For insight into New York City Ballet’s creative and stylistic breadth, look no further than the program for the Company’s Spring Gala on May 2. Joining George Balanchine’s neo-romantic Tschaikovsky Suite No. 3 are two new works. Pam Tanowitz, a New York choreographer known for her singular post-modern treatment of classical dance vocabulary, will create her first-ever piece for the Company. And Resident Choreographer Justin Peck will unveil his 18th ballet for NYCB.
Tanowitz makes inventive abstract pieces that explore formal ideas about dance in unpredictable ways. Consider two recent works, her highly praised Four Quartets, inspired by the poems of T.S. Eliot, and New Work for Goldberg Variations, which propels her dancers around a grand piano played by pianist Simone Dinnerstein. With her company Pam Tanowitz Dance, established in 2000, she has devised work for The Joyce Theater, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, among others. The Martha Graham Dance Company recently gave its world premiere of her work Untitled (Souvenir), and Paul Taylor American Modern Dance will premiere a Tanowitz piece in June.
Since winning critical acclaim for Year of the Rabbit, a ballet he made as a 25-year-old member of the corps de ballet, Peck has created new ballets, most recently Principia, and continued to dance as a Soloist. He has also made dances for a constellation of creative institutions including Miami City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, and the Broadway revival of Carousel, which landed him a Tony Award in 2018. In addition to his role as NYCB Resident Choreographer, Peck has recently added Artistic Advisor to his portfolio, and he plans to step off the NYCB dancer roster following the 2019 Spring Season.
During a chat in the airy NYCB boardroom, the two dance makers talked about their latest works, Balanchine’s enduring influence, and the surprising personal details they slip into their dances.
Justin, what was your inspiration for your new piece?
Peck: I’m actually revisiting music I’ve worked with before. It’s beautiful, ephemeral music called The Bright Motion by the contemporary classical composer Mark Dancigers. The concept of the piece feels like people passing through a common space, having some kind of interaction, and then moving on with their lives. It’s abstract, but I think a lot of people can relate to the experience of how people come in and out of our lives.
Why did you come back to this piece of music?
Peck: I’m in a very different place in my choreographic development and career. Originally, I used it for Fall for Dance in 2013, which [NYCB Principal Dancer] Sara Mearns asked me to do as a one-off. In revisiting the music, I wanted it to have more dimension, and I felt that I could accomplish this by expanding it to three couples. Originally it was just for piano, but I’ve been working with Mark [the composer] to have it orchestrated.
Pam, what was the starting point for your piece?
Tanowitz: My pieces all start in different ways, but this one came from the music, Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5. It’s complicated and layered. I don’t read music, so I’m attracted to scores with a visceral feel. There’s something about it that really stirs the blood. I got turned on to it by my friends in the FLUX Quartet who play it and who will actually perform it at NYCB. I’m going to put the musicians onstage because it feels like that kind of piece.
Peck: I always look for an excuse to put musicians on stage because that kind of brings things together.
Tanowitz: I do, too. This piece deals with so-called ballet steps more than some of my other work. And it’s on pointe, which I’ve learned a lot about from working with the dancers. Since I started with modern dance, I’ve always looked at ballet with an outsider’s eye. I’m trying to figure out how to use pointe work to get inside the movement instead of placing my ideas on it from the outside.
Pam, you’ve said every piece you’ve made has a Balanchine step.
Tanowitz: It’s true. It’s little things that I think no one will notice but they’re there for me. There’s a step I think I stole from Agon where they go on their knees like this [she demonstrates with her hands]. But often I take conceptual, compositional things that open up my imagination. I used to be obsessed with Nancy Goldner’s “Balanchine Variations” books. I’d read them and imagine the ballets in my head. I hadn’t even seen them, but that’s how rich his work is.
Justin, are there any secret steps in your work?
Peck: Oh, I borrow steps all the time. And actually, I feel like dance has an evolutionary nature. I always try to put one step or sequence from my last dance into the next so it’s running forward, something I liked or that sticks in my mind that I want to see again in a different context.
Tanowitz: I do that too!
Justin, what was it about Pam’s work that resonated with you and spurred her invitation to come work with the Company?
Peck: A lot of things. Every piece she does is a different experience, but it always comes from a very intelligent place. She’s got a great work ethic. She’s also been watching our dancers and has worked and built relationships with some of them outside of NYCB. It’s really important to me that the people we bring in know the dancers and want to work with them.
Pam, did you ever expect to work with New York City Ballet?
Tanowitz: No, I never thought I would work with this company; I wanted to, but I didn’t know how it could happen. Oh, actually, I did work here—I poured coffee in the green room for donors at intermissions. I had just graduated from college and a friend of mine who worked in the development office gave me the job. So yes, I’m really excited to be back!
Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.