Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Posted: December 13th, 2023 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs, Barbican Theatre, 11 October

Pam Tanowitz, Song of Songs
Pam Tanowitz dancers on the set of Song of Songs (photo: Maria Baranova)

When Pam Tanowitz’s father died in 2018, she wanted to honour his memory with a new work. As a means to not only return a debt of gratitude to her father but also to explore her Jewish family heritage — her very identity — in choreographic form, she made what was to become Song of Songs. Co-commissioned by, and premièred at, the Fisher Centre at Bard where Tanowitz is the first choreographer-in-residence, Song of Songs was presented at Barbican in October. Its choreography has the expansive feel of a devotional elegy, complemented by David Lang’s score based on the Biblical text and by the architectural environment in which it is set. Each element of the work is consistent with the others, a result, no doubt, of the singular focus Tanowitz brings to its creation. While she is credited with the choreography, she is also part of a team with Harriet Jung, Clifton Taylor and Reid Bartelme who are responsible for the theatrical setting and costumes: a white stage hung on three sides by alternating strips of black and white material that leave a corridor between them and the wings, while at the back the vertical strips descend to the height of a small area set up for the musicians. On the inside of the vertical strips are gently curved moulded benches in a luminous teal tint that define the shape of the stage and match in colour and material a wide circular platform just off centre. It could be the setting of an art gallery before the paintings have been hung.

In a way, Song of Songs is, from the moment we see the setting, a work of spatial art, one to be contemplated as we wait for the performance to begin. Those vertical black and white stripes can, on one popular cultural level, suggest a grayscale image of a seaside Punch and Judy booth, but on another, given Tanowitz’s desire to research her Jewish history, it is not impossible to imagine those same stripes as the pattern and colour of concentration camp uniforms, here transposed to a space of celebration and respect through which time and the dancers can move freely.

Lang’s lush, carefully modulated score for two sopranos, alto, viola, cello and percussion starts off with an acapella voice, luring into the spatial setting the element of dance. Meile Okamura begins her opening steps, opening up in her fragile and almost translucent flow of movement a world of the spirit that is nevertheless robust, an indivisibility of strength and ethereality that underlies Tanowitz’s inspired realisation.

From silence the music builds, and from silence the dance evolves. The aural component of Song of Songs floats on the air, while Okamura’s limbs and torso seem to draw on it. The entrance of Melissa Toogood, slipping silently like a shadow on to a bench at the side, is masterful, and when she moves, her shading is darker than Okamura’s, more visceral, but builds on the contours of Okamura’s lightly stretched, diaphanous movement. Zachary Gonder presence reflects the sensuality of the text, with his smooth jump and pointed foot like playful, barely perceptible punctuation, while Kara Chan has an almost hard-edged clarity. In this way Tanowitz weaves the qualities of her eight dancers into finely tuned duets, trios, and ensembles. Within such a spatial setting, at once material and immaterial, the way the dancers move pulls the performance towards one of two qualities: overt traits of personality or training that remain in their movement are reminders of the secular world, while the apparent absence of personality — the pure merging of the dancer and the choreography — speak of a world remembered, without weight, silent.

Tanowitz’s research takes in, quite naturally, Jewish folk dance, beautifully transposed in Song of Songs into her own choreographic forms, playing out an eloquent sense of community, of tradition, of ties that bind. The raised and angled hands have a naïve, uplifting quality while the legs keep their earthy contact with the floor. All the surfaces are used, transforming the art gallery-like setting into a theatrical stage. When the vertical strips at the back descend to hide the musicians, the music stops while the dance continues, but for the duration of this divorce we can neither hear the dance nor see the music. Each element of Song of Songs is so well balanced with the others that to lose one is to lose them all. But when they support and enhance each other, they together produce a transcendent sense of limitless time and space.