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Review: In Merce Cunningham’s Honor, Pam Tanowitz Thrills

LONDON — Seven dancers, their backs to the audience, heads turned in profile, move on to the stage in silence, stepping to the left on a bent leg, then ceremoniously curving the right leg forward. Arms interlinked behind backs, the women in soft draped dresses, they look like ancient figures on a Greek vase. The music begins: not ancient at all, but jagged, abrasive strings. A lone man appears. He is performing the same sequence, but facing forward.

Pam Tanowitz’s “Everyone Keeps Me,” a new work for the Royal Ballet that premiered here on Thursday, has begun, and for 20 entrancing minutes, we are in her strange, resonantly poetic world.

The dance critic Edwin Denby once wrote that “the strange thing about making pieces that have no logical narrative or logical formal structure is that it needs an exceedingly dramatic gift.” He was talking about Merce Cunningham, but that’s true too of Ms. Tanowitz, a choreographer who labored quietly at her craft for decades and now is suddenly in demand everywhere. In the last year, she has created pieces for the New York City Ballet, the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Paul Taylor Company, among others.

For the Royal Ballet, Ms. Tanowitz was asked to choreograph a work for centennial of Merce Cunningham’s birth. It was a high-profile commission with a low-key atmosphere: the hourlong program has just a two-night run at the Royal Opera House’s small, black-box Linbury Theater, rather than on its main stage.

Ms. Tanowitz’s work is in heady company here, with Cunningham’s witty, invigorating “Cross Currents” and Frederick Ashton’s coolly spare “Monotones II.” Both works prepare the eye for what we will see in “Everyone Keeps Me”: calm lucidity, drama that emerges from form, the way a large-scale work can exist with few dancers.

There is an obvious link between Cunningham’s style and that of Ms. Tanowitz, who deploys similar limpidity, balletic lines, shifts of weight and direction, complex footwork and non sequitur sequences of steps.

But Ms. Tanowitz’s work is also intimately her own. “Everyone Keeps Me,” set to Ted Hearne’s string quartet “Exposure,” played live on one side of the auditorium, is immediately engaging as one woman (Anna Rose O’Sullivan) detaches herself from the line and begins to dance with the man (James Hay) who entered alone. They fly back and forth in a springing jump, facing each other, never touching, then suddenly wheel offstage in an odd bent-legged roll of the body.

The dance is thrillingly unpredictable. Couples (both opposite- and same-sex) form and dissolve, female dancers take turns lying casually on their sides at the back of the stage, watching the others. Solos offer chances to try out extended variations on one idea; hops on a single leg with changing arms, or a balletic arabesque inflected by rotating shoulders.

Fragmentary and overlapping, the choreography both echoes and amplifies the music, which itself overlays fragments of sound, occasionally stopping dead then beginning again, sometimes using the bows of the string instruments as percussive tools.

The dance is precise, musical, unhurried. And yet Ms. Tanowitz evokes both drama and humor with wit and economy. Dancers rotate their legs as if performing a barre exercise, then flap their feet with intent. After couples pair up, as if to perform a waltz, Beatriz Stix-Brunell decides it’s not a good idea and exits on her own terms. (The soft pastel-hued costumes, by Fay Fullerton, and the subtle color-saturated lighting by Clifton Taylor, add notable resonance.)

Ms. Tanowitz dispenses with the showier sides of ballet technique. The women are not on point and there is little supported partnering. Instead she clarifies and strips ballet to its essential elements — line, changing dynamics, the musicality of the moving body — taking away any presentational aspect. The dancers, all superb, seem to be dancing for and with one another, like characters in a play absorbed by their own trajectories. We are lucky to be watching.

Everyone Keeps Me

Performed Oct. 10 at the Linbury Theater, London.

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