BECKET >> Choreographer Pam Tanowitz's dances are, simply put, simply that: dances, and ones that speak the language, without irony, of iconic dancemakers from the 20th century.
As illustrated in her two works presented at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week, George Balanchine is conjured not in the way Tanowitz tweaks her ballet-based vocabulary but in the affectionately subtle quotes from his oeuvre. Conversely Merce Cunningham is referenced in the straightforward manner in which her dancers tilt into planed positions, the way they balance in deadpanned calm on one leg.
The first section of "the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces," which premiered earlier this year, is evocatively mystifying. Four dancers — whose costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung make them look like escapees from 1950s and '60s television shows — move about the stage with an intense nonchalance, neither their relationships to each other nor their feelings quite manifest. They execute Tanowitz's brand of retrofitted ballet vocabulary with inscrutable expressions. Are they detached, or veiling anxiety? The familiar but slightly skewed steps often have an added degree of difficulty, but their masks rarely crack.
Melissa Toogood seems to unwind herself as she chug-turns in arabesque, the step and her zoned-out eyes making her look like the girl-gone-mad title character from the 19th-century ballet "Giselle." Dylan Crossman repeatedly turns in a hunched-over promenade, one leg bent behind him in attitude, his hands propelling against the floor. Even when Sarah Haarman performs a series of sprightly traveling jumps they are permeated with the same kind of unsettling wariness within the ominous melancholy of the score, Julia Wolfe's "Four Marys," performed live by the superb FLUX Quartet. Davison Scandrett's lighting design likewise envelops the dancers in a beautiful, but somber ambience.
There are pregnant pauses, the dancers casting disquieting looks at one another, or at the audience. Throughout, Crossman and Toogood return to one another, dancing with a formal intimacy, their eyes often averted. When he swoops her off at the end of the first section, it's not carefree but it is deeply romantic. The subtlest hints of humor — I think — are injected here and there, adding to the overall, and by now delicious, mystery of the dance.
While the presence of a "second part" suggested either more delectable layers or clues to the previous ones, it instead pulled "the story" into murkier depths, ultimately suffocating the piece. On its own, Dan Siegler's electronic score, splintered with snippets of music and miscellaneous sounds, might be trippy; as accompaniment to this dance it quickly grates.
If Tanowitz's second part is an experiment on Cunningham's famous model — in which the various components of a dance were made independently of each other, and put together at the last moment, regardless of the "compatibility" — then I admire her willingness to risk testing her viewers' limits. There's something to the fact that in the moment I found myself increasingly disconnected but kept thinking about it later, like an itch I had to scratch.
Tanowitz's 2014 "Heaven on One's Head," however, is a near home-run of a pleasure, though I suspect that following "the story" robbed it of some of its mojo. (This finely-wrought piece is infused with a dry wit, but on Thursday night the humor seemed to have evaporated.) Nonetheless, Tanowitz is at her best in this dance for eight, also accompanied live by FLUX.
Composer Conlon Nancarrow conjures past masters himself in his string quartets 1 and 3, which made me think of Stravinsky and Hindemith. Or did Tanowitz make me think that, with those little arm gestures from "Four Temperaments," those charming little folk-dance like sequences that recalled moments from "Agon?"
"Heaven" is gloriously musical and thick with more delightful eccentricities. Attractively outfitted in Bartelme's ruby, square-necked tee-topped costumes, Scandrett capitalizes upon the Pillow's rustic beauty. The dancers are again put through their paces, with the slightly oddball port de bras, petit allegro, and endless relevés stamped with the Tanowitz twist.
If ghosts from the masters' works really do hover within Tanowitz's work they are genial — her dances are perfumed with the past but steeped in the present.
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
What: Pam Tanowitz Dance
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Doris Duke Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8:15. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2:15
How: 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org; in person at Jacob's Pillow box office on site