Laura Diffenderfer talks with choreographer Pam Tanowitz about the premiere of "the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces" and the similarities between her creative process and the work of a detective solving a mystery.
Let’s talk about your upcoming show at The Joyce. I know you’re presenting two works: one previous work, Heaven on One’s Head, and a premiere, the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces. What have you been focused on in the new piece?
It’s important to challenge myself with dancers that I’ve worked with before. For example, there is a very simple quiet solo for Melissa Toogood. It’s short, but unlike anything I have made for her. I feel like I have used Melissa in a very specific role for so long, I wanted to challenge both of us.
There needs to be mystery and discovery in the process. For me, it’s working and reworking the elements. I go at it like it’s a puzzle. Sometimes I feel like I’m a detective—like I’m trying to figure out what is happening while I’m making it.
I often have the feeling that one tiny piece of the whole is intentionally left out in your work, making things just slightly off. I think that’s what draws me in so tightly, as a viewer.
Yes, sometimes it’s done on purpose and sometimes it happens by chance. Occasionally, when I make something for four people and someone is sick or busy and I run it with three people, it becomes more interesting to me. When a phrase is made in a certain way, and then you take something away, it’s often better. There’s a joke in my company: don’t miss a rehearsal or your quartet may become a trio.
The missing pieces create a kind of suspense.
Yes, I’m interested in different kinds of tension. There’s a tension in the dialogue between the lexicons of steps—balletic steps with more modern or pedestrian steps. Then there’s the tension between the steps and the composition, between the dancers with each other, theatrical tension—I need to be working in all of those levels. I want the audience to be suspended between meaning and movement. I want them to live in that place.
That place between needing to decipher a story and just taking in the movement?
It’s interesting that you mentioned feeling like a detective. This morning I was thinking of your work in relation to film directors like David Lynch or Alfred Hitchcock. Like you, they often present a familiar façade that gets stranger or more discordant the closer you look.
That’s why my work requires full attention from the audience. Heaven on One’s Head looks like a certain kind of dance; it’s traditional on its surface. But, it’s also different. For instance, a typical adagio is with a man and a woman, but in Heaven, Maggie Cloud performs solo and three men keep coming in and out of the wings. They never make it to the duet. What I have found is that the push up against traditional forms allows me more freedom.
Are you inspired by artists outside of the dance field?
I love French New Wave film directors like [Jean-Luc] Godard and [François] Truffaut. There are composers that inspire me. I carry this Morton Feldman quote with me in rehearsal: Art is a crucial dangerous operation we perform ourselves. Unless we take a chance, we die in art. Just concentrate on not making the lazy move.
I’m trying not to make the lazy move. I was just thinking today that I have this one exit that is too easy, so I need to look at that again. I have a whole list of problems that I need to solve. It’s never finished. It’s never going to be good enough. It’s never going to be the dance that I want it to be.
But, is that what keeps you coming back?
Yes, if I could make that dance, I wouldn’t have to make another dance. So, I just keep trying to crack the case.