Dance Review: “New Work for Goldberg Variations” — Probing the Infinite

One fascinating aspect of this collaboration is that the dance and music harmonize but don’t mimic each other.

New Work for Goldberg Variations, conceived by Pam Tanowitz and Simone Dinnerstein. Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, December 8 through 10.

Photo: Maya Rafie

Lindsay Jones and Simone Dinnerstein performing “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” Photo: Marina Levitskaya,

By Marcia B. Siegel

It’s hard to imagine a work as formidable as JS Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” coming across as intimate. But the team of Pam Tanowitz and Simone Dinnerstein manage it in their extraordinary dance, New Work for Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg, a staple of the recitalist repertory, was written for harpsichord around 1741. These thirty variations on an opening and closing theme, a veritable encyclopedia of musical devices, have been played and recorded on both harpsichord and piano. Renditions have ranged from that of the scrupulous Wanda Landowska to the introspection of Glenn Gould. Attempting a solo performance of this scope (it lasts over an hour) must require great courage and stamina, let alone imagination. To add dancers without detracting from either music or choreography is even more challenging.

New Work for Goldberg Variations is the co-creation of Tanowitz and Dinnerstein, who complement each other perfectly. They succeed in mysterious ways. Tanowitz’s contribution amounts to two or three ordinary ballets, and Dinnerstein plays through the whole score uninterrupted, in bare feet. I’m still exploring the dance mentally after seeing it at the ICA Friday night and in a preview there last summer. It’s a lot to take in, which is a satisfying change from the tiny dance bites we see elsewhere.

One fascinating aspect of this collaboration is that the dance and music harmonize but don’t mimic each other. Bach’s counter-rhythms are so interwoven that you can’t untangle them on one hearing, but Tanowitz’s choreography helps the inner scheme to become visible. Her ensembles can contain their own counterpoint, so that at times the whole group collectively reproduces the piano’s two hands. Although she thinks balletically, Tanowitz doesn’t lay out the dance in formal, front-facing lines like other ballets. When she makes a group pattern, it can be a big circle facing the piano, which is placed center stage, or the dancers might cluster around Dinnerstein as if magnetized, or break into a run at a musical suggestion.

Tanowitz uses a step vocabulary drawn from classical ballet, with modern dance attributes like bare feet and unconventional arms. The dancers always look vertical, even when they’re tilting off center or balancing on bent legs. They seem calm and even casual, but they don’t try to look “natural”; every move is rehearsed. When they echo the music, they can be subtle, sliding to the floor or shaking their shoulders on one of Bach’s decorative effects. They can explode into big jumps, but not necessarily when the music prods them to.

The choreography is essentially soloistic. The steps are seemingly simple; you can see each dancer very clearly even when all seven of them are on stage at once. Tanowitz makes opportunities for every one of the dancers to stand out. Sometimes the stage clears in conventional ways, so that one soloist is left to work in tandem with Dinnerstein. Other times the solo dancer’s colleagues will be sitting on the floor watching, or standing and facing away. When the whole company is on at once, they probably won’t all be doing the same thing. People come and go quietly within a variation, leaving the remaining people to carry on. The dance looks intimate, but at the same time it looks crammed full of action.

There’s drama in this dance, as in the music, but the drama is formal. We’ve gotten away from the idea of the classical, which is that movement, and music too, has meaning of its own, but not necessarily literal meaning. The only real drama here is in the formal composition. Tiny running steps echo Bach’s trills and fast ornaments, but not always at the same time as the music. Maile Okamura uses the side of the grand piano as a ballet barre, with some eccentricities, moving downstage along it until she’s right next to the pianist, who keeps on without a blink. At another point, Lindsey Jones suddenly sits on the piano bench back to back with Dinnerstein. There are many duets, but instead of euphemisms for romance, they’re encounters between people. The partners mirror or echo each other’s moves, or answer in a different voice, but they seldom touch. Their arms may curve but they don’t close into embraces.

There are no obvious or conventional design elements except for Davison Scandrett’s lighting and the Reid & Harriet costumes: gauzy leggings and long tunics in pastel colors for the six women and the one male. (Sienna Blaw, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Maile Okamura, Netta Yerushalmy, Melissa Toogood and Jason Collins)

By starting the dance in darkness, with a very gradual fade in, lighting designer Davison Scandrett sets the scene for drama. With subtle and not-so-subtle changes, the stage evolves to become bright, dimmer, suddenly orange or pink, as the music changes its mood.

After all the variations, the aria theme returns, even slower than the first time, and the lights go down. The dancers drift away one by one into the gathering darkness. Only the piano and then only the keyboard and the hands of the redoubtable Dinnerstein are left. Then darkness.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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