Pam Tanowitz’s Sequenzas in Quadrilles makes excellent use of the Joyce Theater’s new layout – rather than a proscenium stage, it has been transformed to an in-the-round, thrust-ish configuration, thanks to series curator Lar Lubovtich. But Tanowitz’s choreography and the theater’s new arrangement don’t seem to quite match up in innovation. Parts of the piece felt avant gardist, but in a dated way – as if the choreography would’ve been considered shockingly brand-new decades earlier.

Dylan Crossman and Sarah Haarmann, <i>Sequenzas in Quadrilles</i> © Yi-Chun Wu
Dylan Crossman and Sarah Haarmann, Sequenzas in Quadrilles
© Yi-Chun Wu

The five main dancers are very skillful technicians, and they execute the beautifully clean lines that permeate Ms. Tanowitz’s choreographic style: It’s deconstructed-ballet-meets-Cunningham – the Scandinavian design of the modern dance world, if you will. But it certainly can’t be easy for the dancers to sustain difficult positions on relevé for long periods of time – in a wide fourth, say, with the torso and head tilted to one side – and on opening night, many of them struggled to find their balance.

In past works of Tanowitz’s that I’ve seen, there have been welcome bits of whimsy: a seemingly illicit, magical kiss or an unusually timed curtain rise (mid-rise, rather). I found myself wishing for more of that whimsy in this work. The dancers certainly gazed at each other with intensity, but their relationships never felt clearly defined. I had a hard time telling if the intensity of their facial expressions were a direct result of challenging movement (and, therefore, concentration), seriousness or seriousness intended to be exaggerated to the point of comedy.

Many moments did stand out. Tanowitz’s motif of rapidly recurring passés felt dynamic and even conversational, as if the pas de quatre cygnets from Swan Lake had unexpectedly found themselves in dance Narnia. So did a nicely slow-moving duet for Dylan Crossman and Sarah Haarmann, as they rolled toward each other in the center of the stage, piecemeal.

Maybe my confusion about the piece’s tone and choreographic setting were incurred by the costume design (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) and the music, which was played live by members of The Knights ensemble. The costumes were turquoise and fuchsia unitards with swirled patterns at the midsection. Some of these unitards had sheer overlays; at one point, a dancer ripped his off. This wasn’t repeated by any other dancer and felt out of place. The musicians were located in four different corners of the Joyce’s balcony and played one at a time, for one section a piece (with the exception of the percussionist and the cellist). The scores for the viola, trombone and the percussion/cello pair were, at times, bracingly dissonant. (The harp, it seems, is difficult to make sound anything but beautiful and heavenly, but maybe that’s just my Hollywood soundtrack bias.)

But it was a pleasure to see the Joyce so transforme – it no longer felt like a stiff and somewhat antiquated theater setting. Tanowitz’s choreography and, therefore, her dancers, are both aesthetic pleasures, too, regardless of all else.