Celebrated post-modern choreographer Pam Tanowitz returns to New York City Ballet this Spring with two pieces—a world premiere set to a lushly textured score by Ted Hearne, and Gustave le Gray No. 1, a witty new addition to the NYCB repertory featuring an onstage pianist performing Caroline Shaw’s nimble, mood-shifting score.
Tanowitz, who founded her widely acclaimed company Pam Tanowitz Dance in 2002, is no stranger to NYCB, with two works for the Company already to her credit— the inventive Bartók Ballet from 2019 and Solo for Russell: Sites 1-5, a collaboration with Principal Dancer Russell Janzen filmed outdoors at Lincoln Center for NYCB’s digital New Works Festival in 2021. Fresh from a rehearsal, Tanowitz recently discussed her new works for NYCB on Zoom.
What was your inspiration for your new dance for the Company?
Ted Hearne’s orchestral piece called Law of Mosaics. I’d been carrying it around for more than five years. It’s rigorous, but there’s heart. He does lots of things in his music that parallel what I do in my projects; He references historical scores and manipulates them so things sound familiar, but they’re in a different context so you’re not sure what’s happening. He shapes time in unorthodox ways. In my work, I parallel that by referencing ballet and traditional modern steps, but giving them a twist or presenting them in a new frame.
Why did you wait so long to use this score?
I wanted it performed live with a full orchestra, so I waited until that was possible. I feel incredibly lucky. And Ted is conducting all of the performances.
This piece began in 2020 and was delayed multiple times due to the pandemic. How did that change the work?
The whole piece was mapped out when the pandemic hit. And then I stopped thinking about it. There is something about leaving and coming back to a project that allows things to marinate. I’m hoping that time will make this dance deeper—making connections between places and material that are poles apart, and letting the dancers make new choices in their journey with me. For example, there’s now a five-minute solo for Russell, and I wouldn’t have had that material if I hadn’t worked with him [virtually] during the pandemic. I also made changes to the structure. One of the amazing things about this music is that each section is its own world. I asked Ted if I could move the order, and he said, sure.
The women wear pointe shoes, but you have a segment in the piece that’s performed barefoot. How did that come about?
I’d been thinking about a barefoot section for Sara Mearns since our collaboration back in 2019 [for the River to River Festival]. It’s in the fabric of our shared histories—the complement of my being a modern choreographer and a celebration of Sara’s pursuits outside of NYCB. I was grappling with the decision, and when I saw the Company perform Balanchine’s Episodes, with the barefoot solo originally made for Paul Taylor, it gave me permission to do it. As with all master artists, they let you see what’s possible.
You created this version of Gustave le Gray for the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America series in 2019 with dancers from Dance Theater of Harlem and Miami City Ballet. What was your inspiration?
I’m attracted to Caroline Shaw’s music for the same reason I’m attracted to Ted’s—the historical references inside their music that I feel I parallel in my choreography. I wanted to make a dance to Gustave le Gray that was action packed with many, many steps. And there’s a moment where there’s a Chopin waltz, and that’s when I sort of nod to Jerry Robbins.
Your dances have a deliberate quality.
I like to be super clear in my work. Every step matters—there are no catch steps, no ‘look at this, but don’t look at this.’ I’m fine if the dancers don’t look exactly the same, but the intention has to be the same.
What is working with NYCB and its dancers like?
Being an outsider coming into a traditional, historically patriarchal structure can be challenging, but the New York City Ballet dancers are up for anything. They are willing to try and experiment. Since dancers play such a dignified role in my work, this is important to me.
One of the first things that Justin [Peck] said when he asked me to do my first piece for the Company was ‘I think that our dancers would learn a lot from you, from how you work.’ Investigation of the virtuosic and dramatic possibilities of performance has always been part of my work, and I can push those limits with these dancers.
For me, the process is one of the most exciting parts. The studio is where I’m the least unhappy. [laughs]
Terry Trucco writes frequently on the arts and travel.
Tanowitz’ works will be performed on April 22, 23 (eve), 24, 29 and May 1. For more information, visit nycballet.com.