Pam Tanowitz

May 19, 2013

New York Live Arts, NYC

May 15–18, 2013

Performance reviewed: May 16


Shortly before attending Pam Tanowitz’ new work, The Spectators, I watched a TED Talk video on how anxious people can improve their chances of being taken seriously. Just do what animals do. Stop that shrinking and slumping, that clutching of hands to face or neck. Make your body look larger, physically spreading out to claim more actual and psychological space. Doing so—say, before walking into a job interview or a business presentation–releases brain chemicals that help you, in the words of the speaker, “fake it until you become it.” I thought about this when Tanowitz’s troupe, supported by music and lighting, completely occupied New York Live Arts’ space in a rare spirit of arrival and command.


Irresistible to critics for whom the aesthetics of neoclassicism and of Merce Cunningham, and the not unreasonable intertwining of the two, are a surefire draw, Tanowitz nevertheless has taken her knocks for last spring’s premiere, Untitled (Blue Ballet), a work that even she now regards with regret. The Spectators is her comeback attempt, and it’s luscious.


Melissa Toogood (far right) in Pam Tanowitz’
The Spectators

Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA


To open, Tanowitz deals one of her veteran dancers—former Cunningham star Melissa Toogood, flawless of technique and bearing a classic Hollywood face—like a card from a hot hand. She sends her skimming out into the space alone. Dressed in a wine-red melange of ballet-wear, Toogood sets a tone sustained throughout—cool, light, just a hint of the jazzy. Like Dan Siegler’s expansive winds and drumming, the dancer simply carves open and cleans the space before her. For sure, those living-large neurochemicals get popping—for both Toogood and audience. And from this heraldic start to the work’s finish, Tanowitz’s focused choreography exudes clarity of purpose. The regularity of its precision stitch work and practiced patterns reassures and entertains. You never ask yourself, “Why did she do this thing and not that?”  “What’s that doing there?” Or the killer: “That again?”


Maggie Cloud enters next—a teal-colored dragonfly darting over a pond. Like Toogood, her moves can be soft and shapely, yet rigorous, nothing out of place. And so it goes, with the appearance of more of this presentable sextet whose every port de bras and rond de jambe à terre, though familiar, seem fresh and natural in this new context.


The score—Part 1 by Siegler, Part 2 by Annie Gosfield—catches us up in fancifully layered, imageful atmospheres that engulf the performance space. It’s possible to find yourself wondering how that distant marching band you can almost hear and see at times will make it over those sands where heavy breakers surge.


Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood
Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA


On one occasion, Davison Scandrett’s lighting design surprises as he redirects sharp beams, and our attention, to busy feet and shins. At another moment, he wavers between revealing the dancers—Toogood, especially, twirling into a distant corner—and plunging them into darkness as he briefly trains a faint light on the audience. With blaring light, he will dramatize dancers invading the bare margins of the theater’s space, or he will flash a magical mini-aurora over the brief kiss in the grand pas de deux between Toogood and another Cunningham vet, Dylan Crossman. If Tanowitz’s dancers execute steps and sequences with strict dispassion, Scandrett’s job seems to be to use light to express thinking, feeling, and drunkenness not demonstrated elsewhere. Or perhaps he represents our own giddy spectator eyes at play.



Pictured at top: Pam Tanowitz’
The Spectators. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA.