Reverse, Retrograde, Splice: Pam Tanowitz Interviewed by Rachel Stone

The choreographer explores movement through the vocabulary of others.

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Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Sara Kerens. Image courtesy of the artist.

Pam Tanowitz shows me her calendar notebook at the café inside Lincoln Center, where she’s rehearsing with the New York City Ballet for a gala performance this month. Each color on the calendar corresponds to a different performance or engagement, and it’s chaos. Sometimes two or three names (“TAYLOR,” “GRAHAM”) almost overlap each other on the page, creating a variegated road map to her prodigious amount of new work. 

After choreographing for over twenty years, her cerebral, sublime approach to movement is encountering unprecedented demand. A New York Times review of her work Four Quartets called it “dance theater of the highest caliber,” and possibly “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century.” Praise that ecstatic could paralyze a less focused creator, or maybe someone who loves process a little less. To hear Tanowitz speak about work feels a bit like watching the dances she creates: witty and playful, a study of splicing and pasting, artful construction.

—Rachel Stone

Rachel StoneCan you talk about how you’re structuring your time with so much demanded of you?

Pam TanowitzI came to each piece with set ideas about movement. That’s how I work with my dancers. Each piece also had an assignment—the [Paul] Taylor piece, all at once, is for the Bach festival, and for the Graham piece, Untitled (Souvenir), I talked to Janet Eilber, the director of Martha Graham Dance Company, for about two years before we figured out what I would do. Together we decided I would use some of the movements from a lesser-known Graham work, Legend of Judith (1950). I’m a total dance nerd, and it felt like I was shopping for steps, which I love. The dancers knew the Graham material before I walked in. 

But then I broke my own rule and went to watch the company rehearse. They were rehearsing Graham’s Dark Meadow (1946), and there was a sequence at the beginning that was so powerful, almost like a step-touch, and I knew I had to use it.

When I walked into the Graham project, I had material in mind ready to go, and then I did a bunch of different things to it. We spliced steps, linking one movement of mine and then one of Graham’s. I also took the male solo from Dark Meadow and made it into a male trio while separating it into parts: one dancer doing the arms, one doing the body and the legs, and one doing the whole thing backwards around them.

Graham and Taylor were the first companies to ask me to make work for them, and I couldn’t believe I was making pieces for these two icons. The Graham piece was really hard for me, because I could feel the weight of it. Graham is so iconic. Taylor is too, but for some reason, Graham felt heavier. I had to figure out how to deal with that. 

There was a period in the middle of the process where I was totally lost. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I kept questioning why I was doing this; my steps next to hers, what does that do, what does that say? The dancers and I talked a lot about how to perform the Graham steps, how to take out the outside presentation, how to take away the drama. After we took away that layer of performing, the piece became emotional in a different way. It’s exposing because you can’t hide behind the presentation, so the focus is really on the dancers. That’s when I realized that a lot of my work is about people who are with me in the room.

RSI saw the Graham piece, and there’s this really amazing pas de deux moment where the woman is marveling around her partner, holding her hands around his face. 

PTIt’s from a Graham step; the timing’s been changed so much, but that’s the dancers. They’re amazing. It sticks with you. And the piece became very emotional, with the addition of the music by Caroline Shaw. There is something about the music that brings out an underlying emotion in my work, and I’m really interested in how form and emotion speak to each other in a piece.

RSWhen the Graham company dancers were dancing your work and the Graham pieces side-by-side, they were obviously still the same dancers, but their approach to the Graham steps in your piece reads so differently.

PTThat was very conscious. And it was hard for the dancers. Not that they can’t do it, but I love watching them work on it. Having to struggle with it is almost part of the dance too. We would start to run some stuff and they would say, “Oh, we’re sorry, we just danced Graham for eight hours,” the fake eyelashes, all of it. I think that experience was good for them as performers.

RSI’m curious about how this works with your upcoming Bartók Ballet at the NYCB [New York City Ballet], too. Again you’re working with dancers who are hyper-trained in this other, wholly specific Balanchine vocabulary.

PTThe time with the NYCB dancers is more condensed, but they’re doing amazing. The way I put steps together is challenging for them. Some of my movement seems more balletic, which actually makes it harder than if I came in with a totally different style. I’m asking them to do certain things but without the epaulement, or different arms that wouldn’t necessarily go with petit allegro steps.

We come together in rehearsal. I have a specific vision, but I’m working with them. And I want those dancers to affect me. Sometimes I’ll leave in steps that I normally wouldn’t leave in with my own piece, or I’ll let something be a little more dramatic, or a little more balletic. I don’t want to drown out everything. Their technique is amazing, so I have to be careful how I use it. It’s my job to see how I can use the virtuosity and make it have meaning.

