First dibs: Pam Tanowitz world premiere for Martha Graham Dance Company

Dance · Music · Reviews
(Untitled) Souvenir (2019) choreographer Pam Tanowitz for Martha Graham Dance Company
photo Luis Luque

We got it first. That is wonderful. Untitled (Souvenir) enjoyed its world premiere in Los Angeles on March 2, 2019, in the context of a rich and historic dance concert delivered by Martha Graham Dance Company. The venue was the glowing, still-newish Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts.

At this extremely arts-conducive theater designed by female architect Kara Hill (it’s on the campus of California State University, Northridge), executive director Thor Steingraber paved the way for live musical accompaniment by the experimental music ensemble, wild Up, under the baton of Christopher Rountree.

Punctum and Valencia, two classical string quartets by Caroline Shaw that quote from Beethoven, Schubert and even Bach, serve as Untitled (Souvenir)‘s score. Rountree expanded the two works for a 40-piece chamber orchestra that sent sweet music from the pit the entire evening.

Shaw’s building blocks of ‘found music’ culled from known composers was echoed in choreography by Pam Tanowitz. Encouraged by MGDC Artistic Director Janet Eilber, Tanowitz curated and borrowed appealing shapes and phases from two Graham golden-oldies. One was the so-so Judith, which Eilber and Tanowitz agreed that while not the greatest shakes as a ballet, is a minefield of “cool movement.” The other was Graham’s rather marvelous abstract work, Dark Meadow (1946), recently reconstructed as Dark Meadow Suite.

All of this was discussed at the keenly attended “Graham Gears Up,” a pre-performance panel that streamed on The Soraya’s Facebook Live page. (disclosure: I moderated the panel.) Tanowitz noted that although familiar, she is far from a seasoned practitioner of Graham technique. So after culling bits and pieces from archival footage, she asked the splendid Graham dancers, “How do you perform it? What is the approach? How can we shift it?” She also sought to surgically remove the overlay of emotion — part and parcel of Graham’s highly emotive style — and use vocabulary as purely physical content. Into the mix Tanowitz added her own material, creating a work she readily admitted was “a very hard dance to do.” The dance will take its place in the Graham repertoire during early-April MGDC performances at the Joyce Theatre in New York.

photo Luis Luque

So what do we have here? A verrrry downtown/minimalist proceeding for eight dancers that spools, at slow-to-medium pace, to Shaw’s brightly colored music. Dressed in an array of somber (but beautiful) black, white and grey costumes designed by TOME, the dancers could be dancing; they could equally be attending a SoHo gallery opening. (The pin-pleated, wide trousers are something I would love to wear.)

In this work of high mystery, the dance maker lays down, I would venture, some heady dance hieroglyphics. It’s Tanowitz time, with blade-straight helicopter arms, palms down, pointing, in solemn walks. There is skittering, many Graham triplets (traveling steps), and flat-facing two-dimensional posing — like an ode to a Grecian urn.

Stomping, scanning the horizon, skipping, and hopping. Hands clutching a leg raised in front ‘attitude’ position that hearkens a Martha-ism. Dancers propelling with little one-legged hops that seem Graham-esque, but there are no Greek gods, no American poets, and zero grandeur on the stage. An awkward action repeated: stomping of feet with torso bent far over, giving a glimmer of Cunningham. Apropos Merce, I saw a lot of human isolation, until the gathered family reunion, seen in the photo above. The work is quite low key, but I liked it in aggregate … its scattered shapes and movement dynamics; beautiful live sound-score; smart-looking costumes all meld in a slightly odd pageant. Anyway it is nigh impossible to say much at one viewing of this subtle choreography. In my notes I scribbled, “hoe-down, bending forward, to plucked strings.” Maybe you can make something of that!

Chris Rountree of wild UP (right) Pam Tanowitz (middle) Janet Eilber (left) at Soraya pretalk, photo yvonne puttler

arts·meme founder/dance critic Debra Levine authored this review.

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