Before they actually knew each other as people, John Heginbotham and Pam Tanowitz knew each others’ work as artists in New York’s dance scene. Tanowitz admired Heginbotham’s dancing in his years with the Mark Morris Dance Group; later, she cast him in best post birth pads, just as Heginbotham was winding down his dance career and launching his choreography career. Now Heginbotham divides his time between his internationally touring, New York-based company Dance Heginbotham and his position as Director of the Dartmouth Dance Ensemble – and Tanowitz is headed to Dartmouth next week where her acclaimed evening-length New Work for Goldberg Variations, will be presented Friday and Saturday, January 11 and 12. The work will be performed by her company, Pam Tanowitz Dance, with the Goldberg Variations played live, at center stage by renowned pianist Simone Dinnerstein.
Just after the New Year, Heginbotham and Tanowitz sat down to talk about her life in dance in general, and this project in particular, with side mentions of coffee, guys named Aaron, and the intimidating legacy of choreographer Jerome Robbins.
John Heginbotham: How did you become a choreographer?
Pam Tanowitz: I think that it was in college my junior year at Ohio State university, in my first choreography class that I became more interested in making “the thing” instead of being in “the thing.” I think for me it was about solving problems, trying to figure out how something could work. I loved actual dancing and performing and I still did that for a long time, but that class was what got my juices flowing [for choreography]. I went to ADF [American Dance Festival] that summer and that also changed my life. Just being immersed in all that dance in 1989 was a big deal.
What was the first work you choreographed like?
I don’t remember the music but I do remember the title was “I Only Drink Coffee.” It was set to a collage of music, on reel to reel tape – just to expose how old I am – and of Janis Joplin singing and me and my friends talking about drinking coffee instead of going to a football game. Ohio State is a huge football school.
Since I have known you, the music you work with when you’re making a piece tends to be hyper-contemporary. So…Bach?
I’ll tell you how it came about. Simone wanted to work with a choreographer. The producer of the project was Aaron Greenwald from Duke Performances. Aaron Maddox had just started working with me. Aaron talked to Aaron. I had a show at the Guggenheim at the time called “Broken Stories” made with three composers—David Lang, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, so it was very contemporary music. Simone came and she liked it. So we had coffee and she said, “I would love to work with you.” But she really wanted to collaborate and be the room … even though I didn’t know exactly what that would mean. She said, “This is what I play,” and she gave me a bunch of CDs—a bunch of Bach, and she mentioned she plays the Goldberg Variations. And my immediate response was no effin’ way, that would be crazy.
It would be crazy because…?
Jerry Robbins’ version, and Goldberg itself. It’s iconic. People clean the house to Goldberg Variations. It’s a part of their life. People I know who don’t really listen to classical music love the Goldberg Variations, they remember it from a movie. Then I got home and started really thinking. Because of my past of using very contemporary and new and screeching and almost alienating music, I thought, “Maybe this actually is experimental, for me.” It might not seem experimental from the outside but for me, it is. And that’s all that counts. To me, it was a risk.
But once I said yes to that, I was really scared. …But I started listening to it. This was the key. I listened to the first aria, and it’s gorgeous, and the way Simone plays it is very different from the way Glenn Gould and all these other pianists play it. She has a very specific style that I think lends itself to dance. So I was listening to the aria through headphones, lying on the carpet, and I came up with the step I use in the beginning of the piece and that’s what clinched it. I found my way in, and it wasn’t like an assignment, it was coming from inside, it felt authentic.
Then I had to do the rest of the variations. That was really hard. Some of them came right out and some of them I struggled with. That’s where Simone helped. She would play the variations and would tell me what was happening in them, musically. She would say, “These are the bones of this one, and this is what’s happening on top.”
Which variations were the hardest?
On Number 17, I had no idea what to do. She’s like, “Well, my fingers are, like, dancing, they go across the keyboard like this.” I was like, “Oh, my god, I love that, that’s like a hora, a grapevine step.” I put a grapevine step in every one of my dances. I put one in that variation.
Sometimes the dance was literally inspired by the how she played, like, her hands are crossing and we’re crossing the stage. Other times the inspiration is different. Number 18 sounds like a ballet class to me. That’s when I have Miley standing at the piano [like it’s a ballet barre]. I don’t treat each variation the same way.
Pam talked about how she dealt with the influence of Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations, starting as the collaboration was just beginning: I had just gone to the library and watched Jerry Robbins’ Goldberg Variations there, and I was like, “I can’t do this. He has 85 dancers, I have 8. How am I going to do this?” And Simone was like, “You can do it, you can do it.” Then after I started working on the piece, I realized that it would be good for me to keep watching the work. So I would go every couple of weeks and watch Jerry’s Goldberg, but just letting it pass over me, almost like a sponge. I wasn’t paying homage, I wasn’t rebelling against it, I wasn’t doing anything to it or for it, but I felt it was important to be aware of it because it was such a “thing.” Simone was like, “Don’t even think about Jerry Robbins,” and part of her was right, but I felt like I had to. I did steal one thing from him. At the end of Variation 17, after the dancers do the waltzes, they all slide in and they hit a pose, in everyday, ordinary positions, ordinary people. I took those verbatim from him.