Taking back the Zellerbach

Pam Tanowitz Dance livestreams a world premiere in Philadelphia

4 minute read
A compelling voice in contemporary choreography: Pam Tanowitz Dance had its Philly debut. (Photo by Christopher Duggan.)
A compelling voice in contemporary choreography: Pam Tanowitz Dance had its Philly debut. (Photo by Christopher Duggan.)

Prior to the pandemic, Pam Tanowitz Dance topped the list of companies I wanted to see. In December 2019 I strongly considered hopping on a bus to see New Work for Goldberg Variations (2017), a collaboration between Tanowitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein, at New York’s Joyce Theater. Busy and exhausted, I passed on the trip, reasoning I would have many more opportunities to see Pam Tanowitz Dance. How wrong I was—soon COVID hit and live performances stopped. And how pleasantly surprised I was to hear that the New York-based company would perform in Philly in a livestream event presented by the Annenberg Center.

Transcending the stream

Since March I have livestreamed music and cultural events, taken live virtual fitness classes, and participated in countless Zooms, but this was my first live virtual dance performance. This format has its benefits and drawbacks, like other types of virtual interaction, but the beauty and talent of Tanowitz’s choreography and the dancers’ powerful elegance transcended the medium.

Prior to the performance, viewers received an email with a link to the performance, instructions for logging in, and a program. The instructions were clear and helpful, and I appreciated having access to the program notes in advance.

Time and connection

The program contained two works presented with no intermission. The first drew from ballet and modern dance, as much contemporary choreography does, but Tanowitz translates these influences into fluid grace. Her Gustave Le Gray, No. 2 lacked the jerky movements and odd transitions I often see in the work of other 21st-century choreographers. Instead, it offered elegant contradictions in both movement and theme. A hopping chassé showcased the dancers’ graceful strength, with Christine Flores making a particularly catlike landing.

The nonnarrative Gustave Le Gray, No. 2 suggested themes of temporality and connection, themes which, together with Tanowitz’s choreography incporporating appealing shapes and variety of movement, elevate the abstract dance to a place of engagement and meaning. Dancers swung their arms and legs like the pendulum of a clock, then stepped forward and backward without getting anywhere. This thwarted movement brought to mind COVID life as much as the experience of watching dance from a laptop at my kitchen table. Flowing, skin-colored tunics and shorts designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung and delicate music for piano composed by Caroline Shaw enhanced the beauty of the dancing and choreography.

Annenberg Solos

The second piece was a world premiere: Annenberg Solos: Sites 1-4 consists of solos created remotely in collaboration with the dancers. As the first dance ended, the camera followed Jason Collins backstage, where he changed costumes and began to dance in the wings. Annenberg Solos made clever use of the theater’s space and capitalized on technological aspects of the livestream by varying camera angles, so that Collins appeared in bright spotlight from one perspective and in shadow from another.

The work began in silence before Dan Siegler’s “environmental music” started to play. Tanowitz’s voice gave live cues over the muffled chatter, ambient musical notes, and other sounds of a crowded theater before a show begins. This soundscape lent itself to the sight of the dancers performing in different places throughout the empty space, from Flores in rows of vacant seats to Victor Lozano backstage to Zachary Gonder at the top of the stairs near the exit. Perhaps the most powerful moment came at the end, when the camera zoomed out to show the empty theater, with just a handful of crew members occupying safely distanced seats. Annenberg Solos is stronger in concept and staging than in dancing, but it is a timely and thought-provoking work from a compelling voice in contemporary choreography.

Reasons to stream

The 30-minute performance was followed by a Q&A with Tanowitz. Audience members submitted questions in the chat, which had remained open throughout the event. While sometimes distracting, the chat was also valuable—it gave viewers a chance to connect with each other, to learn, and to optimize the viewing experience. For instance, when the camera cut off dancers’ feet during Gustave Le Gray, No. 2, I saw that another viewer had beaten me to making a request for a wider angle in the chat. Later, a representative from the Annenberg Center answered viewers’ questions about the use of sounds and silence in Annenberg Solos. And Anne-Marie Mulgrew, who works with the Annenberg in addition to directing the dance company she founded, made insightful observations about connections between Tanowitz’s new piece and the innovative choreography of Merce Cunningham.

I would have preferred to join the dancers in the Zellerbach Theater, but I did not really miss taking the train to and from University City or waiting in line to use the bathroom once I got there. And it was a treat to view the dancers from multiple angles instead of just one, and to be able to see their faces and movements up close. If you have not yet tried livestreaming dance, I recommend the Annenberg’s events, and Pam Tanowitz Dance Company exceeded expectations in delivering fresh work for these times.

Image description: Four women dancers are on a stage with a brick backdrop. They all have the same pose, balancing on one leg with their bodies arched toward the other leg, kicking up to the side. They’re wearing short, sleeveless one-piece red outfits with ruching on the front.

What, When, Where

Pam Tanowitz Dance livestream from the Annenberg Center. Choreography by Pam Tanowitz. Streamed on October 15, 2020, and accessible on demand through October 17.

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