Turning T.S. Eliot's poetry into dance

Actress Kathleen Chalfant narrating T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets during a rehearsal of the dance based on the poem.
Actress Kathleen Chalfant narrating T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets during a rehearsal of the dance based on the poem. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • First Bach, now T.S. Eliot.

American dancer and choreographer Pam Tanowitz has developed a habit - adding choreographing to masterpieces.

After last year's acclaimed collaboration with pianist Simone Dinnerstein - an evening-length work set to Bach's Goldberg Variations - her latest source of inspiration is Eliot's beloved Four Quartets, a 75-year-old poetic exploration of time and memory.

When Gideon Lester, the artistic director for theatre and dance at Bard College, first brought up the idea of her setting Eliot's poetry to dance, Tanowitz responded positively.

"I said sure," she recalled, "but I was really like: There's no way. How could I make a dance to a poem and one so hefty? Who do I think I am? I said yes because I never thought it would happen."

But Four Quartets, directed and choreographed by Tanowitz, premiered in July at the Richard B. Fisher Centre for the Performing Arts at Bard.

It is an impressive and ambitious group effort: Music, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, will accompany actress Kathleen Chalfant as she narrates the complete poem cycle.

The set - designed, along with the lighting, by Clifton Taylor - comprises four paintings by Brice Marden. Costumes are by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Saariaho's music will be performed by the Knights, the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra. The sound design is by her husband, composer and video artist Jean-Baptiste Barriere.

Lester wanted to give Tanowitz, 48, an opportunity to work on a more substantial level.

"It's so hard, particularly for New York choreographers, to work on any kind of scale outside the structures of ballet companies," he said. "Everybody gets used to making works for three dancers in a black box."

This time, he is not letting that happen. For the look of Four Quartets, Tanowitz has worked closely with Taylor. At the start, she told him what she didn't want: a straightforward backdrop for each of the poems - Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding - which are named after the places Eliot wrote about.

"Pam likes to see the stage in different sizes and proportions," Taylor said. "I think it fits really well with the poetry, which comes from different angles. It's like looking at a jewel from a different facet."

Taylor paired Dry Salvages, named after a cluster of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, with Untitled (Hydra), from Marden's latest series focusing on curvilinear lines on a field of colour.

It will be reproduced at scale, translucent and placed on wheels. Dancers perform in front of and behind it; they also move it onstage.

"That poem deals with a lot of water imagery: They're in the sea, they're on boats," Taylor said. "So the curvilinear lines, the colour palette - it all fits."

Taylor's other job - lighting the production - is just as crucial to carving the audience's experience.

"To me, light is interesting because it's time," he said. "It's exactly the issues that Eliot's dealing with in the poetry. I want to create scenery that changes through time, that talks about time."

When Lester approached Ms Clare Reihill, the trustee of the Eliot estate, for permission to set the poem to dance, she was immediately intrigued.

"I honestly couldn't see anything that would prevent me from saying yes," she said. "Even though it's a kind of unified event, the poem emerges in its own right."

But how to make a dance to match it? Tanowitz began working in May last year, when she was still choreographing New Work For Goldberg Variations.

She sees the two as companion pieces: Goldberg starts and ends with an aria, while Four Quartets is about time present and time past. They are circular.

"The core is spiritual: It has rhythm, it's development, it's form, it's traditional, and there's freedom in the tradition," Tanowitz said. "Both of these pieces equal endless possibilities. It's about the relationship between emotion and form."

It was also meaningful that in Four Quartets, there are several references to dance.

"The poem is dance, and it also literally has dance in it," Tanowitz said. "He saw Nijinsky. He was inspired by Isadora Duncan. But what's amazing about the poem is that it's inevitable. As it goes on, you don't question anything."

And Tanowitz is trying something new. Not only will she make a rare appearance dancing in the work herself, but she also tried to approach it from a place of intuition, as opposed to planning all the movement in advance.

"I've choreographed before in my life, but I've never choreographed this exact dance in this moment," she said.

"So I'm letting the dance show me what to do. If I can do that and make it seem inevitable, then maybe I can even have 2 per cent of what he did in this poem."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2018, with the headline Turning T.S. Eliot's poetry into dance. Subscribe