In its beginning is its end. In its end is its beginning. These tail-eating lines, paraphrased from TS Eliot’s poem “Four Quartets,” tell you about the outer form of “Four Quartets,” Pam Tanowitz’s highly acclaimed dance which made its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday.
The circular structure is a formal idea with philosophical resonance. If you’re going to dance to a long, difficult poem, it makes sense to take Eliot’s lines about beginnings and endings as cues, almost like stage directions. But the success of Tanowitz’s work – why it does not crumble under the weight of the poem’s paradoxical ruminations on time, motif, history and memory – lies as much in the independence of dance from to the text and in its coordination.
There’s so much going on here, so many layers. Actress Kathleen Chalfant recites the poem in a neutral tone, with an experienced voice that sometimes makes you laugh. For a moment his voice is the only sound, and when the music enters – a spectral harp and string score by Kaija Saariaho, performed live by members of orchestral collective The Knights – it’s almost an intrusion. But soon the ear adjusts to the hum and glide of the music like another part of this world.
Already, there is a lot to see. Clifton Taylor’s exquisite scenography and lighting design translate Brice Marden’s paintings into space and movement. In an array of bright doors and T-shapes, the black bands are holes into which the dancers disappear. Some of the paintings are on rolling panels, translucent screens that the dancers move to reshape the stage space, barriers to pass behind and around. The canvases fall and rise, a game of opacity and transparency, shadow and light, seeing and seeing through which is found even in the costumes: the diaphanous pajamas of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.
All of this suits the poem and Tanowitz’s choreography. His complex and irregular sense of form – sometimes still or stripped, sometimes quick and insistent; solos and duets emerging in and out of sudden gatherings; the action that overlaps and overflows the edges of the stage – is complemented rather than crowded by the other elements.
The viewer is left free to focus and drift. As the music flows and resurfaces, the poem’s images and ideas (some direct and sensual, some disconcerting) move back and forth in your imagination, or simply your attention. The same goes for the recurring images in the dance: a running on the spot with the heels raised behind, the head back, one arm raised; a deeply sloping arabesque adorned with a trembling, shimmering hand.
The rare correspondences between text and dance – or the rare synchronicity of a musical plunk and a turn of the head – ring like bells during meditation. The many scattered allusions to dance and music in the poem, surely the inspiration for the project, allow Tanowitz to treat the text tangentially, relying on both fixed and incidental connections.
These Eliot ruminations bend Tanowitz’s patterns, making the return of a dance phrase even closer to a memory. The poem and the paintings help the dance not become too dry, and the dance and the paintings rescue the poem from some of its darkness. A viewer who worries, as Eliot’s narrator does, about having the experience but missing the meaning, need not worry. There is an overabundance of both.
At the heart of this experience are the 10 extraordinary dancers without ostentation. And it’s like an Easter egg when Tanowitz herself appears, first apart and then joining the others. A late entry into one of these take-it-or-leave-it correspondences occurs at the moment of the poem when a poet “dead master” arrives.
When “Four Quartets” debuted at Bard College in 2018, it seemed like a happy tale of an admired but underfunded choreographer finally receiving opera resources and making the most of them. In this sense, although Tanowitz’s aesthetic is more in line with Merce Cunningham, his “Four Quartets”, with their canvases, circles and scale, reminded me of “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato ” by Mark Morris, his 1988 breakthrough. at the big time (which returns to Brooklyn Academy next month).
This parallel felt even stronger at Brooklyn Academy, especially since Tanowitz has now broken through, with commissions from the New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Martha Graham Company and just about everyone. . But this work, with its own stable of dancers, is worth more, an argument for larger independent productions.
The world around “Four Quartets” has changed since 2018. Different phrases in the text jump out now: “The whole earth is our hospital,” for starters. But it is a production which, like the words it contains, is a long-term one. Turns out a poem about how “all time is eternally present” is a good poem for a dance.
Until Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, bam.org.