'New Work for Goldberg Variations' is an elaborate masterpiece

by Isabelle Blank | 1/15/19 2:00am


Choreographer Pam Tanowitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein tackle Bach’s equally canonical and intricate “Goldberg Variations” in a collaborative piece entitled “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” Tanowitz’s company performed the new piece this past weekend at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The performance proved to be a testament to the value of contemporary re-invention of an age-old piece.

During her pre-performance talk, Tanowitz said that choreographing to such a ubiquitous piece “is daunting, [because] everybody has a favorite version of the piece, a favorite sequence.” According to Tanowitz, the project began when Dinnerstein approached her with the idea for Tanowitz to choreograph a new work “Goldberg Variations.”

“I was very reticent to do this piece,” Tanowitz said. “At the beginning of the process, Simone brought over tons of her CDs for me to listen to, and I was all set to say no. I was scared. And then I listened to the first aria and my heart melted. I thought, ‘I can forget about the other stuff.’ I forgot about the fear and the magnitude of the variations, and I knew I had to choreograph to Simone’s rendition.”

Tanowitz said that the choreography is the result of a true collaboration between pianist and choreographer.

“The first aria is so beautiful that I barely choreographed to it,” Tanowitz said. “I let the music have its own moment.”

Tanowitz added that Dinnerstein attended rehearsals and became familiar with the dancers. The friendly rapport between dancers and pianist is evident in the performance.

“It’s rare to have a musician present ... while you’re choreographing to her music, and so I really wanted to bring her into the final product,” Tanowitz said. “I really went for it and wanted to convey how much this dancing came directly out of the music, so I put the piano in the middle of the stage.”

Tanowitz’s choreography is clean-lined, featuring staccato-movements that blend both balletic and contemporary dance practices. She creates a lively but delicate language of movement that coalesces well with Dinnerstein’s skillful playing. At the beginning of the dance, the curtains open to reveal a dark stage. Ghostly dancers stand before Dinnerstein’s piano, their figures barely visible in the pressing blackness. The first sounds of Dinnerstein’s music emerge from darkness. It is as though the dancers’ subsequent movements are born from these isolated notes alone.

Once the stage is fully illuminated and the first aria is well under way, the dancers appear. They wear striped chiffon tunics and overalls in shades of pink, yellow, orange and blue. The group evokes a sherbet-hued version of Picasso’s harlequins. Tanowitz did well in giving Dinnerstein her own presence. Bare feet firmly planted on the ground and fingers flying over the keys to produce intricate music, the pianist’s center-stage presence literally and figuratively grounds the choreography and lends an extra layer of theatricality to the work. Tanowitz’s dancers roll under, sit by and whirl around Dinnerstein’s piano. At one point, a dancer sits back-to-back with Dinnerstein and mimics the pianist’s manual movements with her feet, eliciting chuckles from the audience. In Variation 17, Dinnerstein’s fingers cross and uncross over the keys while Tanowitz’s dancers dance diagonal grapevines: their feet crossing and uncrossing across the stage.

Tanowitz said that she sought to embed a sense of dialogue within the piece.

“I worked with the dancers and with Simone to form a series of multi-dimensional relationships so that [the piece] is not just dancers performing for an audience, but that [the performers] have established relationships with each other and with the music,” she said. “These dialogues overlap and become a part of the process of the piece and then stay there in the choreography.”

Tanowitz’s dancers don’t only project to the audience, but give each other glances, knowing smiles and furtive looks: evidence of process-based relationships that crystalized to be a part of the final product.

Lily Hanig ’19 noted the power of live music and Tanowitz’s choreographed web of inter-personal relationships.

“It was really interesting when the piano would finish a piece and the sound would reverberate and the dancers used those echoes to keep moving in a way that doesn’t happen with a recording,” Hanig said. “A lot of dancers focus on moving the body alone, but in this, the dancers did a lot with their eyes and heads. They really danced and interacted with each other and didn’t just dance in the same static headspace.”

Students of Professor Ted Levin’s first-year seminar “The Power of Music” attended the performance on Friday for an assignment, as they’ve been studying Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for the past few weeks, said Clarke Eastman-Pinto ’22, a member of Levin’s class.

“The piece was very thought-provoking, but I thought its meaning was not expressly conveyed,” Eastman-Pinto said.

Fiona Cronan, ’22, disagreed with her classmate.

“I think that having studied the ‘Goldberg Variations’ for weeks in [“The Power of Music”] really improved my understanding of the performance,” Cronan said. “It’s one thing to look at the dancers and try to figure out what’s going on, but when you’re familiar with the music, it’s easier to understand the choreography and the choreographer’s decisions. I think that [Tanowitz’s choreography] matched the music perfectly and went really well with the piece.”

Just as the performance began in darkness to Bach’s first aria, Tanowitz concludes the performance with Bach’s “Aria di Capo.” The dancers stop moving and position themselves around Dinnerstein’s piano. The lights dim, darkening the dancers’ forms so that only Dinnerstein’s fingers moving over the keys are illuminated. The dancers return to whence they came; the movement and stage-light melts back into the music. This is a dreamlike, cyclical finale that stays true to Bach’s organization of the variations. Aria to aria, darkness to darkness, stillness to stillness. The reverberations of piano and past movement remain.

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