This is choreographer Pam Tanowitz speaking about T S Eliot's Four Quartets. She's right of course, and it's a characteristic of great art in any discipline. My literature students used to say, particularly of poetry (especially of T S Eliot's poetry), 'But what does it mean?' Were they reassured or perplexed when I answered that you cannot tie up a poem in a neat parcel of meaning? It's like asking what a piece of music means.
I've been reading about Pam Tanowitz's contemporary dance setting of Four Quartets. Eliot's poem contains various references to dance, such as the folk dance of the poets' ancestors in East Coker ('Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,/Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth') and the reciprocal balance between dance and stillness in Burnt Norton ('at the still point, there the dance is'). I was impressed that rather than getting tied up in knots about what the poetry meant she visited the four places after which each section of the poem is named: the rural locations of Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding in the south of England and the maritime Dry Salvages off the coast of Massechusetts. The words came alive in her visual response to the places that were so important to Eliot himself.
The dance setting was first performed last year (it was commissioned by Gideon Lester, artistic director of Bard College, New York, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of the complete Four Quartets). It's coming to London in May. The dance has been a big undertaking with music by Kaija Saariaho and design based on paintings by Brice Marden ('scenery' seems too flimsy a word). The still photographs I have seen on-line and in Poetry Review show the dancers in simple semi-diaphanous clothing ('costume' seems too artificial a word). The complete text of the Quartets is read during the performance. 'The detail of the pattern is movement'.
' At the still point of the turning world ...
... at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity
... Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance'
(T S Eliot - Burnt Norton)
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Pam Tanowitz's dance setting of Four Quartets will be performed at the Barbican in London 22 -25 May 2019.
Gideon Lester writes about Pam Tanowitz visiting the locations of Four Quartets in the current issue of Poetry Review Spring 2019 vol 109:1 and includes four different performance photographs by Maria Baranova.