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New Work

New Work for Goldberg Variations,” a collaboration between the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the choreographer Pam Tanowitz, opened its weeklong run at the Joyce Theater Tuesday night. It is by far the best thing I’ve seen by Tanowitz. Her deconstructivism perfectly suits Bach’s score, which is itself a study in fragmentation: Bach took one aria and then reworked its elements through thirty different variations. I cannot think of a piece more apt for Tanowitz’s tinkering.

Performance

Pam Tanowitz and Simone Dinnerstein's

Place

content

Words

Faye Arthurs

Pam Tanowitz and Simone Dinnerstein's "New Work for Goldberg Variations." Photograph by Erin Baiano

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“New Work” began in complete darkness, with Dinnerstein at the piano commencing the aria with zero visibility. Slowly her hands were lit, then gradually the entire stage—revealing a quartet of dancers standing around the piano. They just listened for a while. Then one began the simplest of sequences—step together, step together, step front and back and ball change. This bare phrase fit lockstep with the aria—it was so basic and musically literal it was almost comical. Tanowitz did not build on this, she merely had more dancers join in to multiply its power.

Having danced several parts in Jerome Robbins’s masterful “Goldberg Variations” over two decades, it is hard for me not to envision certain of his steps to this music. But Tanowitz, like Robbins, made some musical-choreographic connections so indelible that I will now also think of them when I hear this score. The opening walking passage is one of them. But where Robbins hews closely to Bach’s every note, Tanowitz is not so slavish. Not every move was as tightly bound to the music as those opening steps; sometimes dancers moved in the silence between variations, danced over the music, or finished a distinct phrase of movement in the middle of a new musical motif.

Even though Tanowitz departed from the framework of the Bach here and there, it was clear that the music was Tanowitz’s lodestar. The piano sat in the dead center of the stage, with the dancers often facing Dinnerstein rather than the audience. She and her instrument were like a beacon for the cast. Also, unlike in Robbins’s version, Dinnerstein was not watching the dancers for cues. Instead they looked to her, often craning their heads around to see when she would begin a new variation. Unusually for a dance accompanist, she was given free rein to ritard or quicken her tempi—which she did to great dramatic effect. Her playing was sublime, I felt I was hearing the music anew.

Pam Tanowitz and Simone Dinnerstein's "New Work for Goldberg Variations." Photograph by Marina Levitskaya

Though Dinnerstein was not burdened with following the dancers, she gracefully acknowledged them. And about halfway through the piece the dancers started to physically interact with her and her instrument. Maile Okamura used the piano like a ballet barre and also scooted backwards on her rear beneath it. Lindsey Jones sat with her back against Dinnerstein’s on the bench and used her feet to approximate what Dinnerstein’s hands were doing during a fiendish passage. In one of the more meditative variations the lights dimmed and the dancers solemnly sat around Dinnerstein and watched her play. At the end of the piece, the stage faded to black again but the inside of the piano was lit for a spell with a golden glow, like treasure in a chest in the movies.

The lighting by Davison Scandrett was wonderfully mutable throughout. It went from bright to murky, through shades of red, into silhouette and even work lighting. At one point the stage was bathed in such a warm amber that the audience was partially illuminated as well. The overhead lighting boom lowered randomly in the last third of the piece, hovered for a few minutes, and rose again. Tanowitz has employed such non sequiturs of stagecraft before—with curtains too—but never as satisfyingly as in this piece.

Likewise, Tanowitz’s penchant for gradual, arbitrary costume changes made perfect sense here. The excellent costumes were by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. They consisted of colored, vertically paneled tunics over matching unitards, all in a gauzy semi-transparent fabric. Sometime past the midpoint of the piece, Lindsey Jones lost her tunic. It was a while longer before Maile Okamura lost her unitard. By the end of the piece each dancer had lost one piece or the other, at truly haphazard moments. As with Tanowitz’s movement vocabulary, anything that can be experimentally isolated is fair game. To Bach’s myriad extrapolations of a single sarabande these changes in steps, lighting, and costuming were delightfully apropos.

Christine Flores, Melissa Toogood, and Simone Dinnerstein in “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

This is Tanowitz’s gift: her approach is clinically investigative and her steps dazzle in their dry uncanniness. A series of helicoptering layouts by the Jason Collins and Lindsey Jones was thrilling because it was so weirdly extreme. Christine Flores performed a sequence of revolutions in a low dégagé to the side that looked disarmingly radical. It took me a second to realize they were simply slow and low à la seconde pirouettes—a showy turn completely stripped of its force and ostentation. Jones, a standout throughout, danced an adagio solo that toyed with balancing in extremely low rélevés in turned in and out positions, peculiarly hunching her statuesque frame for much of it. It culminated in a series of strange travelling splits. Everything seemed utterly random, yet, as with Bach’s sonic permutations, there were overarching themes. Even that simple opening passage got refracted—in a brisk variation in which the dancers walked painfully slowly, so much so it was almost hard for them to do.

Clocking in at roughly 70-90 minutes (depending on the whims of the pianist), the “Goldberg Variations” inevitably drags some. This is not surprising given its genesis. Lore has it that it was composed to divert an insomniac Count during his long sleepless bouts. If it worked as a soporific so much the better. Robbins enlivened the proceedings by employing a huge cast of dancers, adding thirty-something new faces about halfway through to jolt the audience awake. He also packs his finale with bravura ballet steps. Remarkably, Tanowitz uses only six dancers for her “Goldberg,” and she manages to enthrall with steps that are eccentrically piddly rather than technically flashy.

Jason Collins, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Maile Okamura, Melissa Toogood, and Netta Yerushalmy comprised the spare cast. They were all terrific, capably handling the hefty workload. Most importantly, they tackled Tanowitz’s oddities with deadpan sincerity. Some of her step fragments are so bizarre they could be played for laughs, but the utter commitment of the troupe kept the choreography’s quirkiness from appearing silly. Much of it is quite humorous, but not in a mugging sense. It is the kind of humor that tickles your intellect, witty as opposed to buffoonish.

One of Tanowitz’s frequent distortions is to have her dancers focus impassively up—as when Jason Collins crossed the stage in a series of reverse Violette jumps while looking skyward. In any other context, this heavenward shift in gaze would have a spiritual connotation. In Tanowitz’s hands it is simply a new angle to be tried. She is one of the driest dancemakers I have ever seen, yet in her best works her fiddling comes together in a meaningful way. Never more so than in this piece. At the very end of “New Work for Goldberg Variations,” the opening walking passage reemerged verbatim with the reprisal of the aria da capo. Though the phrase was unchanged, it had gained in profundity—those pure steps reconnecting precisely to Bach’s familiar notes after so many byzantine departures. Freud and popular sentiment be damned, the most cerebral choreographer working today is a woman.

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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