RED HOOK, NY – For a moment or two, Pam Tanowitz may have regretted the title of her latest dance: “I’ve been waiting for the echo of a better day.”
The sentence comes from a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and Tanowitz certainly meant the accusation of a return to live and in-person performances. But the work commissioned by the Bard SummerScape Festival is designed for outdoor use, and the premiere originally scheduled for Thursday has been canceled due to rain. So was the Friday show. The title threatened to become an explanation for the unprecedented premiere.
On Saturday, however, the weather cleared long enough for “I was Waiting” to make its debut. The wait was worth it. As for better days, since the pandemic began, I can only imagine a few dance experiences as exciting as this one.
Unlike many performances forced outdoors by coronavirus protocols, this one really took advantage of their surroundings. This wasn’t a dance that would have been better in a theater. It cannot have existed in one.
In the beginning, the setting was wonderful: Montgomery Place, a property next to Bard College that belongs to him and where Tanowitz works as a choreographer in residence. A pleasant walk (or a golf cart ride) around the grounds led to a steeply sloping strip of lawn that stretched from the balustrade and steps of a mansion to a pond with views of the Catskill Mountains and a sliver of the Hudson River.
We spectators sat on the lawn, isolated from each other in areas like circles on a twister board. String quintet players – including the violinist Jessie Montgomery, whose lively compositions served as the score – got ready on a covered platform. But where should the dancers dance?
Everywhere turned out. And that was the fame of that 45 minute work. First the audience had to turn back to look at the view like at a wedding to see how the first dancer – the brilliantly clear Zachary Gonder – flew down the slope and darted between the circles like a firefly. Other dancers followed, but the first surprise wasn’t in the foreground: there were dancers in the distance, dressed in bright yellow or blue, arabesques between the trees, visual echoes that expanded the dance.
This was the general effect of Tanowitz’s brilliant use of space: to stretch one’s attention with relish. Sometimes a couple of dancers would continue down by the pond while something else up in the mansion did something else. But this more-than-you-see simultaneity was just one option among many.
When a dancer caught our attention, one or two or three others would often emerge from the surrounding foliage: more visual echoes that, by changing the shape and direction of the dance, seemed to change the space around them. When the dancers embarked on a new path or ventured into new open grass, it was like illuminating landscape features and illuminating discoveries. When Melissa Toogood drove down from the balustrade to the pond in a solo part – and then past it to perform in a new place, closer to the river – the dimensions of the dance increased once more, as it is only possible outside. It was a funny move that aroused amazement.
This choreography of the room was enlivened by a movement vocabulary that is more complex, intricate and varied than one would expect from dancers in sneakers on wet and uneven terrain. These dancers – Jason Collins, Brittany Engel-Adams, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Victor Lozano and Maile Okamura, and Gonder and Toogood – are marvels, alone and together. In slow sections they merged into sculptural groups of great, balanced beauty.
Their phrases had their own music, but it harmonized with Montgomery’s score and its oscillating rhythms, quickening pizzicati, scraps of gershwinesque tunes, folk songs and the roar of insects. Birds fell into the silence.
To me, the joys of “I Was Waiting” mirrored the joys of previous Tanowitz works, including the sublime “Four Quartets” that she debuted at Bard SummerScape (indoor) in 2018 and me of Ronald K’s bold, grand SummerScape program Brown / Evidence in 2019. This series builds a track record of dependable transcendence, a promise for better days.
Pam Tanowitz dance
Montgomery Square, July 10-11; bard.edu.