“Be In the Gray With Me”
Pam Tanowitz Dance
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
June 18, 2009
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2009 by Kathleen O’Connell
No ideas but in steps— to paraphrase William Carlos Williams—would be a fitting summary of Pam Tanowitz’ “Be in the Gray with Me,” and that is a compliment. Her elegant and fluent new work isn’t “about” anything—there’s no Big Idea lurking in there—but it’s no exercise in empty step-spinning or hollow atmospherics. In the process of probing matters of form and craft—How can traditional material be broken down and intelligibly reassembled? When should dancers move in unison, in canon, or at random? How should they take the stage and how should they leave it? How should the dancing start and how should it end, if end it must?—Tanowitz created a step-focused work that engaged both the mind and eye.
“Be In the Gray With Me” would have been interesting to see without Philip Treviño’s lighting and set design, but with them it was theater. The stage was white; its back and side walls were hung with translucent white drapery; three doors were cut into each side in lieu of wings. Billowy scrim curtains and a drop of narrow vertical panels divided the stage for the final section, during which the dancers were bathed in deep red, green, and blue light. Renée Kurz’ costumes—an assortment of drapey tops and bottoms in varying shades of pewter and charcoal—helped establish each of the nine accomplished dancers as a distinct persona.
The dance was ostensibly divided into four sections, each performed to the music of a different composer. But in reality it was a continuous skein of movement. None of the sections really “ended”: when the music stopped, the dance went on in silence until the music started up again. The dancing didn’t stop when the dancers left the stage either: we could see them wrapping up a phrase in the wings, crossing behind the translucent backdrop to emerge from the other side, or standing poised in formation ready to enter again. It sounds gimmicky—and a bit like an Idea —but in the theater it seemed the unforced result of Tanowitz’ playing with the spatial and temporal boundaries that that frame any dance.
The work began with two women dancing briskly against lush, overtly romantic music for two violins and chamber orchestra. Tanowitz added other dancers by ones or twos and they scattered across the stage: some faster, some slower, some highlighting one motif, some another, some crossing the stage, some rooted in place. Eventually, there was a convergence of sorts as the dancers began working in unison or canon, replicating and mutating the phrases and motifs Tanowitz had selected as her building blocks. And so it went over the course of an hour and four radically different pieces of music, yet Tanowitz’ inventiveness and her skill at varying texture in every particular—phrase structure, ensemble size, rhythm, density—rarely flagged.
Tanowitz’ style has been described as “spare,” but that makes it sound more austere than it is; “chaste” might be more accurate. Nothing in “Be In the Gray With Me” was distorted—neither steps, nor gestures, nor bodies—and it was refreshingly unmannered. Tanowitz studied with Viola Farber and the through-line to Cunningham is evident in her work (three members of her troupe are or have been Cunningham dancers as well), but that line reaches back even farther. She’s clearly mined classical ballet—there’s no disguising a fouetté or a burst of chainé turns on the diagonal—but she’s done so for its vocabulary of steps rather than its surface effects, eschewing both lyrical prettiness and stretchy, virtuosic display. Her explorations of partnering were clear-eyed and playful—and amusingly re-asserted convention despite their quirks: a deconstructed promenade shows off the dancer being turned irrespective of his or her gender and the refusal of a gallantly proffered hand is disconcerting even if the profferee has demonstrated that she’s more than capable of carrying on without support.
The work was liberally sprinkled with overt allusions to iconic bits of ballet, including the Rose Adagio and fish dives. (I saw tidbits from “Serenade,” “Apollo,” “The Concert” and “Glass Pieces,” too.) The quotes were given witty twists, and seemed playfully affectionate rather than cheaply parodic: they, too, were chaste. As much as I enjoyed them, however, I have my reservations: they didn’t feel deeply integrated into the whole and may not wear well with repeated viewings.
“Be In the Gray with Me” was rich with images and details that were charming, amusing, sobering, or touching depending on their context, an effect heightened in no small part by the wit and individuality of Tanowitz’ dancers. What Anne Lentz executed with straight-limbed, bracing bite was echoed with elegant plush by Ellie Kusner—and looked equally valid either way. Dylan Crossman’s serene concentration during his off-kilter Rose Adagio balance transformed it from a mere joke to a moment of dance drama. Rashaun Mitchell’s easy authority made steps performed alone and in silence as compelling as they were when performed by the ensemble to Pavel Karmanov’s propulsive score.
There doesn’t appear to be any particular logic behind Tanowitz’ selection of music other than her liking it. (I liked it too.) All of the composers— Vladimir Martynov, Pavel Karmanov, Alexandr Raskotov, and Dan Siegler—are living and three of them are Russian, but this seemed as much a coincidence as anything else. The works chosen are so stylistically diverse as to be practically at odds, and perhaps the extremity of their juxtaposition was the point.
“Be In the Gray With Me” doesn’t have a clear arc: it’s rigorously formal in its parts, but not in its whole. I suspect it could be taken apart and re-assembled any number of ways and still work. This may be a bug, but at the moment I’m inclined to embrace it as an undocumented feature and a marker of Tanowitz’ Cunningham DNA. If DTW announced that the work would be remounted next week with the deck reshuffled I’d show up in a heartbeat.
copyright © 2009 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos by Yi-Chun Wu
Top: Uta Takemura, Theresa Ling, Ashlee Kittleson, Christina Amendolia, and Ellie Kusner in “Be In the Gray With Me”
Bottom: Anne Lentz and Ellie Kusner in “Be In the Gray With Me”