T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) has the pride of place among Dead White Authors. His posh boarding school, Ivy League and ex-pat background makes him untouchable in English departments and on bloggie lists of “GREATEST WRITERS EVER.” Still, there are times when the heart of even an overrated writer’s work created at the expense of a mentally-ill first wife is laid bare. Thanks to choreographer Pam Tanowitz and her company, composer Kaija Saariaho, artist Brice Marden, musicians of The Knights and most of all actress Kathleen Chalfant, Eliot’s Four Quartets’s is not for post-docs alone. It is unfortunate that there were only three performances of this World Premiere at Bard/Summerscape.
Pairing dance with poetry is nothing new: Martha Graham’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson is captured in the iconic photo of her holding her Letter to the World, Complexions Contemporary Ballet Imprint/Maya celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou and Meredith Wilson had some fun with Greek poetry in The Music Man. The most famous example of all is from Nobel laureate Eliot himself, whose Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats became – now and forever – Cats. What is infinitely stunning about Eliot’s literary estate is that his widow Valerie (the beloved second wife who died in 2012) eventually granted permission Lord Lloyd Webber – but it wasn’t until this project that they sanctioned Four Quartets to be choreographed and that an American (!) actress (!!) could recite the poems in public (!!!).
If any of the Old Possum’s Practical Trust (nothing like a hit in perpetuity, right?) representatives made the trip to the Sosnoff Theatre, they, as the rest of the audience did, fell under Kathleen Chalfant’s spell. However much rehearsal occurred, the dancers took steps directed by her powerful, thoughtful delivery of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Savages and Little Gidding. It’s not that they looked over to her from across the stage but moved and felt the words. The actress and experienced concert narrator (she was equally awesome as The Speaker in the Stravinsky/Cocteau Oedipus Rex a few seasons ago at Bard) took great care that the poems spoke to humanity, not just men.
Dance is mentioned throughout The Four Quartets, and there are plenty of interpretations about what the poems (published over a six-year period and not together until 1943) mean. Pam Tanowitz and her company created something that is almost impossible to sustain in live dance: isolation. Everyone, even in duets, small pairings or the astonishing final group dance, remained in their own space. The layering of Saariaho’s desolate music and Marden’s reconfigured paintings reinforce loss. For this gifted dancemaker, “loss” is beyond war (the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945, ending World War II) and time. Faint Hope is symbolized in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s angles-without-wings jumpsuits all the performers wore.
Thanks to Pam Tanowitz and her collaborators, pain in Four Quartets does not belong to the poet or his cult of personality followers but everyone. That’s a good because whether positive or negative emotions literature, dance or any of the arts offer are never exclusive. May real time allow for another look at this stunning accomplishment.
Four Quartets, a World Premiere/SummerScape Commission, was performed on July 6, 7, 8, 2018 at the Sosonoff Theatre, Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York), The Festival now focuses on Rimsky-Korsakov through August 19, 2018. Pam Tanowitz lists her activities on her website, as does Kaija Saariaho’s on hers. Images are posted of Brice Marden’s work on his MOMA artist page. The text of The Four Quartets is here and T.S. Eliot’s Nobel Prize citation is here.