ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY – “Kiss Me.” No sooner has the biblical Song of Songs begun than the speaker makes a move. For the scriptures, the poem is quite lascivious, which is one reason why it has led to many interpretations.
The latest is “Song of Songs,” a dance-theatre work by choreographer Pam Tanowitz and composer David Lang, which debuted Friday at Bard College’s Fisher Center. It is a refined, restrained and at times breathtakingly beautiful response to the poem. There is no cushion in it and spirituality is just a suggestion. Instead, the beloved here is beauty.
Tanowitz’s last theater production at the Fisher Center, where she is a resident choreographer, was the acclaimed ‘Four Quartets’. That work revolved around reciting a difficult poem by TS Eliot. Now is the time for singing. “Song of Songs” begins with voices in tight harmony: Lang’s 2014 composition “Just (After Song of Songs).”
“Just your voice,” they sing, “just your throat,” enumerating the lover’s attributes with repeated chords. This is interspersed with two other motifs, one begins with “And my” (breasts, beloved), the other with “our” (home, laughter). Along composition, adding cello, viola, and percussion, is a sort of analysis of the biblical text, drawing sentences beginning with possessive pronouns. The repetition and enumeration are formal but also appetizing: only this would be enough, and also this and this. The rhythm is processional, with almost as much silence as sound, and the voices open and expand on each ‘our’.
Tanowitz’s choreography treats both the text and the music with the same slant. It begins with a solo, Maile Okamura dancing around the set, reminiscent of an elegant hotel lobby: striped curtains delimiting an open space with long, low benches and a circular platform. (Production design is jointly credited to Tanowitz, Clifton Taylor, and the costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung.)
When another dancer arrives (Melissa Toogood), the two don’t act like lovers except to circle excitedly. At most they press on the palms. When more dancers appear, they also touch Okamura’s hands, running past her one after the other, expressing their eagerness through repetition. The feeling is reflected in later movements, when the dancers are lifted off the platform, one by one, by two men, as if over a turnstile.
This is not a dance about a single couple, although it sometimes seems like it is. As the work transitions into Lang’s first of three new compositions, a more straightforward setting of the portion of the poem beginning “I Slept, But My Heart Was Awake”—the entire vocal, by Sara Brailey, Martha Cluver, and Katie Geissinger, is beautifully clear – Toogood seems to be noticed and then chased by Zachary Gonder. Together they play like the deer in the poem. But they are not alone for long, as others soon gather to witness.
The emphasis is on the group, the community. The impeccable, untouched dancers number seven so that even if they all mate, someone is left out. Toogood, fluttering and falling (as she often does in Tanowitz dances), gives the strongest impression of being “sick with love,” as the poem puts it, but it is indicative of Tanowitz’s perspective on love here that when Toogood in Gonders arms jumps, she almost jumps through or past them. Unlike the old poem, still catchy direct, this is a work that dances around sensual love.
That’s part of its beauty. Even when the dancers touch each other, they seem to maintain a classical distance. They watch a lot. Some of their poses could be derived from classical art, but more generally the work is classical in tone – clear, legible in the manner of Merce Cunningham. The bursts of difficult, inventive steps and coordinations are also Cunninghamesque. These are balanced by simple folk dance patterns, and Tanowitz has said her “Song of Songs” is a “Jewish dance,” but it is Jewish in the sense of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.” (That is, not clear; Robbins was Jewish, as were Tanowitz and Lang.)
As usual, Tanowitz is masterful in her use of space, both evoking and destabilizing the idea of foreground and background, a trio in the back no more or less important than a solo or duet in front. The curtains (more of which eventually go down to cover the back face) give her a periphery to activate and also, because of the frills, a permeable edge for the dancers’ limbs to penetrate.
The dance comes closest to a kiss at the end of a song with sensual experiences of the lover (“I can see you”, “I can taste you”). Toogood and Victor Lozano come face to face, but instead of touching, they turn to see Brian Lawson tipping into a curtain, which is held at an unstable angle by dancers on the other side. Whether that is an image of human or divine love remains unclear.
When the dance eventually goes into an extended duet sequence, the duets are in relay or “La Ronde” form, with one dancer tapping out another. This is the only section without words, without song. It’s no surprise then that the conclusion is collective, all dancers floating as one, posing together on the platform. This response to the poem is not a song of the self or a couple. The attitude of Tanowitz and Lang seems to be, “They’re playing our song.”
Song of Songs
Performed July 1-3 at Bard College’s Fisher Center.