The one thing that’s hard for NYCB dancers is the use of the hands, because they do a lot of the Balanchine claw. But they’re so committed and interested and present. That’s all I care about in a dancer. I ask a lot of my dancers.

RSI remember hearing a conversation with you years ago where the hosts said they wished you could set a work on NYCB, and you replied, without missing a beat, “Oh, that’s not going to happen.”

PTI said it would never happen because I never thought it would happen, to be honest! At a certain point I thought it wasn’t productive to think about it if it was impossible. I just made my work. 

RSDo you find it easy to compartmentalize with these projects, and is it generative to work on so many different things? 

PTI can compartmentalize, but I also know that there’re certain ideas that all these dances share, just by the inherent fact that I made them all close in time. I believe that they all feed each other. That’s why I ended up doing this other site-specific piece, Recital #1,  in a church in Cleveland for a week. I wanted to do something that wasn’t an assignment, but that was for me, for my soul.

When I’m in the room, I feel good. Working is when I’m happiest. The show is when I’m not happy, because I love process. And I love being in the room with the dancers, solving problems, and working on the piece. I never sit in the audience. 

RSAre you backstage watching?

PTI’m backstage throwing up. I’ll definitely be throwing up at NYCB. I’m always scared because it’s all-exposing. I’m never the choreographer who’s greeting people as they walk into my show.

A couple times when we went on tour for Goldberg Variations (2017), I tried to watch. I tried to tell myself, Pam, enjoy your life! I stood in the back and it was okay, but it’s hard. 

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Pam Tanowitz rehearsing New York City Ballet for Bartók Ballet. Photo by Erin Baiano. Image courtesy of the artist.

RSWhat’s the ideal length of time for you to make a piece if you didn’t have to worry about resources?

PTI think a year. But my mentor Viola Farber told me that if you had a year to make a piece, that’s the piece you’d make in a year. If you had two months, that’s a different piece. I almost think that everything is one big dance. You stop it because it’s due, because you have to stop.

I’ve been working on the same thing for years: using formal movement patterns or formal structures and trying to find freedom within that. I’ve been doing that for twenty-five years—seeing the relationship between the steps and the composition, and how the form and the content talk to each other. I try to have a combination of knowing and not knowing what a piece will be. I don’t want to have a formula. I want to have a plan, but I also want to leave space for other things to happen in the room. Once we have movement-based material, I like to have movement swatches, like swatches of fabric, which is where the playing comes in. Then I collaborate with the dancers, and we reverse things, retrograde things, splice things. My dancers are really smart. They’re smarter than I am.

When I work with music, I do the same thing. A lot of times I’ll make stuff in silence, and then see where it lands. Choreography is about choices and about problem-solving, so that’s always interesting to me.

RSDo you think that you make work differently now than you used to?

PTMy focus on being very movement-based has not changed. But I’ve gone too far in certain areas; I was so hellbent on the intellectual concept that I wouldn’t let anything else in. But my focus has always been on trying to figure out how to make good dance. I think the first twenty years of me working, it was really good that no one knew who I was. It let me go deeper into some of the questions I’ve been asking myself. I got to learn. It’s harder to do that now. Now it seems like I’m sort of in fashion, but I wasn’t for a long time.

My interests are my interests. I’m interested in dance history; I like to look at all the historical periods at one time. I like to rework formal elements, and that’s what’s important to me. I want people to like it. There are artists whose work is based on alienation, but I don’t work that way. I think that audiences are smart and can be brought with you. Someone might notice that I took a step from Dark Meadow, but not seeing it won’t disengage you from the piece.

RSThat feels very generous.

PTWhen I use more alienating music, I try to find pockets to let audiences in, or make audience members hear the music differently. A lot of people compare me to [Merce] Cunningham, but my relationship to music is not the same as his. I’m totally inspired, and it’s flattering, but mostly what I take from Cunningham is that he’s so imaginative. His imagination is in the movement and composition. I always try to push myself to achieve, and push the form forward, especially in composition. People should know their history in this art form. Visual artists do; theater artists do. 

RSAnd dancers themselves do, too. When you grow up with pieces being set on you, you have an embodied sense of the work. 

PTYou have the history in your body. And that’s the other thing that’s interesting about working with dancers in different companies: their body histories are different. That’s what they’re bringing, and I like to work with that. 

Pam Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet will premiere at the New York City Ballet Gala on May 2.

Rachel Stone is a writer from Chicago based in Brooklyn.

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