Pam Tanowitz: Out of the Shadows
Pam Tanowitz is among the finest choreographers in modern dance. But she refuses to put her feet up.
Pam Tanowitz is a successful choreographer and the founder of Pam Tanowitz Dance. Her awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Artist Award.
Born in New York in 1969, Tanowitz studied dance at Ohio State University and Sarah Lawrence College. She began to choreograph in 1992, while living in New York and working full time, and founded Pam Tanowitz Dance in 2002. Admired for its blend of traditional ballet and contemporary movement, the company received commissions from Chicago Dancing Festival, the Guggenheim Museum, the Joyce Theater, and New York Live Arts, among other places. Tanowitz’s work has also been performed by such prominent dance companies as Martha Graham Dance Company, Paul Taylor Dance Company, and the New York City Ballet.
Her 2018 piece Four Quartets, inspired by the T.S. Eliot poems, was called “the greatest creation of dance theater so far this century” by The New York Times. Other celebrated works include New Work for Goldberg Variations (2017) and Blueprint (2018), featuring music by Pulitzer-winning composer Caroline Shaw.
Pam Tanowitz found success as a choreographer in her 40s, but though late bloomers embody the power of obsessive dedication and hard work, she isn’t ready to rest on her laurels just yet. For many creators, an opening night is a joyous occasion. Months of hard work finally become tangible. Fans and friends gather to celebrate, and the visionary at last gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy what they’ve made, but not for Tanowitz.
Pam Tanowitz: I won’t watch my dances in an audience. That does not happen. I’m in the back, in the wings, throwing up emotionally in the corner. I can’t bear to watch it. It takes me a long time—
Performance is actually her least favorite part of the entire process.
Tanowitz: It’s like I spend all this time working, and all I care about is the dance and making the best dance that I can make at that time, at that moment in time, but it’s hard for me to receive it. All I see are failures. All I see is what went wrong.
But plenty of people who know about these things are finding very little wrong with Tanowitz’s work. Despite the deluge of praise of these last few years, most of Pam Tanowitz’s development took place in quiet obscurity. She earned a BFA in dance from Ohio State University, then an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College where she was mentored by the famously determined and genre-defying choreographer, Viola Farber-Slayton. After graduation, Tanowitz moved to New York where her journey to self-realization and then prominence, was gradual, yet deliberate.
Tanowitz: I was working every day, ten to six, rehearsing six to nine and on the weekends, and then trying to take care of a baby, and all kinds of stuff.
AJC: Were you doing it because you had to do it, or were you doing it because there was, you know, a plan?
Tanowitz: I had no plan. All I wanted to do was make dances. And I also knew that I needed money, and I needed health insurance. And I also wanted to make what I wanted to make. So, I didn’t want to not have a job and then have to go run around teaching and scrambling for things that I didn’t want to do. I felt like this was actually a better plan, to have a day job, and then just make the dance I wanted to make, and I just kept doing it, you know? And I did it for a really long time, so.
AJC: And then when it happened, when it started to look like people were getting you?
Tanowitz: Well, I started using up all my vacation days for going to make dances and all this stuff and I would leave early, and do all different, it was hard to keep the job, and that’s when my boss and my dear friend said, “We gotta talk. You don’t need to be here anymore. You’re hiding. You need to do this thing.”
Much of Pam Tanowitz’s choreography is informed by ballet, but because her dancers don’t wear point shoes, the work remains firmly modern.
Tanowitz: I like to take the air out of certain ballet steps and get them more grounded. Actually, one of the most important things about my work is those traditional steps but done with the tension of the bare foot. Doing a pas de chat in bare feet, and landing and the accent is on the down, not the up, and you can feel it, so it looks familiar, but it’s a little off. You know, it’s just a different accent.
Tanowitz is not using choreography to process her deepest emotions, yet each piece does inevitably still end up feeling intensely personal.
Tanowitz: My work is much more objective, so there is a separation. But I also think just making work is personal, so even if it’s not an obvious, everything’s exposing, really. I mean, to make stuff and put it on stage is humiliating. I mean, it really can be, and I have humiliated myself, and the thing that’s horrible about it is that you don’t even know ‘til it’s the show, or the dress rehearsal. You could think you’re doing this whole thing, and it’s like working, and it’s happening, and then you put it on the stage, and you’re like, “Wow, okay.”
In 2012, Tanowitz’s Blue Ballet garnered a great deal of attention, but for all the wrong reasons.
Tanowitz: That’s the piece I realized it’s not enough to have a good idea to make a dance in your head, it’s not enough. You need both. You need your heart and your head, and it has to come together.
Happily, the experience didn’t teach Tanowitz to fear risk, and she’s made some of her finest pieces since that 2012 flop. Among her most celebrated, a collaboration with Simone Dinnerstein, on the pianist’s breakthrough piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Tanowitz followed up the Goldberg Variations with two more rousing successes, Blueprint, featuring music by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Caroline Shaw, and Four Quartets, an interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name, with music by the world-renowned Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. But despite the acclaim, today Pam Tanowitz is doing as the poet Rudyard Kipling described in If, meeting with triumph and disaster, and treating those two imposters just the same.
Tanowitz: That’s exactly what I try to do, is I try to keep them even so you stay grounded and you just keep trying to make the work.
But for Tanowitz, the work isn’t like the old day job. It is vocational, all-consuming, a way to create meaning through motion.