RED HOOK, N.Y. — For a moment or two, Pam Tanowitz may have been regretting the title of her latest dance: “I was waiting for the echo of a better day.”
The phrase comes from a film by Jean-Luc Godard, and Tanowitz surely meant it to carry the charge of a return to performing live and in-person. But the work, commissioned by the Bard SummerScape festival, is designed for the outdoors, and the premiere, originally scheduled for Thursday, was canceled because of rain. So was the Friday show. The title was in danger of becoming an explanation for the premiere that never was.
On Saturday, though, the weather cleared long enough for “I was waiting” to make its debut. It was well worth the wait. As for better days, I can think of few dance experiences as thrilling as this one since the pandemic began.
Unlike many performances forced outdoors by coronavirus protocols, this one truly took advantage of its setting. This wasn’t a dance that would have been better in a theater. It couldn’t have existed in one.
To begin with, the setting was glorious: Montgomery Place, an estate adjacent to and owned by Bard College, where Tanowitz is choreographer in residence. A pleasant walk (or golf-cart ride) through the grounds led to a steeply sloped strip of lawn stretching from the balustrade and steps of a mansion down to a pond backed by a vista of the Catskill Mountains and a sliver of the Hudson River.
We audience members sat on the lawn, isolated from one another within areas like circles on a Twister board. String quintet players — including the violinist Jessie Montgomery, whose vibrant compositions served as the score — readied themselves on a canopied platform. But where were the dancers going to dance?
Everywhere, it turned out. And that was the glory of this 45-minute work. At first, viewers facing the vista had to twist back, as at a wedding, to see the first dancer — the radiantly lucid Zachary Gonder — descend the slope, darting among the circles like a firefly. Other dancers followed, but the first surprise wasn’t in the foreground: It was dancers in the distance, dressed in bright yellow or blue, arabesques among the trees, visual echoes that made the dance expand.
This was the general effect of Tanowitz’s brilliant use of space: pleasurably stretching one’s attention. At times, a few dancers down by the pond carried on as more up by the mansion did something else. But such more-than-you-can-see simultaneity was only one option among many.
Often, as a dancer was holding our attention, one or two or three others would emerge from the surrounding foliage: more visual echoes that, in altering the shape and orientation of the dance, seemed to alter the space around it. When the dancers ran down a new path or ventured onto a new patch of open grass, it was as if they were lighting up features of the landscape, illuminating discoveries. When, in a solo section, Melissa Toogood traveled down from the balustrade to the pond — and then past it, to appear in a new spot, closer to the river — the dimensions of the dance once more increased in a way that’s only possible outside. It was a move of wit that opened up wonder.
All the while, this choreography of space was enlivened by a movement vocabulary more complex, intricate and varied than you might expect from dancers in sneakers on soggy and uneven terrain. These dancers — Jason Collins, Brittany Engel-Adams, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Victor Lozano and Maile Okamura, in addition to Gonder and Toogood — are marvels, alone and together. In slow sections, they coalesced into sculptural groups of great, counterbalanced beauty.
Their phrases had their own music, but it harmonized with Montgomery’s score and its oscillating rhythms, accelerating pizzicati, scraps of Gershwinesque melody, folk song twang and insect drones. In the silences, birds chimed in.
For me, the pleasures of “I was waiting” echoed those of previous Tanowitz works, including the sublime “Four Quartets” that she debuted (indoors) at Bard SummerScape in 2018 and reminded me of the bold, terrific SummerScape program by Ronald K. Brown/Evidence in 2019. This series is building a track record of reliable transcendence, a promise of better days to come.
Pam Tanowitz Dance
Montgomery Place, July 10-11; bard.edu.