Who’s Afraid of ‘Goldberg Variations’? Not This Choreographer.

Who’s Afraid of ‘Goldberg Variations’? Not This Choreographer.

As usual, intricate steps are bountiful in her choreography for “New Work.” But there is also space and air between them. “This piece has been an exercise in restraint,” she continued. “I’m allowing myself to do things that I haven’t done in the past: to let certain things flow.”

Ms. Tanowitz’s dances brim with inventive footwork and rigorous, often stringent choreography, in which the influence of Merce Cunningham is often apparent, yet the Bach has unleashed a more humane lushness in her approach.

Growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., Ms. Tanowitz studied modern dance at the Steffi Nossen School of Dance. She was never a member of a major dance company, but when she attended graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, she met Viola Farber, the former Merce Cunningham dancer, who became a mentor.

“She loved dancing, just dancing,” Ms. Tanowitz said, “And she gave me that love of dancing back.”

Ms. Tanowitz is passionate about dance history, like her mentor was; she frequently includes references to works by an older generation in both ballet and the modern vernacular. That’s another reason she was intimidated by Bach. His music has been used by many choreographers over the years, but most nail-bitingly for her, by Jerome Robbins, whose celebrated “The Goldberg Variations” was made for New York City Ballet in 1971.

“When people say, ‘Don’t worry about the Jerry Robbins,’” Ms. Tanowitz said, choking on a horrified laugh. “I’m like, no — I’m worried about the Jerry Robbins.”


Ms. Dinnerstein and dancers rehearsing “New Work for Goldberg Variations” at the Alexander Kasser Theater in Montclair, N.J. Credit Marina Levitskaya

But in watching the Stephen Petronio Company perform Steve Paxton’s “Excerpt From Goldberg Variations” (1986) as part of the company’s Bloodlines series earlier this year, she had a realization: “Not everything’s been done,” she said. “I feel energized in a way that I haven’t in a long time, because I actually see more possibility, not less.”

In many ways, that has to do with Ms. Dinnerstein’s approach to the Bach, one that Ms. Tanowitz described as “holistic.” Her idea to collaborate with a choreographer came from imagining the music through breathing and movement and steps — perhaps not surprising for a musician who discovered the piano through her dance classes. (She studied ballet when she was a child and living in Rome.)

“I try to breathe a lot when I’m playing,” Ms. Dinnerstein said, “and I try to think a lot about singing, or other instruments. Actually any instrument other than the piano. The piano’s such a mechanical instrument that you have to use your imagination to create these breaths, because you don’t need to breathe when you play.”

Aaron Greenwald, the executive director of Duke Performances, which commissioned the piece with Peak Performances, recommended Ms. Tanowitz to Ms. Dinnerstein. After watching one of her programs, Ms. Dinnerstein was struck by the connection between the choreography and the music.

In “New Work,” the dancers — one man and six women, including the stellar veterans Maile Okamura, Melissa Toogood and Netta Yerushalmyperform around Ms. Dinnerstein’s piano, which is in the center of the stage. As she plays, she can feel the dancers moving. “Playing that piece requires an enormous amount of focus and concentration,” she said. “Without dancers, it’s a hard piece to perform.”

But when they’re running around her, she looks at them. She wants to interact. “I’m trying to have the freedom to play it differently each time so that I can be in dialogue with them,” she said. “At the same time, I can’t lose my place.”

Ms. Dinnerstein laughed: “It’s really complicated because I don’t want to get them confused if I get confused. I want to be solid for them and at the same time I want to be free — and for all of us to be free when I’m playing.”

While Ms. Dinnerstein has been present at many rehearsals, she has also spent time with Ms. Tanowitz in private talking her through the music. At one point, early in the process, Ms. Tanowitz’s confidence wavered; Ms. Dinnerstein said Ms. Tanowitz felt the need to completely understand the music — in both its construction and its history.

“I have similar kinds of fears,” Ms. Dinnerstein said. “I’m not an intellectual musician — I don’t think from the point of a historian or a theoretician, but more in terms of aesthetics. I think that’s how Pam is too. She is extremely smart, but she really listens to her instincts.”

In that moment, Ms. Tanowitz had been intimidated by the sweeping scale of the Goldberg; she feared that she didn’t have enough dancers to express its architecture. But she has come to realize that because the music is so structured, she has more space to express her personality.

“I thought it was going to be the opposite,” she said. “When I have more freedom, I actually feel like I’m covering my tracks more. I have to have more of a mask. I don’t need to do that with the Bach.”

Because it’s so revered, she can be herself. And as far as setting her movement to Bach? “I’ve been fighting against it my whole life,” she said. “Maybe it’s that I have new confidence. I wanted to push against the formal structure of Bach. To me, this feels risky.”

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