Review of “Song of Songs” by Pam Tanowitz

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“Let him kiss me with kisses from his mouth.” How do you translate this, the first line of the Song of Songs from the Bible – or the rest of that ancient collection of erotic poems – into a dance? And how do you do it in pure dance, without kissing or comedy? This is the task choreographer Pam Tanowitz has set herself in her new piece, “Song of Songs”, which premiered recently at Bard’s Fisher Center. The poems, with their sensual exchanges between lovers, make no mention of God and have sparked centuries of commentary – Jewish, Christian, allegorical, feminist. But what about visualizing the poems through dance; that is to say, by the body, which is, after all, their subject?

For Tanowitz, who is Jewish, making “Song of Songs” was deeply personal. She started in 2019, a year after her father died, after finding herself wanting to create a dance in his memory, a dance that would honor their family’s legacy. She asked composer David Lang to build a score for her dance around his 2014 composition “Just (After Song of Songs)”. The piece took three years to create, time Tanowitz spent “shopping steps,” as she called this part of her process. She watched old movies of Jewish folk dances and works by Jewish choreographers, and she took a particular interest in the hora, a circle dance popular at Jewish weddings. She has made a short film, which juxtaposes archival footage, her family’s history and clips of her trying out steps she found in her research – soon to be ‘spliced’, as she puts it, with its own steps and style.

Splicing is a big part of the Tanowitz process. She likes to extract the steps of old choreographers – George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham – stripping them of their emotional content and interspersing them with her own steps until they merge. (She also took a Graham solo and “deconstructed” it, distributing its parts to multiple dancers.) When Tanowitz moved to New York City in the ’90s, she began digging into the archives for find materials to use in the dances she showed. She founded her company in 2000, at a time when contemporary dance was moving increasingly towards conceptual and political concerns, but she went her own way and spent the next two decades digging into formalism. His first pieces were sometimes difficult to follow, but we always knew that there was a rigorous and independent spirit at work.

Tanowitz’s style is often compared to that of Cunningham for its linear purity, but his process may be closer to that of Twyla Tharp, who also draws from a wide range of past materials and revels in formal play. But, if Tharp plays, Tanowitz purifies, and his fragmented dances seem strangely whole, a world of abstract form. Or, as his father liked to say when talking about the mistakes he made in his life, “in the end everything is in a hurry, like a laundry, everything is in a hurry”. Likewise, in the dances of Tanowitz, the raw materials are pressed. The result can be something fabulous and new, but the gluing and pressing can also be a way of hiding: where is Pam Tanowitz in all this formal manipulation?

Recently, she has been exploring older texts. “Song of Songs” is the last dance of a trilogy, which began with “New Work for Goldberg Variations” (2017). “Four Quartets” (2018), to T. S. Eliot’s poem, is the most popular, but I found it overloaded, its abstract dances vying for attention with a recitation of the text, images by Brice Marden and the music by Kaija Saariaho. The show required a kind of distracting multitasking, whereas “New Work for Goldberg Variations” felt less busy, with the dance and Bach fully brought together in a simple and beautiful exposition.

The acclaim of the “Four Quartets” made Tanowitz, at forty-eight, one of New York’s most sought-after choreographers. Commissions poured in, including from the American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet in London and the New York City Ballet. The most recent of these is “Law of Mosaics”, on a score by Ted Hearne. As the title suggests, the dance is made up of fragments – notably of Balanchine – but Tanowitz combines them in a way that gives the body great geometric lucidity. The key to the room comes at the end, in a solo for Sara Mearns, dressed in light blue against a dark backdrop so that she seems almost lit from within. She goes back and forth in a long bourrée – a step better known from “Swan Lake” but also much used by Balanchine – which gives the impression that the body touches the ground. As Mearns crosses the stage, his arms make gestures of old ballets: crossed in death, in the position of prayer, a pointing finger. This continues until the repetition and lack of context makes us feel an almost Beckettian emptiness –I can’t go on, I will go on– and she just lays on the floor and the lights go out: a beautiful statement of nonsense.

“Song of Songs” is a study in abstraction. It begins with the formation of a lyrical choir in flowing costumes, perhaps the “daughters of Jerusalem” mentioned in the poems: a community of women. They perform a crossover stage from one hour, but the folksiness of the source material is gone. Something similar is at work in other elements of production as well. Lang’s libretto takes words and phrases from the poems – we never hear a full verse – and places them on a soothing and hypnotic minimalist score. And, in a pre-show talk, Tanowitz described how she, light artist Clifton Taylor, and costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung watched footage of Abuhav Synagogue, Israel, with its striking bright blue bimah, a platform from which the Torah is read, surrounded by benches. The production sums up this framework to a utilitarian blue circular platform and bench, which delineate the sacred space of the dance. The space is framed by walls made of strips of fabric, allowing the dancers to pierce from the outside secular regions. Again, no religious context is there to see it. These are secret sources.

When a lover (Melissa Toogood) appears, she wears a darker dress than her choir mates and repeatedly collapses to the ground halfway through, a sign of her weakened, loving spirit. Out of this world of women come the disruptive men: as they rush into the sacred space, a male lover (Zachary Gonder) joins the black-clad woman in a restless dance of nostalgia. At the end of the first part, we find the woman alone, comfortably surrounded by another community on the blue platform. Bent over, they look at her sympathetically, but she can’t look up.

In the dances that follow, there is no overt eroticism. At most, we get the woman’s hand fluttering like a heart on her own shoulder. Even though the lyrics and music shift from “my head is soaked with dew” to “open me up”, Tanowitz holds back. When the woman lies fleetingly on top of her lover, her neck gives way: a hint of passion, but no more. We realize that even love has been abstracted, expelled. The emotion here comes from an intensity of restraint rather than abandonment or sensuality. At first I admired Tanowitz’s decorum, but there was a similarity in beauty, and I began to feel that his method stood in the way of his craziness. How was all this suppression going to convey the overwhelming experience of getting lost in physical love, or God, or both?

The strangest moment of the play came towards the end. The woman suddenly disappears and a new woman replaces her, dressed in a shiny leotard. A new man immediately swings this woman almost wildly in a flying circle, as parents do with young children. Soon everyone seems to be in a shiny leotard. Are we in another area? Is this twirling excess erotic liberation? A community party? Tanowitz seemed to be taking an emotional leap, but by foregoing her own painstakingly refined language, she left us stuck in the cliché. The dance ended too easily: another collective, huddled on the blue circle.

As I left the theater, I felt bewildered by this juxtaposition of rigor and cliché and by the paradox of Tanowitz’s physically demanding method, the source of his best dances and, for now, his greatest emotional limitations. Merging so many voices makes it harder for the lovers to experience, and the result is a dance that speaks more of community and peace than erotic love. It’s soothing, but peace is not the same as love. I wanted more lovers, which might be a way of saying I wanted more Pam Tanowitz. ♦

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