Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pam Tanowitz's The Spectators

The Spectators. Photo: Ian Douglas
Pam Tanowitz discarded toe shoes when making The Spectators (at New York Live Arts through May 18), a big decision as pointe work had been such a signature of her work, if inadvertently pigeonholing her and limiting a wider appeal. But the absence of the need to be doubly careful on those devilish toe shoes has freed her to even more fully explore her intelligent, carefully crazy syntax. Incredible dancers and collaborators all contribute to a riveting full-length work.

Tanowitz' choreography is stylistic heir to that of Merce Cunningham, whose work is more balletic than usually given credit for. Now with bare feet, and using Melissa Toogood and Dylan Crossman, dancers from his company's final roster (and in previous years, Rashaun Mitchell), the connection is stronger than ever. Meticulous classical technique is the foundation for the twists and refractions that Tanowitz adds, in the end creating a world of her own. Her company also includes Sarah Haarmann, Pierre Guilbault, Maggie Cloud, and Andrew Champlin, all fine, polished dancers. Cloud, in particular, has a luminosity and precision that accumulate through the piece.
Maggie Cloud. Photo: Ian Douglas

Recorded music by Dan Siegler accompanies the first part of the hour-long work, with trumpet lines set in a jazzy framework. The second part is set to Annie Gosfield's composition played live by the FLUX Quartet; it ranges from spacious to cacophonous. Davison Scandrett's lighting articulates Tanowitz's stage design—the wings are exposed and raked with golden light, making any dancers there appear as sculptures. TIny details are tightly spotlit, such as junction or outlet boxes on the upstage wall, or colored tape in geometrical shapes on the floor. Blackouts (and house lights up) rewind the action a couple of times. Dancers are lit drastically from the knees down for a spell. Tanowitz always finds ways to activate every nook of the theater with nominal resources. When the dancers lean or push off against the walls, it enhances this total immersion.

The vocabulary, as mentioned, relates to Cunningham, with square torso and extended leg positions, highly pointed feet, and precise poses. Arms are often held in formal positions, but the hands are flat, open, relaxed, and not curved into soft shell shapes like in ballet. Leaps soar and often are landed on one foot as the arabesque is sustained. Turned out fifth and fourth positions are favorites. Everything clicks and whirrs. 

These "spectators" relax to observe one another, and periodically look at us slyly. The exception is Crossman and Toogood's duet (for which they don additional layers over their gem-hued unitards by Renée Kurz), which is sprinkled with realistic, tender touches—he pushes a strand of hair off her forehead, they kiss, he rests his hand on her back. Cloud, in a closing solo, prances her way downstage on a center line, playing with a lit "T" with her feet. The craftsmanship in every element of The Spectators is superb. Don't miss it.

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