BARD SUMMERSCAPE 2022
SONG OF SONGS (world premiere)
Pam Tanowitz and David Lang
July 1-3, 2022
Review by Seth Rogovoy
(ANNANDALE-on-HUDSON, N.Y., July 2, 2022) – The Biblical Song of Songs, alternatively called Song of Solomon and, in Hebrew, Shir ha-Shirim, has inspired countless works of art over the centuries. This largely erotic love poem has been put to music variously by Palestrina, Buxtehude, J.S. Bach, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Zorn, Eliza Gilkyson, and even Kate Bush, in her “Song of Solomon.” Chagall offered a five-painting series based on the text; Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes borrows its title from the poem’s imagery; Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, is sometimes considered her best.
Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang, a cofounder of the new music collective Bang on a Can, wrote “Just (After Song of Songs)” in 2014, and recently expanded on his original composition as part of his collaboration with Bessie- and Doris Duke- award-winning choreographer Pam Tanowitz for their own Song of Songs, now being given its world premiere as part of the Bard SummerScape festival. The poetry cries out for such a treatment, and Tanowitz and Lang do not disappoint in their profound, brilliantly staged, hour-long work.
Lang’s composition moves through a handful of sections performed by three vocalists and three instrumentalists, although the multi-textured score evokes twice as many players. Tanowitz’s seven dancers respond in multiple groupings: solos, couples, trios, and full ensemble segments, often morphing from one to the other. The space is defined by loosely flowing, vertical white blinds, the rear wall of which slowly makes its way down to the floor from the ceiling over the course of the dance.
The piece cries out for interaction between the dancers, and there is plenty of it. While the vocalists sing of eyes, breasts, necklaces, fruit, and love, dancers reach out for each other, touching hands, teasing one another, putting themselves on display in broadly angular poses, arms stretched to their maximum or torsos bent into impossible twists.
Lang’s spare, post-minimalist score adheres tightly to a tonal center, sometimes merely through the sound of one repeated note, perhaps the musical response to the frequently invoked beating “heart” in the text. The dancers, clad in earth-toned bodysuits, reach toward the skies as the vocalists repeatedly intone lines such as “and my beloved, and my friend” and “just your neck, just your eyes” and “just your breath, just your kisses, just your desire” in chanting, prayer-like fashion.
Dancers leap forward and backwards and land with impossible delicacy, before joining together in unison movements that then veer off into solos and a game of follow-the-leader. At one point, the ensemble gathers in a tight scrum upstage, and one-by-one they emerge into a ritualized space, jumping and leaping and then melting into the floor. Pairings then emerge with dancers holding onto each other, as if they have found their soulmates, and they dance a spring revel.
The lights grow dim with succeeding movements as the sun descends along with the rear wall of white blinds, as a viola plays long, drawn out notes on top of a staccato tone played at regular intervals. The stars come out in the sky and night falls, blanketing the scene in darkness.
There is a spiritual, mystical element to the original Song of Songs, often read as an expression of God’s love for their people. While on the one hand, Tanowitz’s choreography is earthy and pragmatic, it often combines with Lang’s spare score to illuminate the human yearning for a glimpse of the divine. In this, among so many other ways, the piece wholly succeeds.