A Choreographer Unafraid of Masterpieces Takes on T.S. Eliot

First Bach, now T. S. Eliot. Pam Tanowitz has developed a habit: choreographing to masterpieces.

After last year’s acclaimed collaboration with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein — an evening-length work set to Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations — her latest source of inspiration is Eliot’s beloved “Four Quartets,” a 75-year-old poetic exploration of time and memory.

When Gideon Lester, the artistic director for theater and dance at Bard College, first brought up the idea of her setting Eliot’s poetry to dance, Ms. Tanowitz responded positively. “I said sure,” she recalled, “but I was really like: There’s no way. How could I make a dance to a poem and one so hefty? Who do I think I am? I said yes because I never thought it would happen.”

But “Four Quartets,” directed and choreographed by Ms. Tanowitz, will have its premiere this week at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard. It’s an impressive and ambitious group effort: Music, by the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, will accompany the actress Kathleen Chalfant as she narrates the complete poem cycle.

The set — designed, along with the lighting, by Clifton Taylor — comprises four paintings by Brice Marden. Costumes are by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Ms. Saariaho’s music will be performed by the Knights, the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra. The sound design is by her husband, the composer and video artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

Mr. Lester wanted to give Ms. Tanowitz, 48, an opportunity to work on a more substantial level. “It’s so hard, particularly for New York choreographers, to work on any kind of scale outside the structures of ballet companies,” he said. “Everybody gets used to making works for three dancers in a black box.”

This time, he’s not letting that happen.

Shifting Scenery

For the look of “Four Quartets,” Ms. Tanowitz has worked closely with Mr. Taylor. At the start, she told him what she didn’t want: a straightforward backdrop for each of the poems — “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding” — which are named after the places Eliot wrote about.

“Pam likes to see the stage in different sizes and proportions,” Mr. Taylor said. “I think it fits really well with the poetry, which comes from different angles. It’s like looking at a jewel from a different facet.”

Mr. Taylor paired “Dry Salvages,” named after a cluster of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Mass., with “Untitled (Hydra),” from Mr. Marden’s latest series focusing on curvilinear lines on a field of color. It will be reproduced at scale, translucent and placed on wheels. Dancers will perform in front of and behind it; they will also move it onstage.

“That poem deals with a lot of water imagery: They’re in the sea, they’re on boats,” Mr. Taylor said. “So the curvilinear lines, the color palette — it all fits.”

Mr. Taylor’s other job — lighting the production — is just as crucial to carving the audience’s experience. “To me, light is interesting because it’s time,” he said. “It’s exactly the issues that Eliot’s dealing with in the poetry. I want to create scenery that changes through time, that talks about time.”

Sounding Off

Ms. Saariaho, in an email interview, said that she had been inspired by Eliot’s poems since she was young. One of her early works for soprano, lights and electronics, “Study for Life” (1980), used text from the fifth part of “The Hollow Men.”

She was refused rights to use the poetry; it was performed only once. Even though that experience left her disappointed and frustrated, it couldn’t quell her admiration for Eliot’s poetry and “Four Quartets.”

“These poems are really musical, as all his work is,” she said. “Eliot clearly worked on sound and repetition of words and images. This is similar to a composer’s work.”

Her music accompanies the text “from a respectful distance,” she said. “And it has been interesting to observe how combining the music in this text changes the listening, and, maybe surprisingly, makes the text easier to comprehend.”

Ms. Chalfant has thrown herself into the project with much enthusiasm, even traveling to England for a pilgrimage to visit three of the sites that inspired “Four Quartets.” (Mr. Lester and Ms. Tanowitz visited all four in preparation.)

“That was enormously helpful because it made you understand that even though the poem is immensely cerebral and philosophical and dealing with questions of time, it is also very concrete,” Ms. Chalfant said. “Some of the things that were particularly mysterious turned out not to be: It was actually a rose garden, and the sunken lanes were actually sunken lanes.”

Ms. Tanowitz said that Ms. Chalfant’s voice — just as with Ms. Dinnerstein’s playing in “Goldberg” — helps to guide her in rehearsals. “It’s unadorned,” Ms. Tanowitz said. “It’s not too lofty or too earthy, it’s just presenting the material. And she’s not acting it; she’s reading it.”

In the work, Ms. Chalfant will read the entire poem from a raised pit. “I’m really just part of the band,” she said.

Dancing in Verse

When Mr. Lester approached Clare Reihill, the trustee of the Eliot estate, for permission to set the poem to dance, she was immediately intrigued. “I honestly couldn’t see anything that would prevent me from saying yes,” she said. “Even though it’s a kind of unified event, the poem emerges in its own right.”

But how to make a dance to match it? Ms. Tanowitz began working last May, when she was still choreographing “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” She sees the two as companion pieces: “Goldberg” starts and ends with an aria, while “Four Quartets” is about time present and time past. They’re circular.

“The core is spiritual: It has rhythm, it’s development, it’s form, it’s traditional, and there’s freedom in the tradition,” Ms. Tanowitz said. “Both of these pieces equal endless possibilities. It’s about the relationship between emotion and form.”

It was also meaningful that in “Four Quartets,” there are several references to dance. “The poem is dance, and it also literally has dance in it,” Ms. Tanowitz said. “He saw Nijinsky. He was inspired by Isadora Duncan. But what’s amazing about the poem is that it’s inevitable. As it goes on, you don’t question anything.”

And Ms. Tanowitz is trying something new. Not only will she make a rare appearance dancing in the work herself, but she also tried to approach it from a place of intuition, as opposed to planning all the movement in advance. “I’ve choreographed before in my life, but I’ve never choreographed this exact dance in this moment,” Ms. Tanowitz said. “So I’m letting the dance show me what to do. If I can do that and make it seem inevitable, then maybe I can even have 2 percent of what he did in this poem.”

Four Quartets
Friday through Sunday at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; fishercenter.bard.edu.

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