Secret Things/Everyone Keeps Me review – Pam Tanowitz’s steps cast a spell

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The Royal Ballet now has three works by American choreographer Pam Tanowitz; catch them all on this programme. Formal geometries are so present in Tanowitz’s dance composition that you can almost see lines stretching between walls or graphed on the floor. There are many echoes of both classical and modern canonical dance works – which doesn’t feel derivative, though it can feel insiderish. And music – astringent, bracing – powers some of the steps, and much of the mood.

The new piece comes first. Created for corps de ballet dancers, Secret Things opens with the figure of a woman caught between iconic ideal and flawed corporeality. In a tunic of sunshine yellow, shins shimmering with gold and pointe shoes tipped with cobalt blue, she is at once a work of Apollonian statuary, all poise and proportion, and a coltish creature who is still discovering her body: sometimes she’ll flop, or find herself blocked by her own foot. That dynamic – all of a piece with Anna Clyne’s accompanying string quartet, entitled Breathing Statues – underpins the work as it multiplies its geometries and motifs to encompass eight dancers. Yet for all its fascination, Secret Things feels arch and academic, still more study than piece.

Last autumn, Tanowitz created the zingy Dispatch Duet for Royal Ballet principals Anna Rose O’Sullivan and William Bracewell. Less than 10 minutes long, it appears here in the form of a film by Anthoula Syndica-Drummond, which split-times the choreography between different locations (backstage, foyer, studio), and between close and long shot, face and body. If the device sometimes masks the dance, it is highly effective on film.

Everyone Keeps Me, a reprise of Tanowitz’s first Royal Ballet work, made in 2019 for the Merce Cunningham centenary, casts its own special spell. Without acting or emoting, its subtleties of feeling and significance emerge through form, shape and effort. A duet of halting jumps, strictly timed and repeated, becomes a gentle yet exacting form of play. A series of poised, backward steps requires so much care that their execution becomes a kind of introspection. Circles and lines are not only figures, but forms of togetherness. The choreographer’s craft, in action.