Artistic Director’s Blog
Gideon Lester, Artistic Director, Theater & Dance
Kathleen Chalfant, the voice of Four Quartets
We are now in the final days of rehearsal for Four Quartets, which premieres at the Fisher Center on July 6. The dancers have been joined by The Knights, a Brooklyn-based contemporary music ensemble who are playing Kaija Saariaho’s score, and by Kathleen Chalfant, the legendary stage actor, who is reading Eliot’s poems live in our performances.
From our first conversations about the project, Pam and I knew that Four Quartets needed to be read by a woman. All existing recordings of the poems are by British men – Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Alec Guinness, Eliot himself – and we were certain that a female voice would unlock a new experience of the text. We were also thinking of Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century female mystic whom Eliot quotes in “Little Gidding”: “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Kathleen Chalfant and Pam Tanowitz. All photos by Gideon Lester
Kathy is one of the great performers of our time. She is probably best known for originating the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the stage play Wit, for which she one an Obie Award. (She won another Obie, for Lifetime Achievement, earlier this year.) She is bringing an incredible warmth and intelligence to Eliot’s poems; her voice, as the critic Hilton Als wrote last year in the New Yorker, “draws Chalfant’s audience close, like the voice you remember hearing in school during story time.”
Kathy has been fully immersed in Four Quartets with us for a number of months, and recently undertook the same pilgrimage to the four sites that Pam and I made last year. She has created a strong partnership with the musicians and dancers in the production, and is doing extraordinary work integrating her reading of the poems with the choreographic and musical score.
Last week Kathy and I recorded a radio interview for NPR in which she describes her experience of the project, and reads several sections of Four Quartets. I think you’ll immediately hear the great qualities she brings to Eliot’s poems.Kathleen Chalfant in rehearsal for Four Quartets.
Visiting Little Gidding
The final stop on our Four Quartets pilgrimage was Little Gidding, a tiny hamlet about 30 miles northwest of Cambridge. In 1626 an Anglican religious community was founded there by Nicholas Ferrar, a friend of the poet George Herbert. It came under attack during the English Civil War, and briefly served as a refuge for King Charles I when he was fleeing Cromwell’s troops.
Eliot probably only visited Little Gidding once, in 1936, but it impressed him sufficiently that he named his final Quartet after it. He wrote the poem in 1941 during the Blitz, the sustained German air attacks, when he served as a volunteer fire watcher. The poem is full of references to wartime and death (the “dark dove with the flickering tongue” is actually a German fighter bomber) and it seems likely that Eliot was thinking of the remote village’s role as a place of sanctuary in a historical war when he chose it as the final location for Four Quartets.
As with “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker”, Eliot guides us towards “Little Gidding” with a detailed description of place:
“If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone.”
We made our journey in May, and sure enough the hedges were white with spring blossom. As we drove towards Little Gidding, we marveled at how specific Eliot’s directions were. The hamlet is in the middle of fields and there is really only one way to reach it (“the route you would be likely to take / From the place you would be likely to come from.”) The final stretch of road is a dirt track, and then, sure enough, it turns behind some farm buildings and an old brick pigsty.The Little Gidding pigsty. All photos by Gideon Lester.
At this point on our journey we had come to expect two things – that someone would guide us (the Harrowbys at Burnt Norton, the taxi driver at East Coker, the ship’s captain at the Dry Salvages) and that we would find a bell. Sure enough, as we walked into the tiny visitor’s center at Farrar House, the main building at Little Gidding, we were met by a woman who seemed almost to have been expecting us. “Would you like a cup of tea now, or after you visit the chapel?” she asked.
Our guide was Judith Hodgson, who, together with her late husband Tony, had run a new religious community at Little Gidding from 1970 until 1998. Judith is now a docent at the visitor’s center, and couldn’t have been kinder or more welcoming. She gave us tea and cakes, and then left us to walk on to the chapel with its “dull facade / And the tombstone.”
The Church of St Mary is tiny, and entirely surrounded by fields. We were pleased, and not at all surprised, to discover our fourth bell, set in the door above the entrance door. Inside there is space for perhaps thirty congregants, all facing each other. On a wall hangs a sampler embroidered with words from Eliot’s poem: “You are here to kneel /
Where prayer has been valid"
Once again we were walking in Eliot’s footsteps; once again we imagined him here in the still, prayerful place, both when he visited in person, and when he journeyed back to Little Gidding in his imagination during the horror of the blitz.
Outside the trees were covered in blossom, and the still spring air was broken only by birdsong and the distant bleating of sheep. We sat under a yew tree, close to a bed of yellow roses and the tombstone by the western door, and read Eliot’s poem:
“The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.”
Our physical journey was over. Now a new journey began, as Pam began to imagine how our visit to these four quiet, out-of-the-way places would find new embodiment in the dance that she would soon start creating for Four Quartets.
