was known for his pioneering work in Chagas disease. “He was a scientist and I think there is a correlation between science and art. You’re always researching your project and he was tunnel-visioned. Being really super-focused is also a part of me.

“It was very sad when he passed away,” she added, “but I got to tell him about Bard and he died a week later.”

The Bard residency is particularly exciting for Tanowitz, with the first work, an outdoor piece with City Ballet principals Sara Mearns and Taylor Stanley and five dancers from Tanowitz’ troupe slated for June 18-19. The residency will also support not only her work for the next three years, but that of her company’s.

“I’ll be able to pay my dancers for the residencies and rehearsals and archiving and documenting, which is normally an afterthought. Maybe I’ll be making a film. Because we’re project-based, I don’t have repertory ready to go, so I’ll be reimagining my repertory in a different way than archivally. I’m still figuring out exactly what it is, but we’ll be documenting it in some way that will engage an audience other than in strict archival footage. This is an experiment.”

Working with Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, though not an experiment, has proven as fruitful for Tanowitz as working with Graham dancers. Her piece premieres at the Manhattan School of Music in June as part of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s Bach Festival, featuring the first complete performance of Taylor’s six Bach dances.

“I’m in the middle of that one now and it’s also a tough one, but in a different way than Graham. I’m fulfilling an assignment, but I love the music, the Violin Concerto in A Minor. This is a great homage to Paul, and when I walked into that rehearsal room in September—he had died in August—the dancers were so happy to see me and welcomed me and it felt really important. I feel like I’m pushing them in new ways with my movement and they’re open to it.”

With Pam Tanowitz setting the terpsichorean world on fire these days, it’s unlikely her worries will have to do with dancers being open to her work, but that she’ll actually have enough hours in the day to bring her many canny and audacious ideas to life.

More Stories
Don Quixote
Young Love