A Choreographer in Quarantine (the Kind With a Guard in the Hall)

The last time I was at Kennedy Airport was a year ago, almost to the day. My dance company was performing our “Four Quartets” in Los Angeles — our last show for a live audience before the pandemic shut everything down. Now, it’s Feb. 15, I’m heading for Sydney to work with the Australian Ballet.

My calendar for spring 2020 was a color-coded puzzle. I’d wanted to take advantage of every opportunity that came our way, knowing it wouldn’t be like this forever. I didn’t know it would all be over so suddenly.

Traveling reminds me of my dad, who died in 2018. If he were alive, we would have talked all week about what time I was leaving for the airport. I can hear him now saying “leave earlier … it could take an hour just to get across town” in his Brooklyn accent. He was early to all of my performances. He would show up, opening the theater doors: “Pammy, can you believe I got a parking spot?” Or he’d tell me how he took the express bus from the Bronx all the way down to the East Village. It drove me CRAZY; I was getting ready for the show … but I should have savored it.

At J.F.K., I talk to David Hallberg, the artistic director of the Australian Ballet and an old friend. He tells me things are normal there. I’ve been in New York since lockdown started last March, experimenting with how to make dance, collaborate with artists and keep the art form alive while not going stir crazy. I’m scared for dance; I’m scared for the arts and I’m scared for New York. The city is wounded.

I’m traveling halfway across the planet to walk into a studio of unmasked dancers to create a dance for a real live audience. It’s incredible — heartbreaking — and I will not let this moment pass unsavored.

When I get to Sydney I’ll have to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel. Real quarantine. Lockdown. No going out for a walk or to pick up a few groceries. Maybe this will help me with the new dance. Limitations and boundaries have always focused me. I like rules, but also like to break them — and quarantine is a rule I can’t break.

Sometimes I set limitations for myself on purpose. I purged walking out of all my dances for five years when I realized I was relying on it too much. I had to re-earn my right to walk in my dances. I also banned entrances and exits for a while. What will I ban after quarantine?

Credit…Pam Tanowitz

I have no structure for my day. To keep focused, I’ll make a schedule, and start following it tomorrow.

I FaceTime with my daughter, Gemma, at college. I miss her. I’m still wearing my Pink Floyd T-shirt and sweats that I put on last night … yesterday … two days ago … in New York.

The reality that I just traveled 24 hours and can’t leave my room hasn’t hit me yet. There is a guy posted in the hallway, making sure no one leaves . The Australian Department of Health is also going to call every day to ask after my health — both Covid-related and mental.

Before I left, I ran around trying to remember everything. I forgot a notebook, which had notes I took while talking to Caroline Shaw about her score for the ballet I’m making, “Watermark.” Darn.

The beginning of making a dance is my favorite part — the research. While in quarantine, I’m going to start drawing the dance, scoring the space first. (It looks something like football plays — birds-eye views of the stage space.) Separately, I keep track of movement and rhythmic ideas.

The more organized I am, the more I can go “off book” when I actually get in the room with dancers. Then process becomes part of the dance. I love watching dancers warm up and am always on lookout for “mistakes” they make. I like incorporating these into the design of the dance — little glimpses of humanity within the abstractness of the choreography.

I’m making two dances at once — one for Australian Ballet and one for Singapore Dance Theater. The Singapore dance will be made on Zoom and the one for Australian Ballet in person! Both dances will be performed for a live audience!

I’m jet-lagged and thinking in fragments. So much to figure out, including what time of day it is and whether I should be awake or asleep.

I’m up at 3:30 a.m. to teach my choreography class at Rutgers on Zoom, 4:30-7:30 a.m. (That’s 12:30-3:30 p.m. in New Jersey.) I’ve showered and put on a shirt and a little makeup, so I don’t scare my students. They’re making dance films and rehearsing on Zoom, so I’m talking to them about using limited resources as an advantage — inspiration from limitation — just like I’m dealing with now.

I give them problem-solving movement exercises, and I try to give them hope. The trajectory of dance in America is forever changed after these months of isolation, cancellation and reconsideration. I believe dance is — and will have to continue — reinventing itself for the post-Covid world. The students will be entering a much-changed creative environment than the one I entered after college. I grapple with how to prepare them when I have no idea what’s coming.

I try to do a few different kinds of exercise a day. Something aerobic, something for arms. I brought my own weights.

Credit…Pam Tanowitz

The novelty is already wearing off and it’s only Day 3. I still haven’t made a schedule, but the time gets filled with the routine calls and door knocks of quarantine.

The nurses call every day to ask if I have any Covid symptoms and if I need to talk to a doctor about anything. Today, the nurse asked me where I had traveled from, and it turned into a 25-minute conversation about how he loves dance, how he used to dance, and his trip to Africa. It was nice to chat. I loved hearing his Australian accent even though I only understood half of what he said.

I had my Covid test. I had to stand against my opened door in profile while they swabbed my throat and nose. Brain tickle.

Food delivery, a.k.a. “Knock and Drop”: They deliver meals to me twice a day — no ordering or choosing. (I’ve opted out of breakfast since they bring hazarai, bready junk food.) I don’t know who “they” are; they knock on the door and leave.

It’s nice not to have to order. Choreography is a series of choices I have to make so to get a break from that is OK.

The food has been a mixed bag. Today’s lunch: a “New York beef sourdough sandwich” and a banana.

