There’s almost an embarrassment of artistic riches in the components of choreographer Pam Tanowitz’s Four Quartets: T. S. Eliot’s dense poem cycle of the same title in its entirety, rich with detailed nature imagery, patterned language, and themes of time, death, rebirth (and frequently drawing on dance metaphor). The Broadway grande dame Kathleen Chalfant, delivering the full text in her sonorous voice from the BAM Opera House’s orchestra pit. The music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, performed by the string ensemble The Knights, darting in and around the poetry with an austere, restrained combination of strings that echoes references to birdsong and water and nature sounds from the poems. Scenic imagery by the minimalist painter Brice Marden (turned into stage design by Clifton Taylor) layering human construction with natural forms—color-block portals that evoke both Greek temples and cave entrances; a scrim with colored bars that could be trees in a forest or slats in a fence; painted forms that could be maps or aerial views of pools; something that recalls an ancient plumbing schematic. And weaving it all together, Tanowitz’s ensemble of nine dancers, dancing “at the still point of the turning world.” Her patterns and rhythms are simple, mirroring and reflecting back on themselves in different combinations of dancers, as the poems reflect and echo back on one another.
Each of the four poems evokes a specific place and the spiritual epiphany that its landscape triggered for Eliot: “Burnt Norton,” a rose garden on an estate in the Cotswolds; “East Coker,” a village in Somerset, in the southwest of England; “The Dry Salvages,” a cluster of rocks off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts; and “Little Gidding,” a village near Cambridge, England. But the poems, like the dances, circle back and perseverate on themes: death and rebirth; the uncanniness of time; the tension between motion and stillness, so often captured in dance. Tanowitz’s choreography, too, feels earthbound, or placebound: feet planted, spirals and shapes opening from the core rather than leaping into the air. Subtle flickering movements of hands and feet recall birds and the swaying of branches in wind.
It’s perhaps even harder to dance to spoken poetry than it is to dance in silence; the rhythm of Chalfant’s delivery doesn’t always sync with what the dancers are doing but is always measured and slow, and sometimes the dance feels constrained, as if yearning for a freer movement. And the breadth and variety of Eliot’s word choices can feel almost taunting when set against the precise containment of the dance vocabulary; Tanowitz seems to work with the cyclical thread and the repeating big-picture patterns in Eliot more than with the individual shades of each poem. But there is inarguable power in the interweaving of the dancing with Eliot’s dance metaphors, of the interplay between visibility and shadow or obscurity behind a scrim, of the spiral movements and Eliot’s concepts of time.
At times the aesthetic variety is too much to absorb, especially when single dancers are doing different things spread out across the wide opera house stage (the rare occasion when the excellent seats afforded the critic might provide a less complete vantage than the mezzanine). But then at moments all the disciplines sync up: Two dancers seated in stillness behind a barely transparent scrim. A dancer passing down a line of others behind Marden’s map-evoking screen, releasing them from their posture with a touch. There’s power here.