Donald Byrd, Pam Tanowitz & John Zorn at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process

Pam Tanowitz's Femina with Brian Lawson, Jean Freebury, Ellie Kusner. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The relationship between dance and music is complicated and it’s not something I’d ever presume to have a definitive handle on. Coming at dance from a theater background, and having fallen originally for the work of dance-makers who both collaboratively integrate non-dance elements into their work as well as being willing to reject traditional technique as their exclusive physical vocabulary, it’s perhaps true that I’m negatively predisposed towards dances created to be set to specific pieces of pre-existing music. It’s one thing to incorporate a certain song, a certain classical composition, into a piece; it’s another to have the music set up as the determining factor from the start. Not only does it more often than not invite a surplus of lyricism into the choreography, but I also tend to feel it limits the choreographer from executing a fuller vision. Choreographing for a given piece of music is somewhat akin to producing a Shakespeare play: strict fidelity to the source renders the performance a mere illustration, while digression plays as reductive, one interpretation or response out of countless possible ones, the performance a limited iteration of its inspiration.

Last weekend, that tension over grappling with music played out onstage at the Guggenheim’s Works & Process Series, where choreographers Pam Tanowitz and Donald Byrd each debuted new pieces commissioned to be set to works by John Zorn. In fact, it was expressly the topic of conversation that night. The inter-set Q&A focused on the issue, with the moderator asking both choreographers how they’d approached the issue of choreographing to a set piece of music. Tanowitz went on a lengthy explanation about how her process centered on either following the flow and tone or expressly contrasting it. Byrd, for his part, said that his initial inspiration came from a certain “Baroque” (if I recall correctly; his comment was actually a bit more specific) element he detected in the music.

And Byrd was certainly right. Zorn’s “(fay çe que vouldras),” a 2005 piano composition performed by Stephen Drury, the piece Byrd’s piece was set to, unfurls in waves that progress from simple, sparse chords with a touch of Modernist dissonance to cacophanies of surging notes, surging between a classical formal unity and postmodern abstraction. “Femina,” a 2008 recording Tanowitz choreographed to, was more fragmentary, and included narration, but, using strings and a harp (among other instruments) in often spare-ish orchestration, likewise recalled more traditional composition by virtue of its tonal characteristics.

Donald Byrd's (fay çe que vouldras) with Tory Peil and Kylie Lewellen. Photo by Matthew Murphy

In and of themselves, neither of Zorn’s pieces felt particularly traditionalist nor old-fashioned, yet interestingly, that’s exactly the aesthetic it inspired in both choreographers, down to even the costuming choices. Byrd’s dancers (from Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, which he directs) were all dressed in fairly dark earth-tones, and one of the five even wore a bustled dress. Tanowitz had one of her dancers don and doff pointe shoes for a ballet solo.

In short, probably the single biggest complaint you could have with the choreography is its literalism.

That said, each piece offered its own rewards. Byrd’s had a bit more floor work and some beautiful pairings, while Tanowitz’s piece tended to focus on a pair of solos. Byrd interspersed languid, musical phrases with more aggressive sections, while Tanowitz tended to play more with geometry, often creating a strong sense of line by having her dancers simply walk across stage as extras, contrasting with a more dynamic solo action. Byrd’s piece played as more elegant, while Tanowitz came off as witty.

But I have to admit, I found it kind of funny. Both choreographers concentrated on the most traditional aspects of the music and built out their pieces from there, borrowing their idiom from the vestiges of traditional musicality that underlie Zorn’s surprising and unpredictable experimental compositions. That’s fine, certainly–though either could just as easily have responded to the less didactic parts of his work–but I wouldn’t say the results of the choice were particularly surprising. I left having seen two choreographers whose work I find fascinating and have enjoyed in the past, with my mundane opinions about the relationship of music and dance completely unchallenged. Walking out the door, I even found myself chuckling at the inadvertent (and not at all funny unless you were there) joke: Put a pair of deconstructive choreographers and an experimental composer in a room together, and what you get is…classical lyricism.

For a video of the performance, visit YouTube.

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