Four Quartets review – TS Eliot's poems brilliantly danced


 Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Choreographer Pam Tanowitz has been quietly plying her trade in New York for more than two decades. She now arrives for the first time in London with Four Quartets, the first authorised dance version of TS Eliot’s 1943 work, with the poems read in full by the actor Kathleen Chalfant.

“Interesting” gets a bad rap as an adjective, but it’s no veiled slight to say Tanowitz’s choreography is truly that – brilliantly, intriguingly, compellingly so. She makes a movement that is unfussy but full of detail, where you can never predict what happens next but when it does it makes perfect sense.

Every element screams quality (it wouldn’t scream, of course, too classy for that): Chalfant’s intelligent reading, the abstract backdrop paintings by artist Brice Marden, the music of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, its shimmers and strings sounding like a light frost and crisp breeze. Saariaho’s music is sparse in orchestration but rich in texture, and that’s true of the production as a whole – Tanowitz never uses a pack of dancers where a single performer would be clearer – yet the whole experience is dense with ideas and images, and the viewer can slip between layers.

The dance is a clear descendant of Merce Cunningham, with the same sense of internal rhythm and streamlined classical positions, but none of the effortful execution. Technical demands are met with fluent facility by the impressive dancers, “moving without pressure” as the poem says. It’s buoyant choreography, full of delightfully unexpected steps and stuck-in-a-groove repetitions.

In Eliot’s text, the prosaic and the ineffable live side by side (there’s giggled recognition at the line about being stuck on a tube “and you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen”). Tanowitz’s dance seems to have absorbed the marrow of Eliot’s words, the sense of time stretching and contracting and existing all at once.

This is a work of masterly craftsmanship, but not at the expense of human connection. At the end of the third poem, the text breaks, leaving only music and two dancers, motionless. They look intently at each other, as Eliot says, “the still point of the turning world”.

 

 

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