Choreographer Pam Tanowitz creates modern dances that play with classical movement, while pianist Simone Dinnerstein brings modern energy to classical music. So the two are well matched for the Duke Performances co-commissioned premiere, following a weeklong residency, of New Work for Goldberg Variations. Bach's canonical 1741 score has been popularized again and again, most famously by Glenn Gould and, more recently, by Dinnerstein, whose independently financed 2007 recording propelled her to international acclaim. Nor is the score any stranger to dance; one well-known setting is Jerome Robbins's 1971 ballet. We recently spoke with Tanowitz and Dinnerstein about the movement in music, the music of dance, and how Bach's ageless variations adapt to reflect the times.
INDY: Why Goldberg in 2017?
SIMONE DINNERSTEIN: There's a monumental quality to the Goldberg Variations. It takes on the personality of whoever is listening to or interpreting it. If you listen to the recording by Wanda Landowska from the forties, or if you look at the choreography of Jerome Robbins, it reflects the aesthetic of that time. It lends itself to being almost a reflection of the society around it. People who are not familiar with a lot of classical music, if they have one piece ...
PAM TANOWITZ: They love the Goldberg. It's true. People came up to me at a residency and said, That is my favorite piece, that was my way into your dance. And Simone's approach is very specific in a way that helped me find my way into it.
Simone, could you talk about returning to this piece physically? Because your gestures, your embodiment as you play, are a part of this dance.
SD: The fact is I've never really left this piece. I've been performing it since the recording came out. However, it's constantly changing and surprising me. I don't know about choreography, but I do think in terms of gesture and phrasing and breathing and rhythm. The shapes that I'm making with the music are sparking different things that happen on the stage, and in that way, I'm part of the dance.
PT: The dance is designed so that the audience can go back and forth between focusing on Simone or focusing on the dance. And there's interplay between the dancers and Simone. I wanted to be modest and simple about it. I really tried to honor and respect [Bach's score], but at the same time, have my personality come out within those constraints.
SD: I think that's the thing the music does that is really phenomenal. When you're interpreting the music, you're trying to understand the structure. But what comes out is yourself, really. It's almost like it's a conduit into your own world.
I saw a video clip of a residency where Lindsey Jones is sitting on the piano bench, back to back with Simone, moving her feet quickly to the tempo of Simone's playing. What was the anatomy of that moment?
PT: With some variations, I had very specific ideas of what I wanted to do. The twentieth was always going to be a "fake tap dance" for Lindsey, who wanted to really try to mirror what Simone was doing.
SD: She's an incredible dancer because she has phenomenal range. She does that crazy dance that's really fun, and then she does the next variation, one of the darkest in the whole piece. You can barely watch her because it's so painful.
PT: I wanted to take the happy and fun and invert it. She's actually doing the same steps, inverted.
SD: I didn't realize that. In the music, there's this very deep mathematical symmetry of patterns and sequences. At the same time, the music is about breaking all of that. That's something I think Pam has captured, because sometimes it looks like [the dancers] are all going to do the same thing, and then they don't.
I've seen this project discussed in terms of "danger" and "risk." But you're both masters of live art, and you're setting your own terms. What does risk look like here?
PT: I mean, it's the Goldberg Variations. There's the sheer weight of it. But I actually feel like going through this process has made me so full of hope and possibility. I used to think everything had been done before. [Simone] kind of had to talk me off the ledge.
SD: When we were just about to start you were worried about understanding it historically, what it is to be baroque. I think what I said to you was, We shouldn't focus on that.
PT: It was more like I wanted to understand the music. I felt like it was too far away from me.
SD: In terms of risk, this feels like a progression that has been moving me away from rule-bound classical music training, where there's a tremendous emphasis on tradition and an obsession with historical accuracy. As I've gotten older, I've found that there are other ways that you can think about music. When I made the Goldberg Variations recording, that was the first big step into playing in a way that was following other values than what I had been taught. Now, doing it in three dimensions is pushing me farther in my own thinking about music.
[Simone], you played for the Robbins Goldberg Variations in 2016 with the Paris Opera Ballet. That's an obvious touchstone in a dance historical sense.
SD: I think the Robbins is a beautiful ballet. But it's a very different way of thinking about the connection between dance and music. One note is played and that note has to be matched with a foot. It does mean the music loses a lot of flexibility.
PT: Yeah, I don't need to do that. It's already been done. One of the things that scared me [about this project] was the Jerry Robbins piece. I'm not in direct conversation with it, but I also am, because it exists. But I'm a modern dance choreographer. I use ballet and Merce Cunningham technique within my work, but it's not a ballet. We're barefoot; we're way more grounded.
SD: You don't have one lift in this piece.
PT: Yeah, and that was a conscious choice. We have one male dancer. There is some obvious dueting between a man and a woman, but I have not dealt with it in a way that's traditional. When you put a man next to a woman there's already a story there, and they didn't even move yet.
As part of the Duke Performances residency, Dinnerstein and Tanowitz will have a public lunchtime conversation at the East Duke Building on Wednesday, Oct. 4.