Visiting the Dry Salvages
T. S. Eliot pointed out the close relationship between the Four Quartets and the four elements. “Burnt Norton” and its sudden shaft of sunlight is the poem of air; “East Coker” reminds us that life comes from and returns to earth; the dominant symbol of “Little Gidding” is fire. The element of “The Dry Salvages” is unquestionably water, in the form of river and sea.
The Dry Salvages are a group of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts, the only American location in this transatlantic sequence of poems. The rocks lie a couple of miles from Rockport, close to Gloucester, where the Eliot family had a vacation house. Though he grew up in Missouri, the young Tom Eliot spent every summer of his childhood in New England. When he was away from Cape Ann, he wrote, “I missed the fir trees, the bay and goldenrod, the song-sparrows, the red granite and the blue see of Massachusetts.”
The Eliots’ house in Gloucester is now a writer’s retreat, owned and managed by the T. S. Eliot Foundation, and it was there that Pam and I spent a night before visiting the Dry Salvages.T. S. Eliot House, Gloucester, MA. All photos by Gideon Lester
The house is spacious, and welcoming. In Eliot’s day its porch had an uninterrupted view of Gloucester Harbor, though trees have now grown up around it. It was an extraordinary feeling to stay there, in the rooms where TSE slept and lived as a boy, in that landscape that he loved so much. If we believed in ghosts, we would certainly have felt his spirit here.
We had arranged for a local fisherman to take us out to the rocks on the afternoon we arrived in Gloucester, but the sea was too rough to get to the Salvages comfortably, so our journey was postponed till the next day. Instead we went for a walk out to Eastern Point. Here, next to the lighthouse, we came across a large bell. The sign on it read: “This bell was used as the fog signal at Eastern Point Light House from June 1933 to Dec 1969. Cast in Chelsea, MA. Gold dust was sprinkled on the mold in order to obtain the right tone.”
Eliot wrote about just such a bell in “The Dry Salvages”:
“And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers..”
The bell is an essential sound of the sea for Eliot – and by now it had become eerily apparent that bells were also accompanying us throughout our Four Quartets pilgrimage: the bell on the house at Burnt Norton, in the churchyard at East Coker, and now here, on the promontory where Eliot played as a boy. Would there be a bell at Little Gidding too?
The next morning dawned warm and bright, and the sea was entirely calm as we drove to Rockport to meet our third guide, Captain Bill Lee, who would take us out to the Salvages. Bill has fished the waters off Cape Ann all his life. We asked him whether many tourists asked to be taken round the rocks; no, he said, in all these years only one other person had made the trip with him – an Englishman. We later realized that this was the actor Jeremy Irons, a great devotee of Four Quartets (there is a recording of him reading the poems here.)
Captain Bill Lee
It took about an hour to journey out to the Salvages. The rocks are low-slung – just a meter or two above sea level, and the cluster is almost entirely covered at high tide, making it hazardous to shipping. Even on this calm day there was a significant swell, and except for a large colony of seals there was little sign of life in this barren, remote place.
The sense of time here was quite different from the human environments of the garden at Burnt Norton and the village church at East Coker – “a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” As we steered around the Salvages and headed back for the domestic familiarity of Rockport we thought of Eliot’s description of the “ragged rock in the restless waters”:
“Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.”
Visiting East Coker
“In my beginning is my end.” The core of “East Coker” is the cycle of birth and death, and the place that inspired the poem is deeply connected to the beginning and end of Eliot’s own life. This tiny hamlet in Somerset was home to the poet’s ancestors, one of whom, Andrew Eliot, emigrated to the New World in 1669. It is also Eliot’s final resting place; he and his second wife Valerie are buried in the village church, St Michael and All Angels’, which dates from the late 12th century.
Our guides to Burnt Norton had been the estate’s owners, Lord and Lady Harrowby; our guide to East Coker was a cab driver, who collected Pam and me from the train station in nearby Yeovil. This corner of Somerset doesn’t see many tourists, and the driver asked us what we had come to see. We explained we were on an Eliot pilgrimage, and he smiled. “Wrong author,” he said. “Next time, you should come in search of Thomas Hardy. You’re in the heart of Wessex – Hardy country.”
As we drove into the village we were again struck by the accuracy of Eliot’s description. Typically for this region of southwest England, the road is sunken, with high banks and hedges on either side. Eliot paints it evocatively:
“Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotised. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.”
Indeed the village is built from grey stone, and yes – there were dahlias blooming on the warm summer day.
