Curated by Ximena Caminos
FOUR ATTEMPTS FOR PAM TANOWITZ
In dance, history is a beautifully problematic proposition: until very recently, we could say mythology instead of history—we can read books and look at objects made long ago, but we cannot teleport back through time for the opening nights of centuries past.
Today, of course, we have all sorts of new technologies for capturing choreography. But still I think I prefer the old technologies: the notoriously unreliable movement of memory, as tracked in written accounts, and the gorgeously changeable body-to-body transmission of steps and technique, as passed down in studios.
What does it mean to embody a tradition without succumbing to it? How does the past live in the present?
Pam Tanowitz is one answer to these questions. In her dances we see the revolutionary ideas of George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer… legacies of movement invention, of choreographic wit and spatial deconstruction. Structure and silliness. An emphasis on process over product. Abstraction as a political maneuver, a way of getting at gender equality and individual freedoms.
These lines of investigation exist not as historical tributes, but as live inquiries. Questions in need of answers that are themselves questions.
“Pleasure and rigor are not mutually exclusive.”
So writes Susan Rethorst in A Choreographic Mind. This declaration is one way for me to think about Pam’s dances, how the inclinations and desires of her mind are married to a ceaseless, restless pursuit of making. Spending the time, doing the thing.
But maybe this is all getting a bit unmoored from particulars. Here is something concrete: last spring, a group of us gathered in St. Mark’s Church, in New York’s East Village, to watch something remarkable: a dance put together by Pam in a single day, performed by two groups of artists who had never worked together before: Devin Alberda, Russell Janzen, Jenelle Manzi and Gretchen Smith, from New York City Ballet, and Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood, from Pam Tanowitz Dance.
The event was an anchor for Danspace Project’s PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets. I was the guest curator of this seven-week festival, which took its title from a book by the great poet-critic Edwin Denby and brought together artists from three experimental veins of New York performance: New York City Ballet, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Judson Dance Theater. Much of the Platform consisted in artistic collisions orchestrated by me and Danspace’s executive director, Judy Hussie-Taylor, in which we placed individual dance-artists in collaborative pairings. But we knew we had to give Pam her own day, because she has built a career on exploring and extending these veins—no small thing, in a city where people can be hopelessly siloed in singular pursuits.
So we asked Pam what she wanted to do, and this was her answer: an actual rehearsal, that was as well as a performance of a rehearsal, in which dancers both young and seasoned would come together for just these few hours, and see what might happen. The composer Dan Siegler matched this spirit of chance and play by creating a score in parallel with the putting together of a dance.
I stayed for the entire thing, and left feeling I could have stayed for hours more. The generosity of Pam’s work lies in part in what it asks of both dancer and watcher: we are all, unquestionably, inside a world of her making. But how we navigate her crystalline architecture, what we choose to emphasize, to pay attention to… the responsibility for making also lies with us. This is an exhilarating thing to be given.
I’ve never seen a Pam Tanowitz dance that was about an identifiable something, as in telling a story with characters and plot. But this isn’t to say her choreography doesn’t thrum with aboutness. To try, ridiculously, to sum it up at its most fundamental and ineffable, I would say this aboutness has to do with the drama of time passing—what it is to be present, with oneself and with others, to be part of a doing that exists both within and without you.
Very quickly, the material of words gets hopelessly tangled in this subject. In dance, whose explicit materials are time and space, clarity and mystery can perhaps more easily rub shoulders. What gravity looks and feels like when a dancer jumps, his feet landing softly and then heavily. Where the horizon is when a dancer raises her arm vector-like, striking out overhead. Lunging, parrying, thrusting, alone and in a crowd. Collage and juxtaposition. Repetition, pattern, break, stillness
This is all conceptual, yes. But it is also tangible, actual. The body turning and turning and turning. The line of light cutting through. –CLAUDIA LA ROCCO