Pam Tanowitz

What do Ashley Tuttle, Morton Feldman and the FLUX Quartet add up to? The Blue Ballet.

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  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

  • Photograph: Steven Schreiber

    Pam Tanowitz

Photograph: Steven Schreiber

Pam Tanowitz

Pam Tanowitz is the kind of choreographer who puts herself to sleep with Nancy Goldner's witty essay collection Balanchine Variations (or More Balanchine Variations). In other words, she's a modern dance maker who cares about steps. In Untitled (The Blue Ballet), Tanowitz pushes her desire for movement invention further, creating a work set to Morton Feldman's String Quartet No. 1, performed by the excellent FLUX Quartet, for a group of veteran dancers: Sasha Dmochowski, Jean Freebury, John Heginbotham, Brian Reeder and Ashley Tuttle. Whether it's a ballet or a dance about ballet, Tanowitz's new work, which is at the Kitchen beginning March 8, is a choreographic excavation. With the help of her cast, she's pulling back the tulle to show ballet—or her version of it—from the inside out.

How did you begin this process?
I started working with Ashley Tuttle on the Guggenheim piece, Femina. That piece was set up much differently; it was in sections, and I had her in pointe shoes and everyone else was in bare feet. Looking back, that feels like a transition piece. I was trying to think of a way to utilize my interest in ballet steps and make a more cohesive work. Originally, Blue Ballet was going to be a pointe-shoe piece, but after Femina, I realized that I wanted ballet slippers.

Why?
I felt like it was common ground for me. I'm very interested in pointe work, but it's hard because I'm a modern dancer; I've taken ballet my whole life, but haven't studied enough pointe work to feel like I can really get inside it. I dabbled in it with one dancer, and it was more about objectifying it than getting inside it, so it was more like I was commenting on it, instead of being it. I think it's really important for me to notice the distinction. Now, I want to make a ballet. I have the idea of trying to get inside ballet steps. The idea of "blue ballet" came from something I read about Balanchine that was inspirational to me.

What was it?
He made Jewels. He made Rubies, he made Emeralds, he made Diamonds, and he always wanted to make a sapphire piece, but it didn't happen. I think it was Lincoln Kirstein who said that he wanted to make Sapphire to Schoenberg. I thought, Oh, Sapphire...Blue Ballet. That hit something inside me. And then I realized that a couple of dances ago, I made a piece called Be in the Gray with Me, so obviously there's something about color that I like. The color blue is a directive element in some kind of emotional or psychological overlay that I haven't been dealing with; it just sort of hangs in the back. And then I have the other overlapping structure or circumstance, which is everyone's schedules. It's a boring, but real problem. I wanted to work with all new dancers. Ashley and Jean had worked with me in one piece before, but I'm used to working with people for years, in and out. So the idea of working with a whole new set of dancers, ballet-trained, was the initial idea. I added Jean, who's modern, and now I also have John Heginbotham, who balances out the modern, but is classically trained. To me, that makes sense.

And they both come from big companies.
Yes. Actually, when I was talking to Sarah Michelson, who curated this show, we had a conversation about what "blue ballet" means, and she brought to my attention that all of these dancers have had careers already. Ashley, Brian, John—he's still in Mark Morris, but is sort of coming out of that—Sasha was in ABT, and Jean was in Cunningham. So they've all had major careers before they even stepped into the studio with me, and that's a big deal. I'm faced with these amazing dancers that have all this history: What do I want to do with them, and how do those two things meet?

How do your dancers' histories play into this?
They've helped me make this work. The whole piece is centered around Ashley for two reasons: One is that she's Ashley and she's a beautiful dancer and we connect in the studio, and the other is that she's been in every section. We started this piece a year ago, and when I looked at all the sections, they were all duets or trios. I said, What's the point? What's going on here? To keep trying to make connections, I had to go more inside: What is this piece? It was Ashley. I'm also trying to figure out what my interest in these dancers is. What's my interest in ballet steps? I have the balls to call it a ballet, so I'm making a ballet—I can't really shy away from that, even though in my past works, I've hinted. So I'm trying to have it be more inside of the piece and not be a separate thing.

What else are you thinking about structurally?
It's also an exercise in restraint. Through my conversations with Sarah, and looking at my own work and seeing what my tendencies are, I'm trying not to rely on things that I know I could maybe get away with, but aren't really the best choice.

