"Drama is contrast": Pam Tanowitz's 'The Spectators' at NYLA

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For The Spectators at New York Live Arts, which I saw on May 17, choreographer Pam Tanowitz created a theatrical experience that unfolded dramatically, though the piece was without characters or stories. The drama was created by the steps: executed with focus and arranged in ways that kept my attention with their unpredictability. If ballet is a language, Tanowitz’s dance uses that language with a rearranged syntax and the addition of foreign words—not for flourish, but because the foreign word just works better. So you might see something like a kick, ball, change to travel instead of a pas de bourrée, preceded or followed by a classical arabesque.

Merce Cunningham has often been quoted as saying “Drama is contrast.” It was extremes of light and dark as well as spatial extremes that made The Spectators dramatic. The stage would be mostly dark when certain dancers were highlighted by lights in the far reaches of the space.

Sarah Haarmann, Andrew Champlin, and Pierre Guilbault.
Photo by Elyssa Goodman, courtesy of Time Out New York.

So, as the musicians of the FLUX Quartet entered the space, sitting on chairs in the downstage left corner of the stage, dancer Dylan Crossman made his exit along the right-side wall. Or, in another moment, Crossman moved in the far left corner of the wings, where those sitting on the stage left side of the theater could not see him.

Lighting design by Davison Scandrett created these powerful images, and as well as moments that felt like “scenes.” A part that I especially enjoyed was a section of setting and resetting. Melissa Toogood did turns into the upstage right corner, paused on arrival and turned to look at the other dancers, who were watching her. The lights went down on the stage, and up (not all the way) on the audience and the dancers reset in different positions, Toogood returning downstage to begin the chaîné turns again after the lights came back up.

In this way, The Spectators seemed to relish its own theatricality. There was ceremoniousness in the way the dancers came to their places on stage, moved about, and interacted with each other. Even in breaches of dignified behavior (like when Pierre Guilbault slid his hands down Toogood’s thigh, sweeping them along the floor as he backed away from her), there was no feeling of a mistake or a loss of control.

One of the most engaging parts of The Spectators was a group section, about halfway through, after the FLUX Quartet began playing composer Annie Gosfield’s music. A quartet of dancers turned into a quintet with movement in canon, the timing of the steps manipulated in various ways. The music was dissonant at times, loud, and intense, but always beautiful. Live music strikes me as a point-of-entry for theater-goers, especially ones who may not be as familiar with dance. Most people have seen live concerts or recitals and can relate to the music being performed, even if they aren’t as engaged with the dancing. Music can offer freedom from watching if one is not engaged with what the dancers are doing.

But maybe not for this audience—very few of us stayed after the performance for a wonderful concert by the Quartet, with music by Conlon Nancarrow, Tom Chiu, Béla Bartók, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown.

Photo by Elyssa Goodman, courtesy of Time Out New York.

Sarah Haarmann, Pierre Guilbault, Maggie Cloud, and Melissa Toogood.
Photo by Elyssa Goodman, courtesy of Time Out New York.

The part of The Spectators that I most enjoyed was the opening solo for Toogood. This may be partly because my eyes and/or my brain are lazy, and so I prefer to watch just one person dance at a time. But it was really gorgeous. She moved mostly along the center stage line, upstage and downstage, turning and jumping with precision in an incredibly full-bodied way. For this solo and the rest of the beginning half of The Spectators, an original composition by Dan Siegler accompanied the dance.

I’d like to start seeing dances more than once more often. I say this because the parts from The Spectators that I remember the best are the ones that I recognized from the work-in-progress showing that I saw back in January. One of these parts was Toogood’s solo from the beginning. Another part that I greatly anticipated was a duet for Crossman and Toogood near the end of the piece. There’s a moment when they paused, both in lunges, and he brushed her hair from her face. Then they took a few more steps and paused with their lips together. It was fascinating, because it was like a kiss, but totally lacking in the spirit of a kiss. The way they froze the motion turned it into an image of a kiss, rather than an action.

But I was disappointed by the version at the performance. The lights flashed in rainbow colors during the kiss at NYLA, so it was difficult to take in the moment. The “kiss,” half obscured, lost its peculiarity and became more illicit and guilty than artful.

Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood. Photo by Elyssa Goodman, courtesy of Time Out New York.

Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood.
Photo by Elyssa Goodman, courtesy of Time Out New York.

Lighting and music can be so very effective, and in The Spectators they definitely contributed to the effect of the dance, to the drama of the action onstage. They were also a disruption, in some ways. I enjoyed the spare quality of The Spectators‘ work-in-progress showing, which took place in NYLA’s studio spaces. The studio was flooded with natural light from 19th street, quite different from the dark of the theater space. I think, however, that something deeper was at work in the performance of The Spectators. For a dance whose title invokes watching—the audience watching the dancers, the dancers watching each other, and the dancers looking at the audience—what ways can one subvert expectations and deny the gaze? The audience’s focus was directed and deflected, as the dancers moved along clear cut lines, and moved and gazed with precision, while sometimes lurking on the edges of the space or looking away from each other. As a friend of mine noted, the dancing in The Spectators was undeniably good. What a treat to finally see complex and thoughtful choreography worthy of such fine dancers.

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