Review: In Pam Tanowitz’s ‘Song of Songs’, the beloved is beauty


ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY — “Kiss me.” No sooner has the Biblical Song of Songs begun than the speaker begins to move. For scripture, the poem is quite salacious, which is one of the reasons it has inspired many interpretations.

The latest is “Song of Songs,” a dance-drama piece by choreographer Pam Tanowitz and composer David Lang, which debuted Friday at Bard College’s Fisher Center. It is a refined, restrained and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful response to the poem. There is no kiss in it, and spirituality is only a suggestion. Instead, the beloved here is beauty.

Tanowitz’s last theatrical production at the Fisher Center, where she is resident choreographer, was the highly acclaimed “Four Quartets.” This work revolved around the recitation of a difficult poem by TS Eliot. Now the time for singing has come. “Song of Songs” begins with vocals in perfect harmony: Lang’s 2014 composition “Just (After Song of Songs)”.

“Just your voice,” they sing, “just your throat,” listing the lover’s attributes with repeated chords. This alternates with two other motifs, one beginning with “Et mes” (breasts, beloved), the other with “our” (home, laughter). Lang’s composition, adding cello, viola and percussion, is a sort of analysis of the biblical text, drawing out sentences that begin with possessive pronouns. The repetition and the enumeration are formal but also appetitive: that would be enough, and also this and that. The rhythm is processional, with almost as much silence as sound, and the voices open up and expand on each “our”.

Tanowitz’s choreography treats both text and music with a similar obliqueness. It begins with a solo, Maile Okamura dancing around the decor, reminiscent of an elegant hotel lobby: strip curtains delineating an open space with long, low benches and a circular platform. (The production design is credited collectively to Tanowitz, Clifton Taylor, and costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.)

When another dancer arrives (Melissa Toogood), the two don’t behave like lovers except to surround each other in the commotion. At most, they squeeze the palms. When other dancers appear, they also touch Okamura’s hand, rushing past her, one after another, expressing greed through repetition. The sentiment is echoed in the following sections, as the dancers are lifted from the platform, one by one, by two men, as if above a turnstile.

It’s not a one pair dance, although sometimes it seems to be. As the work transitions to the first of Lang’s three new compositions, a simpler staging of the section of the poem beginning “I slept but my heart was awake” – the vocals throughout, by Sara Brailey, Martha Cluver and Katie Geissinger, is beautifully clear – Toogood seems to be noticed and then pursued by Zachary Gonder. Together they frolic like the deer in the poem. But they are not alone for long, as others soon gather to bear witness.

The emphasis is on the group, the community. The impeccable and unflappable dancers number seven, so even when they all come together, someone is left out. Toogood, floating and falling (as she often does in Tanowitz’s dances), gives the strongest impression of being “lovesick”, as the poem puts it, but it indicates Tanowitz’s perspective on love. here that when Toogood jumps into Gonder’s arms, she almost jumps through or past them. Unlike the old poem, which is always strikingly direct, it is a work that dances around sensual love.

It’s part of its beauty. Even when the dancers touch each other, they seem to keep a classic distance. They watch a lot. Some of their poses might derive from classical art, but more broadly the work is classic in tone – lucid, legible in the manner of Merce Cunningham. The bursts of difficult and inventive steps and coordinations are also Cunninghamesque. These are balanced by simple folk dance motifs, and Tanowitz has declared that his “Song of Songs” is a “Jewish dance”, but it is Jewish in the sense that Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” is. . (Which means, not obviously; Robbins was Jewish, as were Tanowitz and Lang.)

As usual, Tanowitz is masterful in his use of space, both invoking and destabilizing the idea of ​​foreground and background, a trio behind no more or less important than a solo or a duet in the front. The curtains (most of which end up lowering to cover the back plane) give it a periphery to activate and also, thanks to the bands, a permeable border for the penetration of the dancers’ limbs.

The dance comes closest to a kiss at the end of a song listing the sensual experiences of the loved one (“I can see you”, “I can taste you”). Toogood and Victor Lozano face each other, but rather than touch lips, they turn to watch Brian Lawson bow into a curtain, supported at an unsteady angle by dancers on the other side. Whether this is an image of human or divine love remains uncertain.

When the dance finally enters an extended duet sequence, the duets are in relay or “La Ronde” form, one dancer marking another. This is the only section without lyrics, without song. Not surprisingly, after that, the conclusion is collective, with all the dancers drifting as one, posing together on the platform. This response to the poem is not a self or couple song. Tanowitz and Lang’s attitude seems to be, “They’re playing our song.”

song of songs

Played July 1-3 at Bard College’s Fisher Center.

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