I had the worst dream last night. I was trying to move my body but couldn’t — stuck in one place. My daughter was with me, running ahead of me and I couldn’t catch up.

I’m still jet lagged, I still have no schedule, still get confused by the time difference, still need to choreograph two dances. And I should call my mom.

I brought “Swann’s Way” with me. I’ve tried reading this maybe 10 times. I thought I could try again in quarantine. I want to be a person who can read Proust but I guess I’M JUST NOT. A writer friend suggested that I open the book and read a sentence or two randomly. That is the only way to do it, like a John Cage/Merce Cunningham “chance procedure.”

Today, I made four phrases of “ballet” steps using chance as a starting point for the structure. I want to go deeper with the dancers when I see them. That’s the collaborative part and most satisfying part of making dance — doing it in the moment, relying on my intuition.

I had my first Zoom rehearsal tonight with Singapore Dance Theater. Melissa Toogood, a good friend and the longest collaborator in my company, came from New York to be my assistant. She helps out from her room on Zoom. I’m excited to start, though I’m not sure yet how I’m going pull this off.

Credit…Pam Tanowitz

I woke up later today — 6 a.m.!

And a major change: I moved my computer location from the desk facing the wall to the table facing the windows.

The thing about making two dances at once is if you get stuck on one you can change to the other and still feel productive. I have two new notebooks bought from Amazon Australia. Each dance gets its own notebook for ideas and stage drawings.

I know it’s a little corny, but I like having quotes from artists I admire with me. It’s spiritual company, making me less lonely and giving me something to aspire to. I write this Robert Creeley quote on the first page:

“Content is never more than an extension of form and form is never more than an extension of content.”

As concepts, movement ideas and structures form first. These then inform the dance, so I never have to “decide” what movement goes into which dance if I’m working on two at the same time — the dance tells me.

While on a FaceTime call today with Gemma, she tells me about her writing class. Her assignments deal with a strict form. This is fascinating to me, so I question her more on the specifics and ask her to send me the writing prompt. It sounds so similar to what I do — making similar prompts for myself and creating movement within its structure.

It’s 2021, it’s a pandemic, and I’m in Australia. I’m not “well-traveled” but making dances has given me the opportunity. My first time to Europe was for my honeymoon in Paris. I was 28. It was 1998 — we made our hotel reservations by fax. After that, not much else, only little trips.

The first 25 years of my dances were made and performed in New York City. In 1992, my first show was at CBGB’s gallery. We danced barefoot, so I would go around before the show pulling nails out of the floor with a hammer. We were treated like a band and we got a cut of the door.

Now I’m 51, getting hot flashes and still making dances.

The halfway mark! And a day off.

Watched Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series (“The 400 Blows,” “Antoine and Colette,” “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” “Love on the Run”).

It’s 5:45. I’m waiting for the knock. I wonder what’s for dinner?!

Credit…Pam Tanowitz

I did not work on any projects yesterday. I feel guilty. My first therapist used to say, “Pam, you wear guilt like a sweater.” Guilt is a cozy place for me, and it’s not productive.

Today I’m more productive. I took a shower.

We had a good rehearsal with Singapore. Translation and articulation of movement is tough and tedious on Zoom, but the dancers are picking up the steps quickly.

I’m still trying to capture a “real life in the studio” feeling. When the dancers created an amazing tableau — all were looking at the camera to hear what I was saying — I had to include it in the dance.

It’s a busy day in quarantine: two rehearsals; a costume fitting on Zoom; and an interview about the new ballet. I’ve never been so busy without leaving a room. I’m also going to do two Glo yoga workouts, cardio and a 20-minute arm sculpt. I read that middle-aged women need to lift weights and do strength training, so I try to do this every day.

My rehearsal with Australian Ballet, the first, goes well on Zoom. I started plotting it out with 14 men and three women — 17 altogether — my homage to Balanchine’s “Serenade” (minus the principal roles). My dance will be sandwiched between two Balanchine ballets on the program and I’m trying hard not to think about this.

I explained a little about my work to the dancers, but I could hear the reverb of my nasal American/New York/Jewish accent. I hope it didn’t scare them. Melissa and I got through one phrase during the hour. It’s good prep work for when I see them in person next week.

My Pink Floyd T-shirt is still in heavy rotation.

Melissa is leaving quarantine. I will miss her! Even though I never actually saw her, knowing she was here helped. Reid Bartelme (costume designer) is here now, so I call him on the landline. He says, “Pam, we have cellphones,” but I like the land line.

I just signed into Zoom for my noon rehearsal but no one is there. Ah, noon Singapore time, 3 p.m. for me … oy! Working in three different time zones, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened before now.

Feeling unfocused today.

Another beef pie for lunch … bummer.

I try to say hi to the guard in the hall. That’s me, trying to connect. One thing my dances are “about” is disconnection — missed connections and making that disconnection work.

After being isolated like this, I’m curious about how being confined to this space will (or will not) affect my work.

See ANY day, 1 through 11. It’s all the same.

“The house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” (Gaston Bachelard)

I can hide here in quarantine.

At 9 a.m., I open my door to two police, two border force guys and a hotel guard. I say, “Wow, I need five guards to check out?” And they laugh and say, “We heard you were trouble.”

I’ve realized in this room that when I meet the Australian Ballet dancers I will have no rules. I will make a dance. Freedom.

Pam Tanowitz is a choreographer and the founder of Pam Tanowitz Dance.

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