‘New Work for Goldberg Variations’: A Golden Evening of Music and Dance [REVIEW]

Pam Tanowitz Dance & Simmone Dinnerstein
New Work for Goldberg Variations
Mimi Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square
Cleveland, Ohio
March 19, 2022

By Steve Sucato

The final performance (for the foreseeable future) of Pam Tanowitz Dance and Simmone Dinnerstein’s critically acclaimed New Work for Goldberg Variations took place this past Saturday night at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre. The work, co-presented with Playhouse Square, was part of DANCECleveland’s 65th Anniversary Season and was a delightful combination of formal dance structures á la Merce Cunningham and Viola Farber, classical ballet, and choreographer Pam Tanowitz’s whimsical dance sensibilities, along with Dinnerstein’s immaculate playing of Johann Sebastian Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations, BMV 988.

Premiered in 2017, New Work for Goldberg Variations lived up to its past praise as a work of substance and significance. The 75-minute, non-narrative piece for seven barefoot dancers and Dinnerstein (also barefoot), who was seated center stage at her piano, began with the dulcet notes of the “Aria” from the Bach’s composition, reaching out from a darkened stage into the audience. As the stage lights slowly began to brighten, Dinnerstein’s fingers moving across the piano keys were the first thing to be seen. In the shadows next to her, Tanowitz’s dancers stood silently. Further into the aria, the multi-generational cast of five female and two male dancers began moving in back-and-forth shuffling steps about the stage that led them little by little off into the wings. A black rear stage curtain then rose in time to meet Dinnerstein’s fingers loudly pouncing on the piano keys in an abrupt shift in the tone and pace of the music, and the stage suddenly being lit up in gold hues.

Throughout the work, Tanowitz’s choreography took its cues from the spirit, mood, and pace of Bach’s music and Dinnerstein’s playing of it. The dancing and Dinnerstein’s performance alternated being the center of the audience’s attention with Tanowitz’s clever and idiosyncratic choreography holding its own with Bach’s masterwork.

Pam Tanowitz Dance + Simone Dinnerstein, “New Work for Goldberg Variations”. Photo by Erin Baiano.

The dancers, costumed in long, semi-sheer linen and tulle tops with wide vertical stripes of various colors over gold leotards, mixed in their precise movement, the purity of modern and ballet dance technique with playful pedestrian actions such as looking as if kicking at an imaginary soccer ball. They mimicked tap dancing, skipped about, ran in place, and laid on the stage floor. All the while, Dinnerstein’s fingers, like the long legs of two spiders, danced across the piano keys creating aural magic.

Another performance ingredient adding to the production’s aura was Davison Scandrett’s lighting design that throughout the performance imperceptibly changed colors with the mood and tone of the music’s variations. Scandrett also raised and lowered some of the lighting rails, sending near blinding light out into the audience and jolting back to the moment, anyone who happened to be transported elsewhere by the music and dancing.

Adding to Tanowitz’s choreography that had the dancers moving about the stage in complex solos and groupings, reversing their dance phrases, and at times encircling Dinnerstein in unison steps, were several tableaus of the dancers looking like subjects in Renaissance religious paintings. These served to further connect the movement to Bach’s period music.  

And while the entire cast was adroit in their performances of the work, Christine Flores stood out for her spritely dancing, as did the statuesque Lindsey Jones for her embodiment of the Cunningham/Tanowitz style and a smile-inducing duet in which she sat back-to-back with Dinnerstein on the piano bench and tap-danced; her legs and feet seemingly in synchronous motion with Dinnerstein’s animated playing.

Pictured (L to R): Melissa Toogood and Simone Dinnerstein in New Work for Goldberg Variations. Photo by Marina Levitskaya.

Perhaps the most captivating performance of the evening was that of company artistic associate and former Merce Cunningham Dance Company star Melissa Toogood. In a golden solo to what Dinnerstein referred to in a post-show chat as “the golden section” of the Goldberg Variations (Variation 22), Toogood in her gold-yellow costume, with the stage lit up in gold, moved in measured steps toward, and in little hops backward, away from Dinnerstein. Her movement was a microcosm of the intricacies of the dancing throughout the evening. The solo ended with her reaching out an arm at shoulder height to her side with her ballet-like fingers delicately stretching across the stage like a lover leaning in for a kiss.

The memorable work ended as it began, with the dulcet notes of Bach’s “Aria” and Dinnerstein, the dancers, and the stage receding into darkness.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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