After lunch in the village pub we climbed the hill to the little medieval church of St Michael
Inside, a simple plaque marks the resting place of Thomas and Valerie Eliot, quoting the opening and closing lines of the first section “East Coker”
We walked out into the churchyard, and looked across at the fields in which Eliot imagined the ghosts of his ancestors dancing:
“In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire”
We sat on a bench in the churchyard, imagining the one time that Eliot visited the village while alive, to pay homage to his ancestors. That was in 1937, and 3 years later he published “East Coker.” We were reading the poem aloud. When we were suddenly startled by a long peal of church bells. It was three o’clock. Only in hindsight did we remember that other bell in the garden at Burnt Norton; on that summer’s afternoon the tolling bell in the country churchyard seemed to us a merely an expression of this beautiful place where Eliot once walked, and where he now rests.
Visiting Burnt Norton
T. S. Eliot named the Four Quartets after four places that held special significance for him. As Pam Tanowitz began conceiving her performance, we decided to visit the four sites which inspired Eliot to write the poems. We made our journey in May and June 2017, as a kind of pilgrimage in search of a deeper understanding of the Quartets. In the next four entries, I’ll write about some of our experiences.
Burnt Norton is a large estate in the Cotswolds, close to the town of Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire. For generations, the estate has been owned by the Earl of Harrowby, and the current Lord and Lady Harrowby showed us around the house and gardens. In 1934, Eliot and his girlfriend Emily Hale had been hiking nearby and trespassed through the Norton grounds. Eliot had a kind of mystical experience there, by the edge of a drained pool, which he recorded two years later in the first Quartet, “Burnt Norton.”
In the poem Eliot guides the reader through layers of memory and into a rose garden, which I had always assumed was a symbolic rather than actual place:
“Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towardsthedoor we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.”
As Lord and Lady Harrowby led us into the garden, though, we discovered it was in fact exactly as Eliot described it – a concrete representation of a very real place. We first came to the rose garden, which somehow reminded us of the garden of live flowers that Alice finds in Through the Looking-Glass – perhaps because of Eliot’s depiction of the self-conscious roses, which “had the look of flowers that are looked at.” Here is the rose garden:All photos by Gideon Lester
Beyond the roses is a gateway (“through the first gate, / into our first world”) which leads to the “empty alley” of Eliot’s poem:
The alley leads to a formal garden, with the “box circle” that I had never been able to picture – and suddenly here it was, a ring of topiary:
And there, next to the formal garden, was the “drained pool” where Eliot had a mysterious vision of a lotus flower rising from a mirage of water. Lady Harrowby explained that the pools were intended to be filled with water, but they leaked, so had always remained dry:
As Pam and I thanked the Harrowbys and left, we noticed a large bell hanging in a nook on the side of the house. It reminded us of the bells that recur throughout Four Quartets. In “Burnt Norton” Eliot wrote:
“Time and the bell have buried the day,
The black cloud carries the sun away.”
Was he thinking of this very bell that we were now looking at, set into the side of the house?
The garden was full of birdsong when we visited, and a strong wind blew through the trees, as you’ll see in the video I posted on this blog a few weeks ago. It was easy to imagine that “the leaves were full of children, / Hidden excitedly, containing laughter” – and also to imagine Eliot standing here, 83 years earlier, in this half-wild garden at the heart of the English countryside. For a moment past, present, and future seemed to coincide, and we understood the opening lines of the poem in a new and vivid way.
Brice Marden and the design for Four Quartets
The set for Four Quartets is based on four paintings by the esteemed abstract artist Brice Marden. Brice and his wife Helen, also a great artist, live in Tivoli NY, close to Bard and the Fisher Center. I recently talked with Brice about the canvases that form the set design, and the following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Gideon Lester: When did you first encounter Four Quartets?
Brice Marden: It was probably in the late 70s. I remember my brother had a book of Eliot’s works, and I was curious about what he was reading. I had a friend who was a restaurateur and dope dealer, who also taught English. We read the Quartets together and he explained them to me, but I wouldn’t say I’ve made a study of them.
GL: I read an essay by [art critic] David Anfam in which he draws a parallel between your work and Four Quartets. He describes the “hushed stillness-in-movement quality” of your painting Ru Ware Project, and quotes from “Burnt Norton”: “Only by the form, the pattern, / Can words or music reach / The stillness, as a Chinese jar still / Moves perpetually in its stillness.”
BM: I’m glad he saw that, though, I wasn’t thinking directly about Eliot when I painted it.
GL: In Four Quartets Eliot is seeking to express an experience of the sublime. This seems to be a point of deep connection with your own work.
BM: I’ve recently been doing all these green paintings, and have been working a lot with the pigment Terre Verte, green earth, and there’s so much reference inherent in these materials that I don’t think I’m putting all that much of myself into it. More and more I find when I paint that I go sort of blank, as if I’m a vehicle. I’m at a point in my life where I’m reconsidering a lot of things, how I’m spending my time. That’s one of the reasons I took on Four Quartets.
GL: What interested you in the project?
