For centuries, the music of J.S. Bach has served as a beacon guiding us poor mortals out of darkness and confusion. Perhaps this is why choreographers such as Pam Tanowitz — whose “New Work for Goldberg Variations” received its local premiere on Thursday at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater, as part of the Peak Performances series — are attracted to Bach.
The dance’s opening suggests as much, as an inky blackout surrenders reluctantly to the music’s blandishments. Inch by inch the darkness retreats, first revealing the hands of Simone Dinnerstein at the keyboard, and then the shadowy figures of Tanowitz’s dancers standing frozen to one side.
The placement of the piano — center stage — is a significant detail, as it creates an original, if inconvenient, space for dancing, forcing Tanowitz to work around Dinnerstein and giving rise to circling patterns that might otherwise be absent. When dancers perform upstage, the audience has only a partial view of feet and torsos bisected by the instrument.
Tanowitz seems eager to avoid the clichés of the “piano-ballet,” a genre so hidebound that Peter Anastos once satirized it in a dance called “Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet.” Dancers in these works typically gather by a concert grand placed to the side of the stage, listening with their heads cocked respectfully. And here Tanowitz’s difficulties begin: How does she manage to tweak this kitschy mise-en-scène without making her dance predictable?
The answer is: she doesn’t. Furthermore, so many choreographers have already created masterpieces in response to Bach that Tanowitz is bringing up the rear. Never mind Jerome Robbins’ artsy-fartsy treatment of these same Goldberg Variations. Just last year, Twyla Tharp’s brilliant “Preludes and Fugues,” to excerpts from “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” put the capstone on adventures of this sort, offering us the ultimate “ex tenebris lux” response to the trauma of the 9/11 terror attacks. In comparison, Tanowitz’s effort looks slender.
Still, “New Work for Goldberg Variations” is attractive and pleasant to watch, and Tanowitz has some tips to offer aspiring ballet choreographers. In their rush to adopt a “modern” look, many of these novices dispense with beaten steps like “entrechats,” and ignore their dancers’ feet. Ironically, Tanowitz’s position as a “postmodern” artist allows her to select whatever she wants from ballet’s stock of conventions, and so she gives us “entrechats,” “cabrioles” and wonderful moments when a dancer extends a sharply pointed foot and directs her gaze at it (as we’re supposed to do). Admiring a beautiful foot — even a naked one — is so essential to the enterprise of ballet making that it’s incredible our baby ballet makers don’t get it.
Tanowitz’s own relationship to classical ballet has, at times, seemed conflicted (remember her noir-ish piece “Forevermore”?), but here she embraces the concept of balletic line to such a degree that costume designers Reid and Harriet have made the dancers’ pant-legs transparent. Though this dance is nearly devoid of ornament, a dancer will occasionally place his hands on his shoulders and tilt his body to create another, sharply angled line. Slumping forward, or placing both hand on the floor and scuttling with legs wide apart is the kind of unconventional gesture that contrasts with this dance’s otherwise strict geometry.
Initially, Tanowitz’s choreography is so spare it calls to mind Erik Satie’s “Socrate” — music so severe in its classicism that Satie’s contemporaries suspected him of playing a joke on them. Davison Scandrett, the visual and lighting designer for “Goldberg Variations,” dresses the stage as plainly as possible, with the action set against a white background that makes the cheerfully colored stripes of the dancers’ pants-suits stand out. When this background goes red, far into the dance, the effect is shocking.
While the light onstage waxes and wanes, and a chandelier descends and rises, the dancers remains aloof. Do not look here for ballet’s lush romanticism. When Jason Collins takes Christine Flores’ hand and leads her into the wings, the hint of an intrigue is soon quashed. Not long afterward, several dancers have joined hands; attachments in this work feel innocent and thoroughly platonic. There is no love story, or even a subtext, and Tanowitz takes care to make the partnering gender-neutral. Supportive moments happen when one dancer rests against another dancer’s back. Though the piece is structured like a modern work, with ballet steps scattered like the shards of an exploded world, “New Work for Goldberg Variations” is still more remarkable for its formal beauty than for its emotional import.
Though Tanowitz takes care to give her hard-working dancers opportunities to solo, it cannot be said that this piece makes them shine. Maile Okamura tries to stifle her natural expressivity but fortunately does not succeed; other standouts include spunky Flores, and fluent Melissa Toogood. Maggie Cloud, Collins, Lindsey Jones and Netta Yerushalmy complete the cast.
Pam Tanowitz Dance will perform “New Work for Goldberg Variations” with Simone Dinnerstein through Oct. 22. Tickets are $20; visit peakperfs.org.