Pam Tanowitz Tackles Morton Feldman in Her Newest Piece

pictured: Ashley Tuttle / photo (c) steven schreiber

It’s totally fitting that Pam Tanowitz, a choreographer with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a day job at City Center, should be drawn to the music of Morton Feldman in her new work Untitled (The Blue Ballet) at the Kitchen March 8-10 (tickets $15). His String Quartet No. 1–a sparse meditative crawl with seemingly no rhythmic entry points, clocking in at 80 minutes–is a slow-motion landscape that both demands and deters. A New York Times review by Steve Smith called it “something like tilting at windmills while mounted on tortoises and armed with feather dusters.” With the cerebral formalist Tanowitz in charge, we are sure to be given a spectacular and deeply satisfying treatment of both movement and music, simultaneously working with and against our ideas of what each should and could be.

Feldman and Tanowitz are equally fascinated with deeply conscious self examination. Tanowitz’s devotion to movement is paramount, regardless of music or circumstance. In contemporary dance, few equal her kind of rigor and experimentation. This is coupled with an affinity for ballet and music, using a very specific, reverential and often cinematic approach. She begins by choosing a score, listens to it intently, then lets it go, returning to movement by itself, only allowing the music to reappear later in the process.

When Tanowitz decided on Feldman, she went straight to the Flux Quartet. “I knew they were Feldman specialists. They were totally into. They gave me their own recording of it, which is great. You can hear them breathing, and it actually changes the feeling of the music. This is what I learned from Viola [Farber], the idea of a living, breathing dancer with a living, breathing musician, performing together–that’s what it should be.”

Farber was a protege of Merce Cunningham, and Tanowitz’s graduate school mentor. “She was amazing. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” However, to call Tanowitz a descendant of the Cunningham tradition is reductive–her influences are far and wide. Ballet, certainly, “I love ballet,” she emphasizes. “There’s things in this new piece, like I took a little bit of Giselle and we reversed it”–and Mark Morris, too–“I was in Marble Halls at Ohio State. I learned more about choreography, being in that dance, than maybe a couple months of composition class.” Tanowitz is drawn to an aesthetic of the body that is highly skilled and virtuosic, but also richly minimal. It is a constant search for the simplicity and beauty of formalism. It’s both Bach and Steve Reich.

The new piece is borne from an artist challenging herself every moment, continuing to ask questions rather than make dances about answers. As a friend recently said to me, if you have a question about something, curate a show about it. It makes perfect sense. Looking to the unknown for inspiration sets art apart from the mainstream, and it most certainly sets some artists like Tanowitz apart from her own peers. When I asked where she sees herself as a dance maker, she told me, “For a while I was trying to figure out where I fit in. Should I be making ballets, should I be making modern, and then I just forgot about it, and started making the dance that I want to make, and thinking about the problems that I want to solve, like asking myself why am I making dances with pointed feet? Is that relevant? But when I said, ‘Ok, well I’m not even going to ask, I’m just going to make them’…much easier.”

With a cast that includes dancers associated with some of the biggest companies and choreographers in the field (Ballet Frankfurt, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theater, Boston Ballet, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris), she’s specifically surrounding herself with the most intimidating of creative forces.

“This piece is about scaring myself,” she explains. “I’m scaring myself with music and with people. Those two things were the starting point, giving myself these challenges. It’s about no gimmicks–no bringing in a curtain or introducing a new dancer thirty minutes into the piece. I love all that stuff, but I’m really trying to not do that, see what happens, see if I can.”

In Untitled (The Blue Ballet), Tanowitz is attempting to pare her work down even further–perhaps towards almost complete purity and abstraction – all the while retaining a strong sense of the past. “I think about what my contribution is, in a wide way. It’s not so much about me, it’s more the field of dance that I care about. The way I see value in what I do is that I look at it as the field of dance, my contribution, where do I fit on the continuum, knowing what has come before me, how many people. If I know that, then I’m ok.”

Special thanks to Ryan Wenzel (

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