Home Art & Culture Review: Finding Hope in an Unfinished Pam Tanowitz Premiere

Review: Finding Hope in an Unfinished Pam Tanowitz Premiere

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On Saturday, the Joyce Theater livestreamed a premiere by the choreographer Pam Tanowitz, who began the program by saying, “It isn’t really finished.”

This wasn’t a confession of negligence or an apology for overscheduling, though Ms. Tanowitz, who before the pandemic was one of the most sought-after choreographers in New York, has been remarkably busy lately, making video dances for both New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.

Rather, Ms. Tanowitz’s words were self-descriptive in the manner of an artist’s statement. The title of the new work is “Finally Unfinished: Part 1,” which was the second half of the 35-minute event — available on demand through Dec. 26 — paired with another recent effort, “Gustave Le Gray, No. 2.”

So what we have here are parts, pieces, versions, recycled matter. A program note reveals that “Finally Unfinished” draws on choreographic material from works that Ms. Tanowitz has previously presented at the Joyce. “Gustave Le Gray, No. 2” is related to “Gustave Le Gray, No. 1,” created last year for Miami City Ballet and Dance Theater of Harlem (and slated for City Ballet’s 2022 schedule).

And there is, already, a “Finally Unfinished: Part 2.” It’s a website, a “digital curio box” (wittily designed by Jeremy Jacob like a cut-and-paste scrapbook with stop-motion animation) gathering together some of Ms. Tanowitz’s inspirations for the dance.

But the livestreamed event is also a kind of scrapbook. It’s an event in the Merce Cunningham sense, combining old pieces in a new order for a new occasion and space.

The “unfinished” business in titles and text is a way of looking at the continuity of a choreographer’s life. For Ms. Tanowitz, the distinction between works may be less important than their common origin as a filament she and her collaborators keep spinning. “It’s never finished for me,” she says, meaning each piece but also the process and practice of making dance. Right now, the humility of the statement registers a sign of hope.

But if her work, to her, is all of a piece, that’s not to say that the pieces are all the same. The first, “Gray, No. 2,” set to a Caroline Shaw score that’s itself a reworking of a Chopin mazurka, is a highly ordered composition for four, quietly absorbing in its shifting configurations, one dancer often swinging to a new position as the whole group moves. The work opposes buoyancy to a sense of weight or fatigue that the dancers eventually stop resisting, sinking to the floor.

This is not the end of the program, though. Because the much wilder and fragmented “Finally Unfinished” begins, as a camera follows the cool fire of Melissa Toogood into the wings. Soon enough, the dancers — seven of them now — will spill into the aisles, seats and balcony. And this theater that has been dark and empty for most of this year becomes animated by elegant, eccentric, brilliant dance.

This is the Joyce’s second experiment in livestreaming. (The first, in which seven dancers each took on Molissa Fenley’s grueling solo “State of Darkness,” happened in October and recordings are available through Jan. 10.) Not all that distinguished as cinematography, it’s less a work for camera than a substitute for being in the theater. In fact, it’s a love letter to what the Joyce was and should again become.

In the score for “Finally Unfinished,” sandwiched between disorienting and raucous contributions by Dan Siegler and Ted Hearne, is a recording of the stage manager cues (“Go, Victor!”) and announcements during a 2014 Pam Tanowitz Dance performance at the Joyce. (“Please turn off your electronic devices” is poignant when heard through an electronic device that is providing your only access to the work.)

And the costumes, designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung for previous Tanowitz pieces at the Joyce, also reference the theater, reproducing its red curtain, chair upholstery and less-than-stylish carpeting. It’s all affectionate mockery, poking fun at the Joyce’s frumpiness while respecting its history as an essential home for dance: the tactile, in-person experience for which this digital version is a placeholder.

At the end of the performance the dancers, filling in for the missing audience, gaze at the stage from their seats. This captures in an image what “Finally Unfinished, Part 2” says in words: “This is not the end. Return for more.”

Pam Tanowitz Dance

Available through Dec. 26, joyce.org.

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