A choreographer takes on T.S. Eliot

First Bach, now T.S. Eliot. Pam Tanowitz has developed a habit: adding choreographing to masterpieces.

After last year’s acclaimed collaboration with pianist Simone Dinnerstein — an evening-length work set to Bach’s
Goldberg Variations
— her latest source of inspiration is Eliot’s beloved
Four Quartets
, a 75-year-old poetic exploration of time and memory.

When Gideon Lester, the artistic director for theatre and dance at Bard College, first brought up the idea of her setting Eliot’s poetry to dance, Ms. Tanowitz responded positively. “I said sure,” she recalled, “but I was really like: There’s no way. How could I make a dance to a poem — one so hefty? Who do I think I am? I said yes because I never thought it would happen.”

But
Four Quartets
, directed and choreographed by Ms. Tanowitz, will have its premiere this week at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard. It’s an impressive and ambitious group effort: Music, by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, will accompany actress Kathleen Chalfant as she narrates the complete poem cycle.

The set — designed, along with the lighting, by Clifton Taylor — comprises four paintings by Brice Marden. Costumes are by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung. Ms. Saariaho’s music will be performed by the Knights, the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra. The sound design is by her husband, composer and video artist Jean-Baptiste Barrière.

Mr. Lester wanted to give Ms. Tanowitz, 48, an opportunity to work on a more substantial level. “It’s so hard, particularly for New York choreographers, to work on any kind of scale outside the structures of ballet companies,” he said. “Everybody gets used to making works for three dancers in a black box.”

This time, he’s not letting that happen.

Shifting scenery

For the look of
Four Quartets
, Ms. Tanowitz has worked closely with Mr. Taylor. At the start, she told him what she didn’t want: a straightforward backdrop for each of the poems —
Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding
— which are named after the places Eliot wrote about. “Pam likes to see the stage in different sizes and proportions,” Mr. Taylor said. “I think it fits really well with the poetry, which comes from different angles. It’s like looking at a jewel from a different facet.”

Mr. Taylor paired
Dry Salvages
, named after a cluster of rocks off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts, with
Untitled (Hydra)
, from Mr. Marden’s latest series focusing on curvilinear lines on a field of colour. It will be reproduced at scale, translucent and placed on wheels. Dancers will perform in front of and behind it; they will also move it onstage.

“That poem deals with a lot of water imagery: They’re in the sea, they’re on boats,” Mr. Taylor said. “So the curvilinear lines, the color palette — it all fits.”

Mr. Taylor’s other job — lighting the production — is just as crucial to carving the audience’s experience. “To me, light is interesting because it’s time,” he said. “It’s exactly the issues that Eliot’s dealing with in the poetry. I want to create scenery that changes through time, that talks about time.”

When Mr. Lester approached Clare Reihill, the trustee of the Eliot estate, for permission to set the poem to dance, she was immediately intrigued. “I honestly couldn’t see anything that would prevent me from saying yes,” she said. “Even though it’s a kind of unified event, the poem emerges in its own right.”

Dancing in verse

But how to make a dance to match it? Ms. Tanowitz began working in May 2017, when she was still choreographing
New Work for Goldberg Variations
. She sees the two as companion pieces:
Goldberg
starts and ends with an aria, while
Four Quartets
is about time present and time past. They’re circular. “The core is spiritual: It has rhythm, it’s development, it’s form, it’s traditional, and there’s freedom in the tradition,” Ms. Tanowitz said. “Both of these pieces equal endless possibilities. It’s about the relationship between emotion and form.” It was also meaningful that in
Four Quartets
, there are several references to dance.NY TImes

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