The Influence

Acclaimed New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz discusses the influence of George Balanchine’s ballet Serenade on her own dance works, including one that will soon be performed by The Australian Ballet. By Maddee Clark.

Pam Tanowitz

A 1935 publicity shot for Serenade, George Balanchine’s first ballet to be performed in the United States.
Credit: Courtesy New York City Ballet Archives

Pam Tanowitz is a critically acclaimed contemporary choreographer who was born in the Bronx and is currently based in New York City. She founded the company Pam Tanowitz Dance in 2000, and has created work for New York City Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Juilliard Dance, Ballet Austin and New York Theatre Ballet, among others.

Her new work Watermark is featured in The Australian Ballet’s 2021 triple bill New York Dialects. The work she has chosen for The Influence is Serenade, a ballet by George Balanchine that was first performed in 1934.

Let’s talk about Balanchine. What is significant about his work for you?

When we talk about influences, I could have picked a lot of different works. I love Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Lucinda Childs, Tere O’Connor. Every dance I make, I always have someone in my head. You’re not lonely when you have this connection.

But I want to talk about Serenade, which is part of the New York Dialects program I’ve choreographed for The Australian Ballet. Serenade was the first work Balanchine made in America, allegedly. There’s no linear storyline, which is something I also work with in my own practice. People divide ballet into story and storyless ballets. The story ballets, you’re thinking Romeo and Juliet; the storyless are the more abstract ones like Balanchine’s so-called “black and whites”. Serenade is one of those “storyless” ballets.

When you were first introduced to his work, what aspects of it did you connect with?

When I first moved back to New York after going to university in Ohio, my first job was pouring coffee at the New York City Ballet. For high-end donors, in this little room. I’d set up coffee and cookies. They’d come in at intermission. I’d watch the ballet and leave early to set everything up, pour the coffee, and then pack up and go back in. So I’d always be late; I’d miss the end or the beginning of things.

I’d studied ballet in school but that was the first time I’d been able to really see ballet as a spectator. That’s when I saw a lot of Balanchine and fell in love, right away. I’d started with modern and jazz and came to ballet much later. I’m not good at ballet. I don’t need to be. I get in the room with the ballet dancers and I feel like I’m doing research. It’s so exciting.

Balanchine was one of my heroes. Agon is another one of his classics that I’m very drawn to. There’s a series of his works from the 1950s where they have the dancers in black leotards – they are very modern. If you look at those pieces, they’re more modern than things people make now. They’re incredible.

Because Balanchine’s work is very much ballet, it’s very specific steps. I like that he uses that structure in his patterns and his composition. The steps and lines and accents of the movements are really clear and classical; utilitarian, almost. They are grand, but then they are also down to earth, which is also something I aspire to. In his work, dancers might come in late, they might fall. There is an emphasis on a human element.

The other thing is that Balanchine kept going back to it, to edit and revise. They changed the costumes for Serenade at least five times. So there’s also the idea that he was never finished. That he kept going back to it shows me he was always curious – never thinking he was done.

That’s important, considering what you’ve said about emphasising a human element. For me that means leaning into error, deviation from pattern, harnessing unpredictability and playfulness.

Yes, that’s how I worked with my dancers in The Australian Ballet. The dance became about each dancer, that human I was working with. That emphasis on it being human, having this nonlinear storyline, but where you still know something’s going on, is endlessly fascinating. That’s what I take away from Serenade. I find that it allows freedom for the performer – maybe they’ll do a step in a way I didn’t instruct, but it’s better. I want that.

A lot of people use counting when choreographing ballet, but I prefer to collaborate. I give the dancers steps, they do those to music. I’ll hear something, I’ll say: I want this to happen in this area of the music, this is the landmark. There’s a solo in it for a young male dancer called Adam and it’s become his story, this solo. When I look at him dance this solo – it’s long – I look at it and think it’s his. It’s nothing to do with me.

The dancers are really important. They were incredible. Once in a while I’ll get into a room where the dancers aren’t feeling it, but everyone at Australian Ballet was curious and interested and wanted to be there. No one sat down, everyone was always working. They were collaborators. Creative.

One of Balanchine’s quotes that really resonates for me, he says that the storyless ballet is not abstract. Two dancers on stage are enough of a story. There’s already a story in these dancers. Even if they’re just standing there, you can’t call it storyless.

For me this ties into the human element. Dancers are human, they’re doing steps, but there’s content there without it being a literal script you follow.

That’s powerful, the idea that you’re not the designer and they’re not the machinery that animates the story.

It’s almost the reverse. I come in with my own style. My steps are stylised, they’re not improvising exactly. But I’m allowing space for a breath and allowing their selves to come through. The choreography is a vehicle for them to explore themselves and without the story imposing a structure they have room to speak.

It’s hard for them sometimes. Sometimes they put a mask on to perform. That’s another way to perform, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just another way. Another choice.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Pam Tanowitz".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.