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Secret Things

What makes a choreographer great? This has been the question plaguing the dance world for the last thirty or so years. Is it their feeling for music, the originality of their combinations, the world they create?  

Performance

The Royal Ballet: “Secret Things,” “Dispatch Duet” (film), “Everyone Keeps Me”

Place

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK, February 16, 2023

Words

Phoebe Roberts

Nadia Mullova-Barley and Annette Buvoli in “Secret Things” by Pam Tanowitz for the Royal Ballet. Photograph by Alice Pennefather ROH

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Perhaps it lies in a name. On a screen near the back of the stage at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre last Thursday was projected, in bold letters, PAM TANOWITZ. Taking my seat, I couldn’t help but think of other similarly four-syllabled choreographers: George Bal-an-chine, Jer-ome Robb-ins, Merce Cun-ning-ham—all certainly great.

At this performance of “Secret Things,” Tanowitz’s new work for the Royal Ballet, it was Robbins who most frequently came to mind. The piece, having premiered earlier in February, begins with a dancer (Hannah Grennell) in a moment of quiet contemplation. Alone onstage, she stares, but not at us: something very far away and infinitesimal has caught her attention.

Hannah Grennell and Giacomo Rovero in “Secret Things” by Pam Tanowitz for the Royal Ballet. Photograph by Alice Pennefather ROH

Is this not an exact reversal of the finale of Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” (1969)? In that ballet, after an hour of dancing, five couples stand near the footlights and look fixedly at an unknown point. Here, it is just Grenell, beginning where others have left off. She does more than fill the space; her presence is at once bewitching, focused, methodical. A simple spotting exercise (in which the dancer tries to stare at one point while whipping the body around, used to help prevent dizziness in turns later on) launches into a series of movements not dissimilar to classroom steps. A hop here, a flex of the foot there—we watch as she discovers the pleasures of movement, their effect bearing equally on dancer and spectator.

She is soon joined by seven other dancers in a romp both humorous and sincere. As Robbins, writing after the premiere of “Dances at a Gathering”, once explained: “THERE ARE NO STORIES TO ANY OF THE DANCES IN DANCES AT A GATHERING. THERE ARE NO PLOTS AND NO ROLES. THE DANCERS ARE THEMSELVES DANCING WITH EACH OTHER TO THAT MUSIC IN THAT PLACE.”

Such a description might apply equally as well to “Secret Things.” Tanowitz, rather than being concerned with any display of grandiosity, seems more interested in showing dancers for what they are: dancers. I think again of Grennell’s impenetrable gaze (similarly borne by the rest of the cast) and am reminded of the ballerina’s distant stare, whether she is working at the barre or walking down a crowded street. Why? Perhaps she belongs more to an inner world. It’s there that Tanowitz is too. Her naturalness is astounding—none of that busyness which so often overcomplicates work today—just clear sentences spoken through a deep understanding and love of her form.

Giacomo Rovero and Hannah Grennell in “Secret Things” by Pam Tanowitz for the Royal Ballet. Photograph by Alice Pennefather ROH

The whole of “Secret Things,” in fact, is like an examination of ballet turned inside out. From the costumes (sparkly numbers, see-through tunics, and pointe shoes half dipped in paint, by Victoria Bartlett) to the music (a dramatic, Beethovenian string quartet, by Anna Clyne), we sense that Tanowitz is playing with convention. If there is ever the faintest hint of mockery, it is helpful to remember that the goal of mocking, according to linguists, is joint laughter, in that it acts as a cue to invite others to laugh. Several times throughout the piece I found myself smiling inexplicably; the woman seated next to me was reduced to giggles.

Like all great humorists, Tanowitz cuts deep. One step—completed by four female dancers—consisted of lowering the back leg from attitude and striking the foot on the floor in coupé, all the while circling the arms out and around into en couronne (the classic ballerina position, in which the arms are haloed above the head). The effect was intense: it was if, with their pointes, they had hit right at the heart of dance itself. There were numerous occasions when I noticed similar moves from the attitude/arabesque position. In each instance, it seemed as if the dancer, one leg lingering behind, was in the process of coming through themselves. A good metaphor, perhaps, for Tanowitz: forward-moving, bold, dauntless.

“Secret Things” was also accompanied by “Dispatch Duet,” a video work produced by the Royal Ballet in 2022. Featuring principal dancers Anna Rose O’Sullivan and William Bracewell in a thrilling cat and mouse of a pas de deux, it sees the performers moving among the lesser utilized parts of The Royal Opera House- the lobby, stairwells, backstage areas. A score by Ted Hearne matches the boundlessness of their youthful ardor. I only ask: in a post-pandemic age, when we are all relieved to be back in the theatre, what is the purpose of presenting video works? A fan of the medium or not, “Dispatch Duet,” makes a strong case: we sense an immediacy which even some live performances lack. It doesn’t hurt that Tanowitz is working with two of the best faces in ballet: O’Sullivan’s flashing eyes let us know this is all just a game, and fans might recognize Bracewell from the 2019 film Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words (in which he played Romeo, of course).

Joonhyuk Jun and Amelia Townsend in “Everyone Keeps Me” by Pam Tanowitz for the Royal Ballet. Photograph by Alice Pennefather ROH

Closing the program was 2019’s “Everyone Keeps Me,” Tanowitz’s first creation for the Royal Ballet. Made for an ensemble cast of nine corps dancers, it is a cool lesson in lyricism. The dancers slink onstage, backs to the audience; the only sound is that of their slippers brushing against the floor. Soon, another score by Ted Hearne begins, and they are off: couples dance vigorously, detachedly, while others take seats to watch. Tanowitz pieces together several intricate pas de deuxs, but none so touching as those shared between the men. They grasp each other by an elbow, a wrist; it is in those moments we sense a delicacy and tenderness not glimpsed elsewhere.

And then there is yet another nod to Robbins: on downstage right, a dancer claps her hands, melting luxuriously into a backbend (one hand behind the hip, the other at the head, as in the Slavic style). It is a move made repeatedly by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova in “Other Dances” (1976); it’s presence here is like a memory, a dream.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in “Everyone Keeps Me” by Pam Tanowitz. Photograph by Alice Pennefather ROH

After it was all over, Tanowitz shimmed onstage, smiling and barefoot save for a pair of stockings. Run, don’t walk to catch her shows; her work is the future of ballet, and her performance at bows was joy enough for the price of the ticket. She is undoubtedly great, a true star among less bright objects: PAM TAN-O-WITZ.

Phoebe Roberts


Phoebe Roberts is originally from New York where she trained with American Ballet Theatre and Leslie Browne. She danced with Béjart Ballet Lausanne before studying Russian at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She is currently pursuing a master’s in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her writing has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Good Press, Glasgow, and Spectra Poets.

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