LONDON — “Secret Things” is the name of Pam Tanowitz’s new work for the Royal Ballet, and it is truly full of secrets — of the past, of the present; of dance history and dance now; of the knowledge that dancers hold in their bodies; of their personal stories, memories and dreams.
The work, for eight dancers, had its premiere on Saturday night in the Royal Opera House’s small, black box Linbury Theater, on a program that included two other pieces Tanowitz has made for the company: “Everyone Keeps Me” (2019) and “Dispatch Duet,” a recent pas de deux created for a gala in November. The whole show lasted just an hour — but an hour so rich in choreographic and musical invention, wit and surprise, that it felt almost overwhelming.
“Secret Things,” set to the string quartet “Breathing Statues,” by Anna Clyne, begins with a solo for the beautifully grave Hannah Grennell. As the first quiet strains of the music begin, she walks onstage, faces the audience with her feet together, then begins to slowly turn her whole body, whipping her head around at the last minute. Anyone who has taken or watched a beginner’s ballet class will recognize this as spotting — the way dancers learn to do multiple turns without getting dizzy.
Grennell performs this action numerous times, slightly hesitantly, as if trying to recall the mechanisms, then begins a series of bouncing sideways steps, the sort of thing a dancer might do to warm up leg muscles. It’s both pedestrian and poetic, a portal into the practices and collective memories of ballet, but also surprising, even humorous, in its juxtaposition. (That she is wearing a transparent yellow romper, sequined leg warmers and two-toned pointe shoes only adds to the joyous multitude of impressions; applause please for the designer Victoria Bartlett.)
Tanowitz, who worked in relative obscurity for a long time, is a kind of choreographic collector, a passionate student of dance history, techniques and styles. Her work deploys physical ideas and images from Petipa, Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Erick Hawkins, Nijinsky and more, but shifts lightly among them. And it doesn’t matter whether you know or recognize any of it. There is no insistence in Tanowitz’s work; its beauties flower and dematerialize before your eyes.
The dancers in “Secret Things” are at once impersonal agents of motion and deeply human in their connections to one another and to their onstage world. Toward the end of Grennell’s solo, others join her onstage, and the dance fragments into a constantly shifting series of groupings and encounters. Dancers slowly revolve, walk stiffly straight-legged on pointe, do little frog jumps, suddenly fall, straight bodied and sideways to the floor, like logs felled in a forest.
There is little conventional partnering, but invisible lines of force often seem to pull dancers together; in one resonant section, Giacomo Rovero jumps powerfully, legs extending to the sides, above Grennell, as she scuttles backward, holding herself off the floor on her hands and the tips of her pointe shoes.
Like many moments in “Secret Things,” the image suggests drama and emotion, but its non sequitur juxtapositions are also abstract. Clyne’s complex, melodic score, with its echoes of several Beethoven string quartets and shimmers of sound, offers a similar juxtaposition of the known and unknown, fragments of history meeting a present-tense moment.
Tanowitz never appears to be choreographing to the music, but her choices of movement, groupings and focus are often quietly dramatic in relationship to the score. Sometimes she registers musical repetition in the choreography; sometimes she ignores it or works counterintuitively against a large sound with low-stakes gesture: a little foot shuffle, a neck roll.
One of the many wonderful aspects of “Secret Things” is how its eight dancers, mostly from the corps de ballet, emerge as distinctive personalities without being presentational. To put it simply, they are just doing the movement, not telling us they are doing the movement.
This is true, too, for the principal dancers Anna Rose O’Sullivan and William Bracewell, in a film of “Dispatch Duet,” a high-octane thrill of a pas de deux to a dense, propulsive score by Ted Hearne. Directed by Anthoula Syndica-Drummond, the film shows the two dancers in various parts of the opera house, cutting and splicing the choreography: Slow leg extensions, supported jumps or wild ice-skater skids across the floor can start on the stairs, finish in the Linbury foyer, or migrate backstage. O’Sullivan and Bracewell are superb — steely athletes of the gods.
The final piece, “Everyone Keeps Me,” also to a Hearne score, was a quiet triumph for Tanowitz at its 2019 premiere, and it looks even better three years later. Like “Secret Things,” the work is lighted with painterly beauty by Clifton Taylor, and offers a cascade of dance imagery, from limpid Cunningham-esque balances to Nijinsky’s “L’Après-midi d’un Faune.” One of the mysteries of Tanowitz’s work is how she uses similar ingredients to make very different pieces. Perhaps because she is always humbly responsive to the here and now, working hard at what she loves: dancers and the dance.
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