BM: The whole collaboration thing. I really like dance. It seemed like a very good idea, the combination of poetry, dance, contemporary music… though I’m not terribly involved in music right now, or dance. Also I said yes because you made it difficult to say no. It’s Bard, and I’m up here, I’m part of the community.
Pam Tanowitz and Brice Marden in Brice’s studio in Tivoli NY (photo: Gideon Lester)
GL: I think you’ve collaborated with choreographers twice before?
BM: I did a set for a Karole Armitage production of Orpheus and Eurydice in Italy, and lights and costumes for Baryshnikov, who was performing Cunningham’s Signals.
GL: You’ve talked in the past about the way that the physical action of painting has a choreographic quality for you. Your painting The Muses was inspired by dance, wasn’t it?
BM: That was more about madness. I had an image of the muses dancing wildly in the Peloponnese. There’s no depiction in my paintings, though there is movement, which could be associated with dance.
GL: Have there been periods when you were particularly interested in dance? I imagine you encountered postmodern choreographers when you were working as Robert Rauschenberg’s assistant?
BM: I remember that Merce [Cunningham] would come by the studio. Rauschenberg worked mostly at night, so I’d be getting ready to go home and all these people would start trickling into the studio at cocktail time. He was working with Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton.
GL: The two dimensional nature of painting, the plane, is of great importance to you. I’m curious how it has been for you to think about set design, which is three dimensional.
BM: Yes, the whole idea of flatness, and the tension between flatness and the and the illusion of non-flatness — a lot of that is arrived at by color. But for Four Quartets most of the pieces Pam and Clifton [Taylor, the scenic designer] chose are very architectural, and they can be broken down in an architectural pattern.
GL: The design incorporates four of your paintings, one for each of Eliot’s poems. Maybe we could talk about about each of them. The first, for “Burnt Norton”, is a detail from a painting with four sections, called Uphill 4. What’s the significance of the title?
BM: Nothing. I have a studio here in Tivoli that’s up the hill. I refer to it as the uphill studio. That’s all.
GL: I had an elaborate theory about why the title was perfect for Eliot’s poem. He has a line about “the figure of the ten stairs,” an image from the mystical writer John of the Cross, which imagines love as a staircase. So, uphill!
BM: That’s a very rich interpretation and it’s fine by me. That’s what happens when you put things out in the world.
GL: At the bottom of the canvas there’s a band where you let the paint drip down from the top. That sense of chance also reminds me of Cunningham and his collaborations with John Cage.
BM: When I first starting showing paintings I did that a lot. I was making monochromatic paintings, and the drips at the bottom were an indication that they were handmade. It was at a time when a lot of painters were trying to make it look as though their work was mechanical, not made by hand. Later I stopped, though I’ve returned to it more recently with paintings like this one.
GL: How about the “East Coker” painting, Thira? It’s much more controlled.
BM: It’s all about opposites. Green and red are complements, and I tried to complicate the reading of it with the orange and blue. I’m always trying to mix colors in a certain way. I used to be if not radical then at least contemporary, and now I feel that I’m much more conservative. I’m still working with these ideas of color.
GL: “Thira” means door in ancient Greek. You use the structures of post and lintel doorways in a lot of your work. The form looks like Stonehenge, which isn’t far from the village of East Coker. Eliot writes about old stones, old structures, in that poem, so it’s resonant.
BM: I was thinking about the ancient dolmens and stone circles from the Burren in Ireland. Also classical buildings in Greece, with their solid and open spaces.
GL: The painting for “The Dry Salvages” is much more recent; I think you finished it this year. Can you tell me about it?
Brice Marden, Untitled (Hydra), © 2018 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (photo: Bill Jacobson)
BM: It’s based on ideas of rocks from Japanese gardens, but it’s also about numbers. It’s all very unresolved. I’m drawn to idea of the scholar’s rock, the artist keeping a rock in his studio as a microcosm or macrocosm. There are three clusters of rocks in the painting, and there are yellow horizontal lines, which mark off two-thirds of each rocks. That’s basically what the Japanese do — they bury two-thirds of the rock, so it’s coming out of the earth.
GL: Or coming out of the ocean, in the case of this poem. The painting fits perfectly. It almost looks like a map of the Dry Salvages, the rocks that Eliot was writing about. For “Little Gidding” we’re using a much earlier image, which you made in 1980.
BM: Structurally it’s related to Thira. It contains some ideas from stained glass window studies I did for Basel cathedral.
GL: Again the connections are uncanny; Little Gidding is a chapel, and the painting could almost be its windows. Poetry has been an important source for you in the past. In the 1980s you created a series of etchings to accompany a translation of 36 poems by the Chinese poet Tu Fu, and later a group of large canvases, “Cold Mountain,” inspired by the Zen nature poet Hanshan.
