Creating a dance to Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” — 75 minutes of ferocious, finger-busting counterpoint — is an immense challenge. The most famous choreographer to attempt it was Jerome Robbins, for New York City Ballet in 1971; he got mixed reviews. Now choreographer Pam Tanowitz and pianist Simone Dinnerstein — both based in New York — have collaborated on “New Work for Goldberg Variations.” Co-commissioned by Summer Stages Dance at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the piece had its world premiere at Duke University in October. On Friday, Tanowitz and Dinnerstein brought it to the ICA.
When the Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater curtain rises, the stage is dark, and you hear the melting first notes of the Aria with which the “Goldberg Variations” begin. By degrees, lighting designer Davison Scandrett lets you see Dinnerstein’s hands on the keyboard of the piano, which is centerstage, and you can make out the silhouettes of the seven dancers — one man, six women — clustered around her.
It’s Dinnerstein, playing barefoot, who sets the tone of “New Work.” Her performance Friday was similar to the one on her celebrated 2007 Telarc recording: earnest, meditative, poetic, less heavy in the bass, but still generously pedaled, with some repeats, notably in Variation 25, omitted.
Tanowitz, who says she initially made patterns and charts and tracings, wound up counterpointing the complexity of the score rather than trying to illustrate it. She’s been likened to Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, and you can see that here. Her choreography for “New Work” is a reverent homage, with its formal gestures of invocation and supplication, but it’s also quirky and spontaneous and playful. Costumed by Reid & Harriet in luscious particolored tunics and pants, the dancers often pause, as if listening, and then proceed as if they were making it up on the spot.
Along the way there are children’s marches, games, the odd solo, groups forming and re-forming. Whimsy abounds: In Variation 9, which is bathed in moonlight (both the lighting and Dinnerstein’s playing), Maile Okamura slides under the piano, and in Variation 20, Lindsey Jones sits on the piano bench, back to back with Dinnerstein, and taps her feet. It’s all fluid, from the dancers’ unobtrusive entrances and exits to ballet quotations like Jason Collins’s quicksilver entrechat in Variation 3 and the ladies’ chaîné turns in Variation 5.
The somber, minor-key Variation 25 finds the dancers gathering around Dinnerstein, as if in sympathy. For the concluding Aria (the same one that starts the work), they begin by kneeling; then they stand and process around the piano, paying their respects to both Bach and Dinnerstein.
“New Work for Goldberg Variations” is not a depiction of Bach’s masterwork but a response, an illumination. A very fine one, too.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com