Pam Tanowitz presented two premieres at the Joyce on Tuesday night: the first, Passagen, was a self-professed fifteen-minute retrospective of Ms Tanowitz’s work in duet form; the second, Heaven on One’s Head, was a group work emphasizing her gifts of architectural dance and pace.

Pam Tanowitz Dance © Christopher Duggan
Pam Tanowitz Dance
© Christopher Duggan

Tanowitz has discussed at length her choreographic preference for breaking down, reshuffling and re-contextualizing balletic movements, and it’s certainly evident in each of her works I’ve seen. But while such a one-track approach might lead to a dearth of innovation, she has instead multiplied her choreographic riches. I can’t imagine growing tired of her deconstruction.

The duet, Passagen, featured Tanowitz Dance regulars Melissa Toogood and Maggie Cloud. Though much has been said about Ms Toogood, I find myself preferring the plasticity of Ms Cloud’s torso. Moments of strict ballet – passés and promenades – are paired with the most pedestrian movements of dance, like the classic kick-ball-change. There is a certain formalism to Ms Tanowitz’s choreography, arising, I think, from her use of singular planes of movement and ability to orchestrate multiple bodies in space without overpowering the viewer. This formalism, in turn, gives extra meaning to Ms Toogood and Ms Cloud’s exchanged glances and lusciously deep lunges. There is quiet humor here, too: Ms Toogood arches back in cambré and Ms Cloud assumes a fondue arabesque; together, they traverse the stage in small hops. This is a piece in which one must marvel at the dancers’ ability to be on their legs. There is no room for error, no opportunity to disguise a wobble. Violinist Pauline Kim Harris flitted about the stage herself, moving to various different music stands set up throughout the space as the dancers circled her. Though Ms Harris played with verve (several strings were loose by the end), much of the music-dance relationship felt arbitrary.

Pam Tanowitz © Christopher Duggan
Pam Tanowitz
© Christopher Duggan

Heaven on One’s Head paid more attention to the music, I felt – Conlon Nancarrow’s first and third string quartets, as played by the wonderfully vivacious Flux Quartet. If strings were plucked, dancers were jumping or else collapsing to the ground; it was a small connection, but it felt good. Clad in red velvet rompers – which seemed to mimic the Joyce’s red velvet curtains – fared better on the women. On the men they felt a bit like lederhosen. Ms Tanowitz gave wonderfully exciting moments to both the men and the women of the nine-person cast, at separate times. For the men, it was a cabriole fantasia; for the women, it was deliberately loose frappés. Ms Toogood had a memorable solo atop a wooden box at the front of stage left. For a few moments, she became a music-box dancer brought to life. It was completely engrossing to see her so close up (I was sitting in the first row beyond the box). Ms Toogood, on the whole, carried the piece. She tempered her considerable strength and precision with moments of soft vulnerability – as when she passed between two men, she seemed less certain – and this lent the piece a welcomed bit of narrative.

When I saw Ms Tanowitz’s The Spectators last spring at New York Live Arts, there was a magical moment between Ms Toogood and Dylan Crossman where they briefly kissed as the lights flashed crazily. I found a similar moment of magic in Heaven on One’s Head, when Ms Cloud and a male dancer grasped elbows and rose to relevé in tendu, as the stage deepened to a glorious red. Ms Tanowitz has done a wonderful thing, giving her deconstructed ballet nuts-in-a-fruitcake moments of whimsy.

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