Pam Tanowitz's next act: 'I need to make a Jewish dance'

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Pam Tanowitz's next act: 'I need to make a Jewish dance'
From left: Maile Okamura, Melissa Toogood, Christine Flores and Lindsey Jones rehearsing “Song of Songs” at the Fisher Center at Bard at the Fisher Center at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., June 22, 2022. Pam Tanowitz and David Lang talk about how their new work is informed by biblical poetry, Israeli folk dance and their Jewish heritage. Clark Hodgin/The New York Times.

by Brian Schaefer

NEW YORK, NY.- Composer David Lang recently danced the hora at the wedding of a relative — a gay Orthodox soon-to-be rabbi who married his gay Orthodox rabbi boyfriend. “It was totally joyous and totally frum,” he said, using the Yiddish word for devout.

“I love that you said frum,” said choreographer Pam Tanowitz. “I live for the hora. I’ll go anywhere and do a hora.”

Lang grew up doing Israeli folk dances; Tanowitz did not, but she was fascinated by the form. “I would look up on YouTube how to do certain steps, then I would make up all my own phrases,” she said. “I became obsessed with it.”

The two artists were kibitzing at a cafe in Soho recently about their shared Jewish heritage before the premiere of “Song of Songs,” their latest collaboration, inspired by the biblical poem of love and lust that is often interpreted as a metaphor for faith. The evening-length work was commissioned by Bard College, where Tanowitz is the resident choreographer, and will have its debut at the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts there, Friday through Sunday.

Four years ago at Bard, Tanowitz presented her critically acclaimed “Four Quartets” based on the T.S. Eliot poem. It followed 2017’s “New Work for Goldberg Variations,” set to Bach, and Tanowitz saw similarities between the two. She contemplated, she said, a trilogy using another piece of historical music or text that she could “rub up against.”

She also noted that both Eliot and Bach, to varying degrees, have been tainted by antisemitism and said she realized, “I need to make a Jewish dance.”

And then that impulse became more personal: Her father died, a short time after the premiere of “Four Quartets.” She began thinking a lot about the kaddish, she said, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and remembered Lang’s incantatory 2014 piece “Just (After Song of Songs),” composed of quotations from the poem. “It touched me,” she said of Lang’s music. “I was very moved by it. And I just thought, OK, let’s do it.”

She contacted Lang, with whom she had worked in 2015, about collaborating. He was game but hesitant about returning to “Song of Songs,” as he had created music based on it twice before. “I had to think of some other ways to read this piece,” he said. He dove back in and found more phrases, images and ideas that spoke to him. “It’s just such a rich text,” he said.

He ended up composing three new songs that, along with “Just (After Song of Songs),” will make up the score for their “Song of Songs,” accompanying Tanowitz’s marriage of classical, contemporary and folk movement, which shifts focus from the individual to the collective.

Gideon Lester, artistic director of the Fisher Center, said “Song of Songs” portrays “a community of dancers in a kind of courtyard space.” He also praised the way Tanowitz seamlessly blends dance styles in her movement. “In each of her dances,” he said, “you get a history of dance.”

At the cafe, Tanowitz and Lang talked about their approach to collaboration and the enduring impact of their Jewish upbringings. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How did the collaboration work? Did you study “Song of Songs” together and discuss how you would each approach it?

DAVID LANG: Some collaborators are kind of in each other’s faces, but the collaborations I enjoy the most are the ones where someone says: “Music can play a really big role in this piece, and I don’t do music. So, you look at this and respond to it.”

PAM TANOWITZ: I’m not going to tell David what words to put in his text. That’s not interesting to me. David’s music is perfect for dance, it’s so beautiful and effective, the way it can create an environment and a space for the dance to live in.

Q: Pam, you did a lot of research into Jewish dance before this project, including through a fellowship at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2020. What did you take away from that?

TANOWITZ: I became obsessed with Jewish choreographers like [the American modern dance innovator] Hanya Holm. I had no idea how amazing she was. But when you say you’re going to study Jewish dance, what are you studying? Are you studying Jewish choreographers that were modern dancers? Are you studying Israeli folk dance? Are you studying Israeli choreographers now, like Ohad Naharin?

It’s so unspecific when you say Jewish dance. So I sort of dabbled in a little bit of everything. And then I read the poem. And then I stopped reading. And then I danced. I go back and forth. I balance between research and dancing. And I’m not doing anything literal.

LANG: What’s really interesting to me about your pieces is they are formal and they are about something as well. You have to look at them closely and then you realize, Oh, wait a sec, there is something going on here. But it’s not the surface of the piece. I have to figure out what the story is, underneath all of this formalism.

TANOWITZ: I do that on purpose. Because I require audiences to invest something in it. It’s important for me to not alienate audiences, but also I think they’re smarter. And I think they can be engaged.

Q: David, do you see yourself working in a Jewish music tradition?

LANG: I’m not in a Jewish music tradition. And I’m not that religious, but it’s hugely important to my culture and background. But I’m super curious about what all of this influence and all of my religious ancestors have contributed to me and my relationship to music.

I definitely feel like I became a musician partly because there was music in my temple growing up. The cantor’s voice was beautiful. If the cantor’s voice was not good, I don’t think I would have been a musician.

Q: Pam, did your upbringing leave a similar mark on your art?

TANOWITZ: I learned all the songs and all the prayers when I was very young, and when you learn everything young, it sticks with you. But, like David, I’m not religious. But my dad grew up orthodox. As David was talking about remembering the cantor and remembering the music, I could walk into a Conservative temple and I could start singing the prayers. It’s so inside my body. At those moments when I’m at a bat mitzvah or wedding doing a hora, or reciting the Kaddish, it takes me by surprise and I’m overwhelmed. I feel connected somehow.

Q: You made a video during your library fellowship that referenced artistic influences like Jerome Robbins and Fanny Brice. Do they show up in “Song of Songs,” even if in unrecognizable ways?

TANOWITZ: David Gordon was one of my mentors. I was so lucky to be in his piece at MoMA and I got to do a solo of his as he sang [Brice’s] “Second Hand Rose.” I did it three or four times, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He sang it with a Yiddish accent. That felt the same as going to temple to me.

It’s all in there, my history, my Jewish history, my dance history — my mentors, my collaborators. I have a grapevine [weaving footwork that appears in many Israeli folk dances] in every single one of my dances. Because it’s my favorite step. Do it slow, do it fast, do it everywhere.

Q: Had you previously recognized the Jewish influence in your work?

TANOWITZ: No, that’s new. And the other thing I was going to say is it’s not only just Jewish steps. How do these so-called Jewish steps talk to the ballet steps and the modern steps and the pedestrian and the postmodern? All these different lexicons are talking and there’s a dialogue there. But I’m Jewish and I’m a choreographer, so it’s Jewish. And David is Jewish and a composer.

LANG: I don’t know what the Jewish is though.

TANOWITZ: Just that you are Jewish.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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