BM: Yes, I discovered Tu Fu through the translations of Kenneth Rexroth, who himself was a great nature poet. I got very interested in Chinese poetry. I also love Yeats. I love poetry because it’s apparently so simple.
When Pam Tanowitz and I visited Burnt Norton last summer, I shot a video of the garden that Eliot writes about in the poem. Here it is, with Kathleen Chalfant reading from “Burnt Norton.”
Kaija Saariaho and the music of Four Quartets
The music for our Four Quartets is by the esteemed Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. We approached her about the project because we knew that she loved Eliot; one of her earliest works, “Study for Life”, was inspired by Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”, and on the last page of the score of her cello concerto “Notes on Light” she included a quotation from “The Waste Land.” We were beyond thrilled when she accepted our invitation to create a musical score to complement the poetry of Four Quartets.
Kaija Saariaho and Pam Tanowitz in Kaija’s Paris apartment. Photo by Gideon Lester
Kaija is one of the world’s leading contemporary composers. Last year she became the second woman ever to have an opera produced at the Met (the first, appallingly, was in 1903.) Her shimmering compositions combine elements of minimalism and “spectral” electronic music with melodic writing for chamber groups, orchestras, and the human voice. For Four Quartets she has created a score from several pieces for solo and ensemble strings and electronica. If you’d like to listen to them in advance of the performance, they are:
Kaija’s music combines remarkably well with the poems of Four Quartets – in part, I think, because of the spacious, open structure of her compositions, and because there is already such a deep musicality to Eliot’s writing. Eliot had long experimented with musicality in his poetry (think of that famous approximation of jazz rhythms from The Waste Land – “O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent”) but it was in Four Quartets that his equation of words and music reached fullest expression.
Even the title Four Quartets suggests a self-conscious relationship with the structures of chamber music. Eliot elsewhere noted: “I am also interested (Burnt Norton) in possible approximations to musical form and musical effect.” In a letter to his editor John Hayward in 1942, Eliot addressed the musical connotations of “quartets”:
“I am aware of general objections to these usual musical analogies: there was a period when people were writing long poems and calling them, with no excuse, ‘symphonies’ […] But I should like to indicate that these poems are all in a particular set form which I have elaborated, and the word ‘quartet’ does seem to me to start people on the right tack for understanding them (‘sonata’ in any case is too musical). It suggests to me the notion of making a poem by weaving in together three or four superficially unrelated themes: the ‘poem’ being the degree of success in making a new whole out of them.”
The form of Four Quartets is profoundly musical. Each of the four poems is built around the same five-part structure, which unites short lyrics and longer discursive and philosophical sections. Much of the power of Four Quartets lies in intricate metrical shifts that call to mind Eliot’s love of Beethoven’s late string quartets, which Eliot discussed in a letter to the poet Stephen Spender in 1931, five years before the publication of Burnt Norton. Eliot wrote to Spender: “There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse once before I die.”
Music also provides a central thematic thread in the poems; like dance, it becomes a way for Eliot to approach the most profound human experiences which can’t fully be captured in words. In The Dry Salvages he writes of “music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts.” The magnificent final section of Burnt Norton ends with a reflection on the power of music to express the transcendent aspects of our lives:
“Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now.”
Whenever I hear the haunting sonorities of Kaija’s compositions, I am reminded of Eliot’s description of music that “Moves perpetually in its stillness.” It was as if these words and music were made to complement each other.
There are very few actual settings of Eliot’s poetry as songs, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats notwithstanding. After Eliot’s death, his widow Valerie, who created the terms of his estate, was clear that her late husband’s major works were not to be sung. Exceptions have been made only twice – for Elliott Carter’s “Three Explorations”, based on stanzas from Four Quartets, and Stravinsky’s gorgeous motet “The Dove Descending,” which sets a lyric from “Little Gidding.” Eliot and Stravinsky were close friends, and Stravinsky composed the anthem in 1962.
“Home is where one starts from”: Visiting T. S. Eliot’s flat
March 26, 2018
Gideon Lester, Artistic Director for Theater and Dance
Before Pam Tanowitz could begin developing a performance based on Four Quartets, we needed to obtain permission from T. S. Eliot’s estate. In 2016 I approached Clare Reihill, who runs the estate, and pitched the idea to her.
Clare invited me to meet her at the estate’s offices, which are housed at the London flat where Eliot lived with his wife Valerie from 1957 until his death in 1965. Clare, a publisher, was Valerie’s assistant in the final years of her life and oversees the management of the Eliots’ legacy.
The flat is in a handsome red brick building near Kensington High Street, which now carries a blue plaque commemorating its famous resident:
Photos by Gideon Lester
Clare welcomed me and gave me a tour. The rooms are small and unexceptional, but I found it intensely moving to be there, for the first time sensing the Eliots as real people living their lives in ordinary rooms. Eliot was for many years a publisher at Faber & Faber, and part of his library remains in the flat, including a copy of Ulysses that James Joyce gave him.
