Sosnoff Theater at Bard College’s Fisher Center presented a World Premiere of Four Quartets, a dramaturgy with music by Kaija Saariaho and dance choreography by Pam Tanowitz of T.S. Eliot’s late philosophical poem. This was the opening performance of Bard’s annual SummerScape program. This is the first time that permission has been granted to set a dance to Eliot’s masterpiece.
While I have never been a fan of the high priest of Anglican ambiguity whose early work satirically celebrated Anti-Semitism and Anti-Irish prejudice (yet there was the amusing Prufrock poem in the manner of Jules Laforgue's parlor satires), I appreciate Eliot for the great achievement of a long philosophical poem. As a student, I was often puzzled by how academics admired The Waste Land (1922) for its poetry, which was mainly a cribbed paraphrase of French poets. To me The Waste Land was merely a dissertation with footnotes more livelily than the text. Yet late in life Eliot did publish his dancingly static masterpiece with its hipster Buddhist affectation. The genre of Western philosophical poetry occupies a small shelf in any library, consisting of primarily Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Dante Alighieri’s Paradiso, and a few laborious French failures outmaneuvered by the good priest Francois Rabelais.
Kathleen Chalfant, dressed in light green like a legendary stone naiad, read with magnificent eloquence. There was not a missed or clotted syllable in her dramatic yet subtle tone: she was mesmerizing. She performed what was difficult, as if there was no difficulty at all.
What I feared was academic literalism: that dance in particular would reduce philosophy to concrete images or gestures. There were a few moments of that with arms whirling like clocks, but the whole succeeded better than I might have imagined with an array of skilled dancers. Amid arduous poses that were graceful, there was much skip-hop, hop-skip. In Eliot’s high rhetorical Anglicism, there is much ceremonial repetition of language that was mimicked in repeated steps, running around a scrim of futility, etc. There were several delightful dance solos, even amid words that might be paradoxically contradicting themselves for the effect of greater eloquence. The dancing was extraordinary and I am a bit tongue-tied, since I am not really a dance critic.
In the unobtrusive pit the music for The Knights quartet (violin, viola, cello, and harp) by Saariaho was suitably meditative, probing, edgy with mild dissonance and slow serial progression; it was simultaneously mood music and real music with philosophical resonance.
Eliot was much influenced by music and wrote an essay speaking of poetry as a world parallel to music where quotations and references remain an essential tool. At one point Eliot’s poem references Baudelaire’s poem Voyages and the choreography provides a superb arrangement.
The Four Quartets dons the seasonal vestments of the defrocked priest Vivaldi while critics note that Eliot, when composing, obsessively played vinyl recordings of Beethoven’s late Op. 132 quartet, which employs repetitions inspired by Gregorian chant.
Choreography, music, and reading achieved a Finale that was truly transcendent, leaving the audience to ponder on the great gift of life and its neighbor, death. The magic of wonder was achieved through slow, invisible increments through eye and ear from here to there and back again.