Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Sara Kerens, Courtesy Tanowitz

NYCB's Choreographic Institute Rejected Pam Tanowitz Five Times. Now She's Readying Her Second Commission for the Company.

In the annals of dance history, 2019 may go down as the year Pam Tanowitz got the attention she deserved. In the past six months the New York City–based artist, 49, has brought her imaginative formalism to the Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City Ballet, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival. The recent recipient of an Alpert Award in the Arts, Tanowitz is not slowing down, with new works on deck for Vail Dance Festival this month and The Royal Ballet's Merce Cunningham celebration in October.


A couple of years ago we were talking about New York City Ballet, and you said something like "I've realized that's just not my world." Having come to that conclusion, how did you feel when they contacted you?

I was shocked. I think it just speaks to their new leadership. Throughout my career I applied to their choreographic institute about five times and got rejected.

In your first work for the company, Bartók Ballet, you experimented with partnering and gender roles in ways I've rarely seen on that stage. Was this a deliberate choice?

Absolutely. I do that a lot, not just at New York City Ballet, but in that framework it becomes more magnified. It's conscious and subconscious at the same time. In the main duet, the adagio, the dancers don't really touch except for one part, and that was done on purpose. I don't need to do a love-story, swooping, male-female duet. There are other ones people can look at if they want.

Your next work for NYCB premieres in April 2020. Have you started thinking about it?

The night of the spring gala I was backstage but came out to watch Balanchine's Theme and Variations, and I got ideas. [Smiles] It was inspiring to see. I already have music—a Ted Hearne orchestral piece. It's crazy music, but it's exciting.

Tanowitz watches NYCB dancers take a bow after the premiere of her Bartók Ballet.

Nina Westervelt, Courtesy Tanowitz

How do you juggle so many projects at once?

I go to the gym every morning and listen to music. And make sure I drink water. If I start the day like that, it's half the battle. I also do Pilates if I can. Other than that, I just try to methodically go through everything. I pick my music, and if I'm not sure what to do with one dance, I'll think about a different dance, and maybe that'll help me go back to the first one. I also have my dancers helping me with things, so if I'm already done choreographing something, I can send one of them to rehearse it.

What advice would you give to young choreographers?

It's hard to give advice because everyone's different. I guess what I would say is: You really have to spend the time in the studio. There's no shortcut.

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Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West

How Do Choreographers Bring Something Fresh to Music We've Heard Over and Over?

In 2007, Oregon Ballet Theatre asked Nicolo Fonte to choreograph a ballet to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. "I said, 'No way. I'm not going near it,' " recalls Fonte. "I don't want to compete with the Béjart version, ice skaters or the movie 10. No, no, no!"

But Fonte's husband encouraged him to "just listen and get a visceral reaction." He did. And Bolero turned into one of Fonte's most requested and successful ballets.

Not all dance renditions of similar warhorse scores have worked out so well. Yet the irresistible siren song of pieces like Stravinsky's The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, as well as the perennial Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, seem too magnetic for choreographers to ignore.

And there are reasons for their popularity. Some were commissioned specifically for dance: Rite and Firebird for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Boléro for dance diva Ida Rubinstein's post–Ballets Russes troupe. Hypnotic rhythms (Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel) and danceable melodies (Bizet's Carmen) make a case for physical eye candy. Audience familiarity can also help box office receipts. Still, many choreographers have been sabotaged by the formidable nature and Muzak-y overuse of these iconic compositions.

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