Review: Tanowitz/Dinnerstein Goldberg Variations at Williams Center for the Arts

by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal

We hear the opening notes of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in total darkness. Gradually, a glowing light illuminates the hands of Simone Dinnerstein on the keyboard, and the light expands to reveal Dinnerstein seated at a grand piano in the center of the stage. A group of six dancers emerges from the darkness. They stand to the side and listen along with us to the tranquil aria that begins the Goldbergs. The dancers gently ease into the music with a simple walking pattern, and thus commences New Work for Goldberg Variation, a collaboration between pianist Dinnerstein and choreographer Pam Tanowitz (both NYC based artists). The 75-minute piece, an ode to order and freedom, premiered at Duke University in October of 2017 and is touring nationally this fall.

Bach composed the inventive 30 variations that follow the aria as a sort of keyboard “practice,” where he sought to explore every possibility of his craft. Choreographer Tanowitz interprets the music as a series of jumping, turning, and skipping dances. The dancers cover a lot of ground with wonderfully intricate footwork. Sometimes their movements are weighted and angular, and other times airy and arching. The outlines of their limbs are visible through see-through pants and tunics, sewn together in panels of soft colors by Reid & Harriet Design.

The music is truly the central element of the performance. Dinnerstein’s 2007 recording of the iconic Goldberg Variations topped the classical music charts and was critically acclaimed as “the definitive version of her generation.” For one of the variations the dancers don’t dance at all – instead, they gather around Dinnerstein at the piano just to listen. There is a witty variation where one of the dancers sits back-to-back with Dinnerstein on the piano bench and joyfully plays an imaginary keyboard with her feet. In another variation, the lights dim for a slow, swooping formal dance that circles the piano. The dancers are silhouetted, evoking the circular group in Matisse’s Dance painting.

Invention abounds throughout the piece, and the dancers’ technical precision brings attention to varying qualities of attack and small flourishes of detail. They retain a relationship to each other, and the movement of one often sets off another. The group of highly-skilled yet natural dancers includes Sienna Blaw, Jason Collins, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Maile Okamura, and Netta Yerushalmy. Particularly striking solos are performed with crispness and clarity by Flores, and with lightness and ease by Jones. The intelligence of the dance and dancers are a subtle delight.

Bach’s music has a solid sense of inevitable ‘rightness,’ and along with the notes of the music, the steps of the dance take shape before us. Interestingly, the dance that is here also suggests the dance that is not here – creating an intriguing awareness of infinite other choreographic visions waiting to be constructed as well. The music is composed symmetrically, and the piece ends as it began, with the return of the aria, and a circle of light contracting to just the piano and then dimming to Dinnerstein’s glowing hands before fading to silence and darkness. The production’s elegant lighting is designed by Davison Scandrett.

Tanowitz has been creating dances for her company for eighteen years. Among other accolades, she received a 2009 Bessie Award for her dance “Be in the Gray With Me,” and a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2017, she was chosen as the first female recipient of the Baryshnikov Arts Center’s Cage Cunningham Fellowship. Tanowitz’s work bears a similarity to Cunningham’s in terms ingenuity of movement and complexity of spatial relationships and patterns. In Cunningham’s work, the dance and music take place in the same time frame but are notably independent of each other. In Tanowitz’s Goldberg Variations, however, the dance and music are closely tied.  Sometimes her choreography corresponds with the music, and sometimes it intentionally contrasts – the relationship is never too obvious, though, and the dance maintains a decidedly post-modern quality of abstraction. Like a Cunningham work, Tanowitz’s version of the Goldbergs affords space for audiences to make discoveries of their own.

About Jane Fries

Originally from the west coast, Jane Fries pursued undergraduate studies in dance at San Diego State University, where she got her start writing about dance for the student newspaper. After an escapade as a correspondent for Dance Magazine in the south of France, she went on to earn her MA in dance from Mills College in Oakland, California. Jane's subsequent explorations in non-theatrical dance forms led her to take up the practice of yoga. She has lived in the Philadelphia area since 1996, and has had the great pleasure to study Iyengar yoga with Joan White. Jane's writing reflects her background in dance history and interest in documentation and preservation.

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