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Four Quartets review at Barbican Theatre – ‘anaemic response to TS Eliot’s enigmatic poem’

The ensemble in Four Quartets, Dry Salvages. Photo: Maria Baranova The ensemble in Four Quartets, Dry Salvages. Photo: Maria Baranova
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It is possible to make a non-narrative ballet from a literary classic, as Crystal Pite’s The Tempest Replica and Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works have proven. But it is unlikely that New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz will be joining that august company any time soon.

While Eliot’s work may be challenging to interpret choreographically, references to dance are scattered throughout the poem: “Except for the point / the still point / There would be no dance, and there / is only the dance.”

Tanowitz opts for a semi-sylvan, lightly mythological response to the writing. The music is more of an atmospheric accompaniment than a propulsion for the nine dancers – dressed in floaty diaphanous onesies – who move solely to the words of the poems read by Kathleen Chalfant.

Brice Marden’s painted screens range from sun-bleached Ordnance Survey maps to water-stained architects’ drawings. Grounded in classical movement, Tanowitz’s choreography is airily kinetic, but rarely innovative. The pleasure is in the detail – dancers rock back and forth from the waist like dipping bird toys, fingers wiggle on extended arms like squids sauntering through the sea. These are amusing additions to a relatively conventional choreographic design, as solos and duos slip into lilting ensembles that often border on the banal.

The elastic grace of Lindsey Jones and the fiery wallop of Kara Chan are notable, and illuminate an otherwise anaemic and watery work characterised by a measured, reverential sonority. Very disappointing.

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Pam Tanowitz’s UK debut is an anaemic response to TS Eliot’s enigmatic poem Four Quartets