Eliot’s collection of tobacco pipes is still on a mantelpiece in the library —
photos by Gideon Lester
— and his suitcases, one of them monogrammed with his initials, are still on top of the wardrobe in the bedroom. These are the cases that Eliot carried on his frequent voyages across the Atlantic:
Clare made tea, and we sat at the kitchen table as I outlined our idea for Four Quartets. I was in T. S. Eliot’s kitchen! Even if nothing came of the project, I would remember this moment forever. I was deeply conscious of a line from Eliot’s poem “Portrait of a Lady” – “I shall sit here, serving tea to friends ….”
Much to my relief, Clare responded positively. The estate granted us a license and has supported the development of the performance in countless ways, for which my colleagues and I owe Clare enormous thanks.
The idea of home is central to Four Quartets. In “East Coker,” the second poem, Eliot meditates on home as a place of origin and departure, a bridge between the living and the dead:
“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.”
Sitting in that flat in Kensington, where Eliot is and is not, where his life ended and the journey of our performance began, I understood these lines as if for the first time.
As Pam Tanowitz and I continued our research on Four Quartets, Clare made it possible for us to visit several other places of significance for Eliot, including his childhood summer home in Gloucester, MA, and the church in East Coker where he and Valerie are buried. Those were also extraordinary experiences which shaped our understanding of the poems. I’ll write about them in the coming weeks.
Strange Harmonies – T.S. Eliot’s poems and Pam Tanowitz’s dances
March 8, 2018
Gideon Lester, Artistic Director for Theater and Dance
“The differences between a great dancer and a merely competent dancer is in the vital flame, that impersonal, and, if you like, inhuman force which transpires between each of the great dancer’s movements.” (T. S. Eliot, “Four Elizabethan Dramatists”)
In his poetry, T. S. Eliot strove to create a kind of abstraction that he referred to as “depersonalization.” He also saw this quality reflected in dance and music. The critic Edwin Muir, in reviewing Four Quartets, likened the poems to Beethoven’s late string quartets, noting “they certainly resemble the quartets in this combination of remoteness and intimacy, a strange but harmonious combination. They are remote because they pass beyond time as we ordinarily conceive it, and intimate because they go to the hidden heart of human experience and touch ‘the still point where the dance is.’”
In a letter to the Bloomsbury author Mary Hutchinson, Eliot wrote: “I like to feel that a writer is perfectly cool and detached, regarding other people’s feelings or his own, like a God who has got beyond them; or a person who has dived very deep and comes up holding firmly some hitherto unseen submarine creature. But this sort of cold detachment is so very rare…” Eliot loved dance in part because it allows artists to express this kind of abstraction, complexity, and ambiguity that he sought in his own writing – “that impersonal, and, if you like, inhuman force.”
I’ve recently spent time in rehearsals with Pam Tanowitz as she creates the choreography for Four Quartets, and have been struck by how much the vital flame that Eliot described is present in her dances. I find her performances deeply moving, in part because they exemplify the “combination of remoteness and intimacy” that is also in Eliot’s poetry.
Look, for example, at this recording of Pam’s 2016 dance the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces. Fragments of narratives seem to arise and dissolve; the dancers’ bodies seem to create relationships with each other, and then suddenly appear isolated. They tell stories, and then they don’t. As Muir writes of Eliot, Pam’s dances “are remote because they pass beyond time as we ordinarily conceive it, and intimate because they go to the hidden heart of human experience.”
Pam Tanowitz’s the story progresses as if in a dream of glittering surfaces
This paradoxical conversation between the depersonalized and the personal is a defining feature of Pam’s choreography. It is why, I think, she is such a good match for Eliot -- along with her other collaborators on the project, Kaija Saariaho, and Brice Marden, who are both abstract artists with a deep sense of humanity. It also explains her deep affinity for Bach, whose Goldberg Variations she recently set to dance, to great acclaim. (There’s a beautiful documentary about Pam’s New Work for Goldberg Variations online here.)
Pam is an entirely contemporary choreographer, who is also deeply aware of her lineage. Her dances are infused with references to ballet and the modern and post-modern choreography of Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and others. Her deep knowledge of the past creates another parallel with Eliot, who famously stated in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that all great artists create work in constant dialogue with the past as well as the present. “This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional,” he wrote. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”
Four Quartets and Dance
February 23, 2018
Gideon Lester, Artistic Director for Theater and Dance
The idea to create a dance based on Four Quartets came from the poems themselves, which are rich in images of dancers and dancing. As the choreographer Pam Tanowitz and I began our research, we learned that T. S. Eliot loved dance, especially ballet. Eliot followed the leading choreographers and dancers of his day, including Léonide Massine, Mikhail Fokine, Antony Tudor, and Vaslav Nijinsky, and may even have seen Isadora Duncan perform in Paris or London. He often attended performances by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes – in Four Quartets he makes reference to Fokine’s famous ballet Le Spectre de la Rose, created for Nijinsky.
