Pam Tanowitz Dance & Simone Dinnerstein:
New Work for Goldberg Variations
Friday, Oct. 6 & Saturday, Oct. 7, 8 p.m.

Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

In complete darkness, Simone Dinnerstein draws out the first few notes of the aria that begins Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Then, slowly, a stage light fills in the outline of the pianist and a group of figures scattered upstage, softly illuminated in periwinkle. When the aria returns after thirty variations, they gather in a similar formation, and the light closes in on Dinnerstein’s final gesture, levitating just above the keys.

“What a pleasure it has been to escape the solitude of the piano,” Dinnerstein writes in the program notes for New Work for Goldberg Variations, her collaboration with Pam Tanowitz Dance, which had its world premiere at Duke Performances last night and repeats tonight. What a pleasure, Pam Tanowitz and her dancers seem to say, building their own pathways through Bach’s score and Dinnerstein’s playing. And what a pleasure to watch the outcome of this Duke Performances co-commissioned collaboration, in which nearly everything feels right.

Bach’s score is a well known thing, but here it is a living, breathing thing. Dinnerstein, who has been playing Goldberg for years, treats it generously, giving each note a world unto itself. Through these seven dancers, Tanowitz’s choreography devises its own language, idiosyncratic yet entirely consistent. Gestures live on the cusp of familiarity, and the brilliantly differentiated cast is indefatigable in following the movement to its never-ends.

Christine Flores’s fouette turns are slightly off-kilter; at one point, downstage, Netta Yerushalmy balances an outstretched leg with shoulders severely shrugged. Lindsey Jones emerges from the wings, lightning-quick, her attitude jump like a broken exclamation mark. Their straight faces dare us to take the movement on its own terms. (The outer layer of their costumes, designed by the duo Reid & Harriet, is a sheer candy-colored film that enacts two qualities simultaneously: it billows outward, but only so far, to contain and cushion each dancer’s trajectory through space.)

Not once did I think, This is a ballet, though others might have. If the word must be used, it’s more like a ball-change ballet: one in which feet are flexed and grounded and partnering is equitable and playful. (As Tanowitz noted in an interview with the INDY, you won’t see men lifting women here.) Part of Tanowitz’s project is to cast classical dance vocabulary in new, unexpected arrangements; she’s found a solid match in Dinnerstein and in Bach’s canonical piece.

In this work, every duet is actually a trio, every trio a quartet, and so on; all the dancers are, of course, sharing the stage not only with one another but also with Dinnerstein, who plays barefoot from center stage. At first, the relationship between the dancers and piano was unclear to me, but the intentionality of the artists’ approach ultimately erased that concern. The dancers and piano seem drawn to one another in a way that is mysterious but fitting.

This is because New Work for Goldberg Variations is a project in which all involved—Dinnerstein, Tanowitz, and the dancers—have so transparently given themselves space to articulate their own interpretations: of Bach’s score, of the connection between music and dance, and of ways to fill a stage. This extends to us, too. During the opening and closing aria, I was watching Dinnerstein and the dancers, but I was also watching the man sitting directly in front of me luxuriate in moving his fingers in a gentle approximation of piano playing.