An artsy crowd showed up at Royce Hall Sunday afternoon to see Four Quartets, no doubt because of the rapturous reviews it got in London and New York and because of its heady combination of the arts: literature (TS Eliot’s poem of the title read with earthy finesse by Kathleen Chalfant); modernist painter Brice Marden’s four-part set design; music by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho; and, of course, dance from choreographer Pam Tanowitz.
The New York Times called it “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century,” which might be pushing it, but the complex layering of these art forms was thrilling indeed. Four Quartets, however, is no dance in the park. It is rigorous. Demanding. Perplexing at times.
Eliot’s poem reflects the anxiety of Europe between the two World Wars but even scholars have trouble figuring out all of what he was trying to say. It is also full of paradox and references to Eastern philosophy.
Enter Merce Cunningham. He too was at home with paradox, and studied Zen Buddhism with its stun-the-mind concept of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” a blueprint for his motion in stillness, stillness in motion philosophy. His ghost is very present in Four Quartets. On Sunday, a dancer lying on her back, one knee raised, was stillness in motion, just one such moment among many.
Tanowitz and her dancers have inherited Merce’s clarity of movement, interiority and relationship to space, especially when paired with Eliot. I loved the back attitudes and the diagonal arms that appeared again and again in different contexts, and the sudden bursts of movement from seemingly no preparation. I loved the big, light-as-air jumps across the stage and the delicate, fluttering fingers. A slowly moving head in the final section gave me goose bumps.
It was a lot to take in at one viewing and it spoke to my head more than my heart, but like Lucinda Childs’ Available Light (at Disney Hall in 2015, design by Gehry, music by Adams) Four Quartets is a powerful and intellectually demanding work from four serious artists who are in a class of their own.
Gillian Anne Renault often writes about dance for artsmeme. She has been published in the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and artsATL in Atlanta.