Eliot admired dance for its abstraction, and for the tensions it can create between stillness and movement, the ephemeral and the eternal, past and present. As he attempted to find words to describe ineffable human experience in Four Quartets, Eliot repeatedly turned to images of dancing and dancers. In Burnt Norton, the first of the Quartets, he created a startling vision of a dance “at the still point of the turning world”:
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
In East Coker, the second Quartet, Eliot takes us to the village in Somerset where his ancestors lived. He portrays their ghosts dancing in a field outside the village, enacting ancient cycles of life and death, the turning planets, and changing seasons:
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.”
Dance is everywhere in the poems, and its meaning continually shifts. In Little Gidding, the final poem, choreography becomes a metaphor to describe the process of writing, as Eliot searches for
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)”
Four Quartets has inspired other choreographers – Martha Graham adored it, and frequently quoted Eliot in her notebooks – but Pam Tanowitz is the first to set a dance to the poems themselves. When she reread this section of Little Gidding, Pam was startled by how closely Eliot reflected the choreographer’s process. “This is my task,” she told me: “To make a dance where every phrase is at home, taking its place to support the others, an easy commerce of the old and the new, exact without vulgarity, precise but not pedantic.”
Introducing Four Quartets
February 6, 2018
Gideon Lester, Artistic Director for Theater and Dance
This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be writing about the evolution of Four Quartets, the major dance commission that will premiere in the Bard SummerScape Festival in July. The project is being created by a group of superb contemporary artists – choreographer Pam Tanowitz and her dance company, the composer Kaija Saariaho, visual artist Brice Marden, actress Kathleen Chalfant, and The Knights, a Brooklyn-based contemporary music ensemble. Together they are developing an ambitious performance that celebrates T. S. Eliot’s last great poetic work, Four Quartets, first published at the height of World War II in 1943.
Eliot’s poems are complex and beautiful meditations on time and timelessness, and on the limits of human comprehension of the divine. Eliot wrote them in part as a response to spiritual epiphanies he experienced in four particular places, which also give the poems their names – Burnt Norton, East Coker, the Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding. Three are in Britain, and one, the Dry Salvages, is a cluster of rocks off the coast of Massachusetts.
There is a complete text of the poems here, and you can also find recordings online of several great actors reading the poem, including Jeremy Irons, Alec Guinness, and even Eliot himself.
Gideon Lester’s undergraduate copies of Four Quartets
The journey to our production began in July 2015, when the Fisher Center presented an evening of Pam Tanowitz’s dances. One of them had a particularly beautiful title—“A broken story (wherein there is no ecstasy).” The next morning, in Murray’s cafe in Tivoli, I asked Pam about its origins. She told me that she had combined the title of J.D. Salinger’s “The Heart of a Broken Story” with a line from “East Coker”:
“In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.”
We immediately discovered our mutual love of Four Quartets. Each of us had been particularly struck by the frequency with which dance and dancing recur in the poems (which I’ll write about in a future post.) I asked Pam to consider creating a dance performance with Eliot’s poems as the score, timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the publication in 2018, if we could obtain the rights.
Three years later we indeed have the rights – Pam’s Four Quartets will actually be the first authorized dance or theater performance inspired by the poems – and the creative process is well underway. I look forward to sharing details with you in the coming months.
“There would be no dance, and there is only the dance”
T. S. Eliot and the dance of writing
by Dana Naomy Mills
Why set a dance to Four Quartets? An answer lies in the poems themselves, where dance and dancing are central images. Eliot sees dance and poetry as profoundly related: in “Little Gidding” he imagines the words of an ideal sentence as “The complete consort dancing together.” Eliot’s words move us in the tension between stillness and gesture. Language for Eliot is dynamic and kinetic: In “Burnt Norton” he notes that words “slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still” , allowing for a reading of the poet dancing in quest for the perfect phrase (“the intolerable wrestle / With words and meaning,” he calls it in “East Coker.”)
T.S. Eliot loved dance, and witnessed first hand many of the innovations that shaped its history in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1910, when he was 22 years old, Eliot spent a year in Paris. While he was there he encountered the legendary American dancer Isadora Duncan, who was the talk of the town. Duncan was a modern dance revolutionary and pioneering feminist, a combination that had made her both famous and infamous around the world by the time she had arrived in Paris. Her unique style aimed to strip the dance from external hindrances, such as toe shoes and tutus, and bring it back to the unconstrained body.
