Composer David Lang recently danced the hora at the wedding of a relative – a future gay Orthodox rabbi who married his gay Orthodox rabbi boyfriend. “It was totally joyful and totally frum,” he said, using the Yiddish word for devout.
“I love that you said frum,” choreographer Pam Tanowitz said, adding, “I live for the hora. I’ll go anywhere and do an hour.
Lang grew up doing Israeli folk dances; Tanowitz didn’t, but she was fascinated by the form. “I would search YouTube how to do certain steps and then make up all my own phrases,” she said. “I became obsessed with it.”
The two artists recently discussed their shared Jewish heritage in a Soho cafe before the premiere of “Song of Songs”, their latest collaboration, inspired by the biblical poem of love and lust which is often interpreted as a metaphor for faith. The one-night work was commissioned by Bard College, where Tanowitz is resident choreographer, and will debut at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts there, Friday through Sunday.
Four years ago at Bard, Tanowitz presented his critically acclaimed “Four Quartets,” based on the poem by TS Eliot. It was a follow-up to 2017’s “New Work for Goldberg Variations,” on Bach, and Tanowitz saw similarities between the two. She considered, she said, a trilogy using another piece of music or a historical text that she could “rub”.
She also noted that Eliot and Bachto varying degrees, was tainted with anti-Semitism and said she realized, “I need to do a Jewish dance.”
And then this impulse became more personal: his father died, shortly after the premiere of “Four Quartets”. She started to think a lot about the kaddish, she said, the Jewish mourning prayer, and remembered Lang’s 2014 incantatory piece “Just (After Song of Songs)”, made up of quotes from the poem . “It touched me,” she said of Lang’s music. “I was very moved by it. And I just thought, OK, let’s do this.
She contacted Lang, with whom she had worked in 2015, about a collaboration. He was up for it but was hesitant to return to “Song of Songs”, as he had already created music based on it twice before. “I had to think of other ways to read this article,” he said. He dived back and found more phrases, images and ideas that spoke to him. “It’s just such rich text,” he said.
He ended up composing three new songs which, together with “Just (After Song of Songs)”, will constitute the score of their “Song of Songs”, accompanying Tanowitz’s marriage between classical, contemporary and folk movement, which diverts attention from individual to collective.
Gideon Lester, the artistic director of the Fisher Center, said that “Song of Songs” depicts “a community of dancers in a kind of courtyard space”. He also praised the way Tanowitz seamlessly blends dance styles into his movement. “In each of his dances,” he said, “you get a story from the dance.”
At the cafe, Tanowitz and Lang talked about their approach to collaboration and the lasting impact of their Jewish education. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did the collaboration go? Did you study “Song of Songs” together and discuss how you would each approach it?
DAVID LANGE Some collaborators are sort of face-to-face, but the collaborations that I enjoy the most are the ones where someone says, “Music can play a really big part in this piece, and I don’t make music. So you look at it and respond to it.
PAM TANOWITZ I’m not going to tell David what words to put in his text. I do not care. David’s music is perfect for dancing, it’s so beautiful and effective, the way it can create an environment and space for the dance to come alive.
Pam, you did a lot of research on Jewish dance before this project, notably thanks to a grant at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2020. What did you take away from it?
TANOWITZ I became obsessed with Jewish choreographers. But when you say you’re going to study Jewish dance, what are you studying? Do you study Jewish choreographers who were modern dancers? Do you study Israeli folk dance? Do you now study Israeli choreographers, like Ohad Naharin?
It’s so unspecific when you talk about Jewish dance. So I touched on a bit of everything. And then I read the poem. And then I stopped reading. And then I danced. I go back and forth. I balance between research and dance. And I’m not doing anything literal.
LANGUAGE What really interests me in your pieces is that they are formal and that they are also about something. You have to watch them closely and you realize, Oh wait a second, there’s something going on here. But this is not the surface of the room. I have to understand what history is, under all this formalism.
TANOWITZ I do it on purpose. Because I demand that the public invest something in it. It’s important to me not to alienate the audience, but I also think it’s smarter. And I think they can be engaged.
David, do you see yourself working in a Jewish musical tradition?
LANGUAGE I am not in a Jewish musical tradition. And I’m not very religious, but it’s extremely important to my culture and my background. But I’m super curious to know what all this influence and all my religious ancestry has done for me and my relationship to music.
I definitely feel like I became a musician in part because there was music in my temple growing up. The singer’s voice was beautiful. If the cantor’s voice wasn’t good, I don’t think I would have been a musician.
Pam, did your upbringing leave a similar mark on your art?
TANOWITZ I learned all the songs and all the prayers when I was very young, and when you learn very young, it sticks with you. But, like David, I am not religious. But my father grew up Orthodox. While David was talking about remembering the cantor and remembering the music, I could walk into a conservative temple and I could start chanting the prayers. It’s so inside my body. In those moments when I am at a bat mitzvah or a wedding doing a hora, or reciting the Kaddish, it takes me by surprise and I am overwhelmed. I feel somehow connected.
You made a video during your internship in the library that referenced artistic influences such as Jerome Robbins and Fanny Brice. Do they appear in “Song of Songs” even unrecognizably?
TANOWITZ David Gordon was one of my mentors. I was so lucky to be in his play at MoMA and got to do one of his solos while he was singing [Brice’s] “Used pink.” I did it three or four times, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He sang it with a Yiddish accent. For me, it was the same as going to the temple.
It’s all in there, my story, my Jewish story, my dance story – my mentors, my collaborators. I have a vine [weaving footwork that appears in many Israeli folk dances] in each of my dances. Because it’s my favorite step. Do it slow, do it fast, do it everywhere.
Have you ever recognized the Jewish influence in your work?
TANOWITZ No, it’s new. And the other thing I was going to say is that it’s not just Jewish steps. How do these so-called Jewish steps interact with ballet steps and modern steps and pedestrian and postmodern steps? All these different lexicons talk and there is a dialogue there. But I’m Jewish and I’m a choreographer, so it’s Jewish. And David is a Jew and a composer.
LANGUAGE I don’t know what the Jew is.
TANOWITZ Just that you’re Jewish.