Like what?
There's one other main thing, but it has to do with what you're asking. A lot of my past work I have made in sections—using forced chunks of music. What I love to do is figure out a way to sew them together. I'm not doing that here. It's one long piece of music that's 75 minutes. When I talked to FLUX, they informed me that their version is 85 minutes. [Smiles] I was like, fuck. But in the Feldman, there's some room to play. The music is scary to me. It's very minimal. It's dramatic. It's also not dramatic. [Laughs] I choreograph with the music and without the music at the same time. I have ideas around where I want landmarks to be. That's usually how I work—I try to feel the structure of the music separately, but it is related to the music—it's not a totally separate Cage-Cunningham thing at all. So one of my tendencies has been to use four different kinds of music and to relate them in a work, and this is not that. And I'm also trying to restrain myself from trying not to do something theatrical that takes you out of the dance. In the past, like in Be in the Gray with Me, maybe 30 minutes of the dance would go by and then I would introduce a new dancer. That's a way to sustain something from the outside. I'm trying to sustain it from the inside. So it's scary. I'm worried.

Why did you choose such scary music?
I started reading about Morton Feldman because he was a contemporary of John Cage. He was a real character. He has a famous quartet called String Quartet No. 2, which is six hours long, and I thought, Oh my God, that would be amazing to have a six-hour dance and have people come and go. Of course I'm not doing that. But I was interested in Feldman, so I was like, I wonder if he has any shorter pieces—he does! It's 75 minutes: String Quartet No. 1. [Laughs] I was like, All right! I liked it. I just felt that it worked for me. It is really beautiful and so different than anything I've used, so that's also scary.

And FLUX will perform live?
Yes. I reached out to FLUX because they are Feldman specialists. They do play the six-hour string quartet, which is amazing. When I spoke to them, it was serendipitous because they were working on String Quartet No. 1 already; they were about to release a CD. I felt like that means something. The music's scary, working with new dancers is scary, but it's also good for me because I have to be more clear in my direction, in my communication. When you work with people for a while, you can just sort of tell them what you want. I get up, I have to dance. It's good.

What do you hear in the music? What do you connect with?
I think it's the emotional quality of it. When I worked with David Gordon last year [as part of a Joyce Soho residency grant], he would be in rehearsal with me, and I would have the dancers do something and quickly say, "Oh, I don't like that, try this." And he always asked me to sit with what I didn't like and to even leave it in—just to figure out why I didn't like it. Maybe that would give me more information. There's stuff in the piece that I don't know if I like; I'm leaving stuff in there that I'm scared of. There are moments with full-on ballet, and what do I mean by that, presentation-wise? I hope that it's in a fresh frame. And it's beautiful in a way that I define beauty, which would be something that's awkward, but also something I don't understand.

It's a little eerie.
Yeah. Of course, the dancers are beautiful, but it's beautiful in the sense that I don't fully understand what I'm doing. I feel like that's worthy of my time. And I hope that it's worthy of the audience's time. I'm working on this internal process, but I want people to watch it.

How does Ashley Tuttle play into it?
Structurally, she's onstage the whole time. But I just realized, as I'm plotting out the end, that she's never alone. Sometimes she's the focus, sometimes she's doing what the group is, sometimes she's a little off the group, but at the end—I just figured this out the other day—she is left alone.

She has to be, right?
It feels like that is a correct way to end this, but it could also be tying it up in a nice bow. This is also the first time where I feel like I know the ending, which is exciting for me, even though you're not supposed to leave the ending to the last like Doris Humphrey says. [Laughs] I always do. But this time I'm not, so maybe it will be okay! I don't know.

Who is Ashley?
She is blue ballet. I think she will be the one dancer in all blue.

I'm picturing a pale blue, like in Balanchine's Serenade. Am I wrong?
You're a little wrong. It's royal blue, white and black. There are curtains in the back and there are blue sort of graphic branches that go across, and the dancers' costumes will be sort of monochromatic black and white. But Ashley will be in blue. That's the general concept now. We'll see how they're executed.

Are you taking information from her entire career for this dance?
We dabbled in a little bit of that for the Guggenheim piece. We would take a phrase that she actually danced in Giselle. She would teach it to me. I did it horribly, of course. There I am doing an arabesque next to Ashley Tuttle; I don't care, really, because I'm just learning it. And then I look in the mirror and I'm mortified, like, Oh my God, I'm doing an arabesque next to her? That's why I'm not onstage. But then we will reverse it or retrograde it and take that and make other things. There might be a little Sugar Plum in there, but it gets so hidden that we even forget where it's from. But we definitey use that as source material. I love ballet, and when I go, I'm always looking at composition or just the details. This is overwhelming because it's such a long dance; I have to balance out pushing forward and working on detail, and because I'm calling it a ballet, I'm very aware of head placement and paulement. That can take 45 minutes, and then I'm like, Shit I didn't even move forward in my dance, but that's important too. So now I'm balancing detail work with pushing forward and making sure it makes sense. And having Ashley be the focal point is hard because then I have to make sense of all the other people and what they bring to it. And she dances with everybody.