Critics said that Duncan had moved “as no one had moved before.” The tension between stillness and motion was central to her re-imagining of movement. She once reflected: “I spent long days and nights in the studio seeking that dance that can be the divine expression of the human spirit through the medium of the body’s movement. For hours I would stand quite still…” Duncan embodied stillness. The choreographer Frederick Ashton commented on Duncan’s performance in London in 1921, when Eliot, too, was in London: “She had the most extraordinary quality of repose….she would stand for what seemed quite a long time doing nothing, and then make a very small gesture that seemed full of meaning.” Perhaps we can find an echo of Duncan’s transmission of stillness in these lines from Burnt Norton:
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.”
There are numerous allusions to stillness in the poems: “So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” Isadora Duncan’s troubling of the boundary between stillness and motion lives on in Four Quartets. She demonstrated to the world of dance the essential quality that Eliot captured in East Coker: “We must be still and still moving.”
Isadora Duncan also influenced Michel Fokine, prolific choreographer of the Ballets Russes — the company that revolutionized ballet in the first three decades of the twentieth century under the directorship of Serge Diaghilev. Fokine was the resident choreographer of the first season of the Ballets Russes in Paris from 1909. In 1911 he choreographed the work that became synonymous with the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Le Spectre de la rose, in which Nijinsky, embodying the spirit of a rose, appears in a young girl’s dream. The ballet’s sensuality, Nijinsky’s androgynous stage presence, and the choreography’s blend of sex and classicism created a sensation in its redefinition of male dancing. Eliot frequently attended the Ballets Russes performances, and in Little Gidding he makes direct reference to Nijinsky’s singular performance:
“It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.”
The rose is a central, mystical image of this final poem of Four Quartets. When he was later asked about the line, Eliot responded: “I was thinking of the Ballet.” Even beyond this literal reference, Fokine and Nijinsky’s influence is inscribed upon the poem in Eliot’s reconfiguration of temporality. Nijinsky was famous for that leap ended off stage so that the audiences saw him suspended in mid-air (“The rose evaporates into dawn,” a review in Le Figaro noted.) A running thread in all four poems that comprise Four Quartets is temporality and the troubling of boundaries between different times:
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future”
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
It is easy to imagine this reconfigured temporality, neither movement from nor towards, encapsulated in Nijinsky’s leap, suspended in mid-air, evaporating into a dawn that is both in time and beyond time.
Isadora Duncan and the Ballet Russes transformed the relationship between music, visual arts, dance, and poetry, drawing upon new experiments in literature and in turn influencing the way dance was captured in text. TS Eliot’s Four Quartets both records this new relationship between the arts and is a major intervention in this reconfiguration. The Four Quartets have physical presence in the world. In the poems words fall, rise and shift places with each other in a textual dance. T. S Eliot’s Four Quartets trouble the boundary between the still and the moving, text and the dancing body. Pam Tanowitz’s Four Quartets is a major intervention in the relationship between the sister arts which continues this lineage.
Dana Mills is a dance and political theorist. Her first book, Dance and Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries, is published by Manchester University Press.
Isadora Duncan, My Life, 1996, London: Gollancz.
Lyndall Gordon, The imperfect life of TS Eliot (2012), London: Virago.
Nancy Hargrove, T. S Eliot’s Parisian Year (2009) Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: a history of ballet (2010) London: Granta.
Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism and Dance (2013), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Press"The greatest creation of dance theater so far this century.”—The New York Times
“A Choreographer Unafraid of Masterpieces Takes on T. S. Eliot”–The New York Times
"Goings On About Town"–New Yorker
Brice Marden and Gideon Lester discuss Four Quartets set design for Gagosian Quarterly
Four Quartets is co-commissioned by the Fisher Center, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Barbican, London, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Text by T. S. Eliot
Choreography by Pam Tanowitz
Music by Kaija Saariaho; performed by The Knights
Images by Brice Marden
with Kathleen Chalfant
Scenic and Lighting Design by Clifton Taylor
Costume Design by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung
Sound Design by Jean-Baptiste Barriére
Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot’s mysterious and beautiful masterpiece, is a meditation on time and timelessness and is now prized as one of the 20th century’s most stunning literary achievements. Seventy-five years after its publication, Eliot’s poetry cycle has inspired three astonishing contemporary artists to join forces in a ravishing union of dance, music, painting, and poetry. American choreographer Pam Tanowitz, legendary composer Kaija Saariaho, and American modernist painter Brice Marden are creating a vast and thrilling performance from Eliot’s meditations on past and present, time and space, movement and stillness. Joining them is Tony Award–nominated actress Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit) performing Eliot’s text live. This unprecedented collaboration, the first authorized performance based on Four Quartets, promises to be one of the must-see events of the year.
“One of the most formally brilliant choreographers around.”— New York Times on Pam Tanowitz