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Steve Sucato  |  July 25, 2018

DANCECleveland's New Lecture Series Opens with Enlightening "Body of Work: Dialogues on Dance with Pam Tanowitz Dance'

DANCECleveland's New Lecture Series Opens with Enlightening "Body of Work: Dialogues on Dance with Pam Tanowitz Dance'

By Steve Sucato

To kick off DANCECleveland's 63rd season and the second annual ADF in CLE summer dance festival, DANCECleveland Executive Director Pamela Young decided to experiment with something new for audiences, bringing to the stage a glimpse into the creative process in the studio. Young says she got the idea for the new lecture series after speaking with a fellow patron after a showing of dance film at the Cleveland International Film Festival who marveled at the film's depiction of what went on in the dance studio during the creative process.

The programming idea, while different from DANCECleveland's normal offerings to the general public, is very much in keeping with the educational aspects of the iconic American Dance Festival and ADF in CLE which offered dancers and dance makers a Summer Dance Workshop held July 24-28 at Cleveland State University.

To open the new lecture series Tuesday, July 24 at Playhouse Square's Allen Theatre, Young called on buzzworthy New York-based choreographer Pam Tanowitz who set the bar high for future installments in the series with her hour-long Body of Work: Dialogues on Dance with Pam Tanowitz Dance.

The unique experience began literally the moment you were let into the theater as Tanowitz and her dancers Jason Collins, Christine Flores and Victor Lozano, were already in the midst of creating, experimenting with, and rehearsing dance choreography.

With live microphone in hand, the engaging Tanowitz, in black jeans, black shirt and sporting green Nike sneakers, called out to Lozano to repeat what she called his "creepy monster" moves. The audience, as if flies on the wall to the goings on onstage, was not initially acknowledged by Tanowitz and company giving one the sense they were witnessing an unfiltered look into the choreographic process, at least for Tanowitz and her dancers. The energetic Tanowitz carried on a running commentary with the dancers as she walked about the stage tracking their movements with her eyes.

With the house-lights up, it took a good 5-minutes for many in the audience to quiet down and realize that the goings on onstage were in fact what they had come to see and their normal pre-show chatter was replaced by rapt attention to Tanowitz's working with the dancers.

For the past 15 years, Tanowitz has been known for her use of a post-modern movement style that has roots in the classical modern styles of Merce Cunningham and others. With a "mission to revitalize abstraction and formalism" as well as to "challenge stylistic expectations" and "conventions of composition," Tanowitz's movement language choices in her choreography are at once familiar and keenly new. The result is a contemporary dance style that updates where Cunningham and her other modern and post-modern dance influencers left off infused with her own creative ideas and spirit.

In the movement shown during Body of Work: Dialogues on Dance, there was a mix of formality and clean technical dancing flavored with everything from rapid foot-taps to a string of jazz (and disco-era) "kick ball change" steps.

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of watching Tanowitz work wither dancers was hearing what she had to say to them in terms of instruction and commentary. She was not hesitant to voice her thoughts and feelings about her likes and dislikes concerning the movement the dancers were performing. In one instance she instructed Flores to dance a phrase again but "this time make it less pretty," then she responded positively to the outcome with a quote from 1939's The Wizard of Oz movie, "That's a horse of a different color!"

When Tanowitz did introduce herself and the dancers to the audience and talked a little about what they were doing onstage, the feeling of being a fly on the wall was replaced by now becoming a passive participant in the goings on as some of her comments were then directed to the audience. She stated to everyone that normally she would not be "on top of the dancers" during this creative process and that normally she preferred to observe things with some distance between her and the dancers. On a separate point, she said when she gets stuck in her choreography her go to move is to push on. "The problem is never the problem," she says. "It is the thing that happens before the problem or the thing before that."

As the program progressed Tanowitz and company rather organically clued the audience in on other things that can, and do, happen during the process of creation such as how long it might take her to finesse a dance phrase or even a look a dancer gives during that phrase which could change the intent of the movement or that the dancers sometimes ad lib steps that she might incorporate, alter, or discard.

One of the most interesting aspects to the evening was Tanowitz and the dancers' illustration of some of the movement exercises and techniques she uses to generate choreography. Perhaps some learned from her mentor at Sarah Lawrence College, former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber. In one example shown, Tanowitz had Flores repeat a dance phrase while speeding up her performance of it until it reached an almost cartoonish pace. And later in the program during a delightful audience participation section highlighting a "splicing" movement exercise, she illustrated how three different movement phrases could be spliced together in various combinations.

Before the second half of the program began, which included more of the company engaging with the audience as well as showing a few brief excerpts of company works, Young came to the stage to talk about Tanowitz and her work. She also cited a recent review of Tanowitz's latest work "Four Quartets" by chief dance critic at The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay. She read aloud that in it, Macaulay wrote: If I am right to think this is the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century, we're fortunate that "Four Quartets" will travel to other stages.

In the program's second half, the tables were turned a bit as the audience got to witness Tanowitz dance in a short solo accompanied by Collins reading a text about moments in her life and career. After that it was then the dancers' turn to talk about working with Tanowitz. In one illustrative comment from Lozano about Tanowitz's energy level he said, "Coming into the studio is never boring or slow, it is always 200%."

Rounding out the program was the aforementioned smile-inducing audience participation section in which virtually the entire audience stood and were taught simple dance phrases that they repeated in different orders, and performances by the dancers of excerpts from Tanowitz's "Sequenzas in Quadrilles" (2016) and "New Work for Goldberg Variations" (2017).

For both the initiated and the uninitiated to the in-studio creative process, Body of Work: Dialogues on Dance with Pam Tanowitz Dance gave a marvelous insight into that process from a choreographer whose unique star is on the rise. It proved an entertaining and informative launch to DANCECleveland's new lecture series and an apropos vehicle for what Tanowitz says she has been striving to do in her career for the past 25-years, "create conversations."

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