How do you think of the others in the cast?
I think of them sometimes as a classic corps or as an extension of her. Let's say all three women are doing the grapevine—I have a grapevine in every one of my dances. I just love that way of traveling. I love grapevine and I love kick-ball-change and I love pas de bourres. I love steps. And that's the other thing about this piece: I just love steps. So for example, if they're doing a grapevine, she'll break off the grapevine to start a solo, but they'll continue the grapevine. I'm still sort of figuring out emotionally what they represent, but I feel like if I can figure it out structurally or compositionally, the other more psychological or emotional meaning will emerge. I hope, I hope. [Quickly] If I set it up right.

Could you talk about the duet she performs with Brian Reeder?
We've been working on that much longer. They have a history, and that's how the piece started: as a duet for Ashley and Brian. They're dear friends. The duet with them is a microcosm—I hate that word—of what I'm trying to do in the full piece, which is to have these traditional roles and steps, but subvert them from inside. I don't think it's a love duet, and I like that. The pas de deux is a central part of ballet, so to me that also makes sense—exploring what that is for me. It's used differently in ballet, but I still think it's a central part. And there is one moment where just the music plays. It's an intermission, but not a lights-up or anything. There's a specific spot in the music that bookends with two of the same sections or repeats, so to me it makes sense to do it there, and I think FLUX is happy about that too. This is sort of amazing: They gave me their recording, and you can hear them breathing on it. It just got me so excited for that live music. I feel so happy that they signed on to it and that I was able to get a grant to pay for it.

Because a ballet needs live music?
Absolutely. I have to quote Viola [Farber] for this, which is there are living, breathing dancers onstage with living, breathing musicians. It takes it to a whole other level. You can't always have it, but I was lucky enough to get the funds for it.

You said that Ashley is The Blue Ballet. What is The Blue Ballet?
Well, I think everybody's The Blue Ballet. I think it is about the fact that these dancers have history. It has to do with my love of dance history and ballet, and their own personal history of what they bring into the studio, and what my history is and of what I want to work on. So I guess that's what I mean when I say a lot of overlapping structural and internal processes. What is ballet? Ballet is fantasy. So I think that this is a way to make fantasy concrete or real.

I think when you take away the pointe shoe, that affects the fantasy, right?
Exactly. And I think the best thing I did was take away the pointe shoe.

Because now you're getting into the emotions: It is blue, it is melancholy.
It is sad. I just hope it's not too sad.

Why do you say that?
Because my last couple of dances have been...there was an entertaining quality to them, and I don't think this has it. So that's scary to me. It's not only entertainment. I think you're right. I think it definitely is sad, but I hope it's open, so it's not pushing audiences away. The pointe shoe would have changed the whole dance. And there are still moments like a couple of months ago where I was like—and, again, this is about restraint—Maybe I'll have Ashley leave and come back with pointe shoes. Even when I was showing Sarah some of the ideas for the set, I was like, "And then I'm going to have this curtain come forward!" She would be like, "You did that already!" So that's also good for me. If the work fails or succeeds, at least I feel like it will be clear.

How much influence has Sarah Michelson had on you? Why did you trust her?
I think she's a great artist. I admire her work very much. And of course I was thrilled that she asked me to do a show at the Kitchen. She has been watching my work for a long time, and I've been admiring her work for many years. I think she's one of the smartest dance makers around. She has been coming to rehearsals since last spring. She is really direct, but in a way that makes me think about what I'm doing in a different way. And I've been running ideas by her for the set and costumes, which is always a really hard thing for me. She does a great job with that. I respect her opinion. She'd be like, "Well, that part looks a little dodgy." She wasn't saying don't put it in there, just look at that again.

Could you talk about the rest of the cast?
Brian's been a dear friend of mine for about five years.

He hasn't performed since 2003. Was it hard to talk him into it?
It actually wasn't. He said, "You're the only person I'd ever do this for." But he said yes. And, of course, I'm thrilled. He hasn't performed in nine years. This was a big deal. He was in ABT, New York City Ballet, Forsythe. He has huge performing experience; he's a well-known ballet choreographer. It's hard to change from choreographer to dancer. It's a different part of your brain. He's great to work with. He's very collaborative. He's able to help me figure things out. And he's gorgeous. He can just move an arm, and I'm interested. And that's the thing with Ashley and Brian—when they move that arm, that actually has nothing to do with me. Ashley's been taking ballet since she was four years old. When I ask them to do things that they're not used to, but are similar—like there's a training step for pirouettes, and I have them move their head in a different way and the port de bras arm is different—that is sometimes way harder for them than the hardest step you could think of because certain things are ingrained. What's great about them is they're game for it. They're not like, Oh that's not how we do it. They're like, Okay, this is different. It's a little frustrating maybe, but this is what she wants and we'll work on it.

