Four Quartets review: TS Eliot’s rhythm and rhymes make heartbreaking moves

Emma Byrne
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Four Quartets review: TS Eliot’s rhythm and rhymes make heartbreaking moves

It has taken nearly 25 years for Pam Tanowitz to become the Next Big Thing. The New Yorker spent decades showcasing her work to tiny audiences and battling funding bodies; suddenly she’s one of the hottest choreographers around, making pieces for everyone from New York City Ballet to the Martha Graham company and Royal Ballet.

Much of that reputation rests on two works, 2017’s New Work for Goldberg Variations, set to Bach, and last year’s Four Quartets, her crack at TS Eliot’s musings on time, faith, war, life and death. The New York Times praised it as “the greatest creation of dance theatre so far this century”. Now it’s here.

Setting dance to words can be a risky business but Tanowitz resists any attempt to act out Eliot’s abstract verse. Instead she uses the four poems, published together in 1943, as though they were a score, responding to changes in their rhythm and rhyme, focusing as much on their innate musicality as their content.

The poems are presented as they were written, unedited and in order, read aloud by actress Kathleen Chalfant, coolly precise, then wonderfully expressive against Kaija Saariaho’s harp and strings compositions. Clifton Taylor’s set, made up of four Brice Marden paintings, adds great slabs of colour to the stage; wispy scrims and towering door frames allow dancers to vanish and appear at will.

At times, the choreography appears to spring from Eliot’s metre, fully formed – in others, it seems to grab control of the poem and run. Again and again, Tanowitz (who makes a brief appearance on stage) returns to the Four Quartets’ central conceits – the relationship between movement and stillness, the exploration of time. Intricate phrases, Merce Cunningham-esque in their simplicity, appear; later the same steps are sped up or marked, then reversed. In ‘Burnt Norton’, arms are extended, angled like a clock’s; in ‘Little Gidding’, the idea of circularity is extended to whip-fast turns and sweeping, slashing ports de bras.

In the closing moments, Zachary Gonder and Melissa Toogood sit, half in shadow, watching as Chalfant delivers the final lines, her voice cracking. Heartbreaking.

Until May 25 (020 7638 8891; barbican.org.uk)