What do you say to them?
I'll say, "I want to do a pas de chat. How are the arms usually?" And Ashley will give me four choices. And maybe we combine three of them and the head's down or something. So they help me in that way. I know ballet steps, but I don't know them like that. Jean Freebury, I love. I loved working with her in my last piece. She's amazing to have in the studio. She's really smart. She's a beautiful dancer and she adds something totally different. She was ballet trained; she knows her stuff. It's just a different execution, a different energy. There's a huge duet with Ashley and Jean. They look great together, and the thing is: Here I am presenting Ashley and Jean. People will know who they are. They're well-known dancers, one modern, one ballet, and I don't need them to look exactly the same. I want them to look like they're related. And that also comes up. Obviously John does a pas de chat differently than Ashley does, but that's okay for me.

What are you trying to get across in Ashley's pas de deux with John?
That's a harder one because it's newer, and I'm just getting to know John. So their duet started with the physicality of little steps, and I'm trying to draw out what that means. There is a really hard phrase, which we call the steppy-step phrase. It's all these ballet steps, but inserted are regular steps. So it's like glissade, step, step, pas de chat, step, step.... Actually it's alphabetical by letter. There's fouett, failli, frapp.... That's how I was able to wrap my head around it. I never planned on keeping it that way, but I was like, Okay, I'll do the P's: pas de chat, pas de bourre, pas de cheval, pas de poisson. But then we played with them, and I inserted steps, so it became something different. Basically, when we started teaching John, he had to look at Ashley the whole time. I was looking at him looking at her, and I loved it. I thought, That's it. It's him looking at her; she's doing her thing, and they sync up sometimes, but it's about that, it's about moving the head. It's playing with those looks. It gives it a different texture than the one she dances with Brian. It's also a lot shorter.

What about Sasha?
Sasha is also new for me. I'm getting to know her. She has beautiful line. She has the memory of a steel trap, where she's telling people, "No that's not right." She was in the corps of ABT. I think she finds it interesting to work this way. It's different for her.

She's not in ABT anymore?
Not anymore, but until recently. And she's the one they call when they need people to remember things. I think they relied on her a lot. But I think this is a different, interesting process for her. Brian worked with Forsythe, Ashley worked with Twyla, so they have those experiences. Ballet dancers are used to being told more than asked for their opinions, and that's also something that Ashley has told me. So it's different, I think it's good if they have more ownership of the work.

Back to Ashley Tuttle. Do you talk about the piece?
We talk a lot. Once in a while she's like, "What does it mean?" And I'm like, "I don't know what it means yet!" It's not that I'm withholding anything; I think as I make it, more is revealed. Usually by now, I'm done and then I start working on the execution, which I also do as we go, but like I said, I try to balance it all out. So that is also worrisome to me. I'm not a choreographer that makes stuff behind the curtain the night before the show. I couldn't handle that, and I wouldn't want my dancers to have to handle that.

What is, to you, the essence of Ashley Tuttle?
It's interesting because she's so down-to-earth and easy to talk to as a person, and then when I see her, even in rehearsal, when she's performing, she's a totally different person. She looks like she's a totally different person to me. In a great way. I can sit here and say she's beautiful, she's gorgeous, she has great feet, but it's more than that. She has an internal dialogue. It's like a light.

Why do you repeat things so many times?
My new thing is that I realize I repeat everything three times, so there's nothing repeated three times in this piece. It's four times. There are a couple of things that only happen once, but then there are things that go on 12 times. I'm just exploring that. And also it's in response to the music. It's very repetitive.

And you're still deconstructing steps and positions. Why?
I was hoping I wasn't, but I am. I mean, I definitely am. I think it's my way into the steps sometimes. And I think it's my search for a fresh frame.

Why are you so interested in ballet?
I think there is that fantasy-escape. It's amazing to me that some of these ballets that I love have stood the test of time. I think it's about time passing, and that's in reference to Balanchine I guess. And Jerry Robbins. Just beauty and the sense of time passing. But I also like newer ballets by [Alexei] Ratmansky and [Christopher] Wheeldon. And I watch them in a different way. I watch them to see how they assemble, how they make new ballet just as interesting. This sounds sort of corny, but life is so chaotic that when I watch a ballet, there's order and it makes me feel like I want to be able to do that. I want to make order out of chaos. And it's not like my regular life. That's why I'm an artist. So I can do things I can't do in my regular life.

Pam Tanowitz is at the Kitchen Mar 8--10.

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