Duke Performances presented the world premiere of the Simone Dinnerstein/Pam Tanowitz Dance collaboration New Work for Goldberg Variations on October 6, and this extraordinarily satisfying piece of performance art will repeat October 7 in Reynolds Theater. If you have the slightest interest in contemporary dance and/or the many iterations of Bach’s timeless Goldberg Variations, and were not in the audience for the first performance, consider being there for the second. It had been many a year since I had witnessed so many happy faces leaving a theater. The artists had exited the stage after many bows to a prolonged standing ovation, but the audience had to be shooed out of the theater and its lobby, because so many wanted to stand around and talk about it – or dance out their favorite parts.

Dinnerstein made her name with her self-produced recording of the Goldberg Variations, which arrowed to the hearts of music lovers worldwide with its rich coloration and nuanced emotion. Dinnerstein, now a Sony Classical artist, has appeared at Duke Performances several times, including twice in collaboration with songwriter/guitarist Tift Merritt. Those collaborations, like the current one, come to us thanks to the brilliance and persistence of DP’s director Aaron Greenwald, who has steadily built the trusting relationships with artists and managements – and co-commissioners – that allow this kind of advanced artistic collaboration. It is the kind of undertaking that sets a university presenter apart from its commercial counterparts – this risky journey into the unknown and untested in search of new understanding.

Choreographer Tanowitz has worked primarily in the northeast, but her career seems poised to leap, kicking and fluttering, into the broader dance consciousness. These were her company’s first performances here, but are unlikely to be the last. Tanowitz works in the Merce Cunningham line of modern dance, and her choreography for this piece is completely delightful. Like the music, which Dinnerstein plays with such warm clarity, the dancing (although hardly in lockstep with the score) combines strong, large patterns embellished with frills and trills. In the dance, these took the form of flexed feet, elbow-forward arm triangles, swan-wing arm flutters, teeny-tiny boureés and the like, and when these were combined with jaguar-like strides, simple pedestrian movement, astonishing bouts of weight-shifting, reverse kicks and feats of balance, the result was as intoxicating as champagne.

But back up – let me set the stage. Entering the theater, one found the Duke blue curtain closed – unusual for contemporary dance events. House lights down, curtain slowly rose on a dark stage. The first faint light picked out the gleam of the white keys, stretched like a pale arm across center stage. Then Dinnerstein’s right hand, a warmer shade of pale, appeared just as it caressed the first notes. Gradually the pianist was revealed in full at the beautiful gleaming Steinway, her feet bare on the white Marley floor. (Dinnerstein is never flashy – the emphasis is always on the music, not its purveyor.) Even before the first of the seven dancers appeared, the mind compared the deep concentration of sound and form at center stage with the great Matisse paintings of bright dancers circling an emerald field. When the dancers appeared, they moved around the piano almost casually, appearing to respond spontaneously to the surface of the structured music.

The dance increased its intensity and involvement with the music steadily, but subtly. The dancers, though not in a circle, drew in tighter to the piano, and there were at least two instances in which five of them made a ring very similar to Matisse’s painted dancers, if much more condensed. Then, about half way through, the stage cleared of bodies so that one dancer returned for a solo. Slowly she approached the curve of the piano, edging into its embrace.

She reached out – and touched the piano. A shock of pleasure ran through the house. The seduction that began with Dinnerstein’s pale hand appearing was now complete. The solo was fantastic, and from then on, the dancers got closer and closer to the source of the music, and even to its player, who indulged in a dramatic gesture herself.

Tanowitz’s choreography doesn’t copy the music, is not enslaved by it, but instead finds and sorts and reweaves the glimmering threads of its spirit – balancing repetition and invention and finding the feeling within the mathematical and formal. It is as brilliant and human as Dinnerstein’s gracious interpretation.

But this artwork was more complete than a simple recital with dancers. Tanowitz’s obvious desire to exploit the sculptural qualities of bodies in space was aided by active lighting designed by Davison Scandrett. The changing lighting was like another actor, one who can change the emotional charge on stage in an instant, and it shaped the space in a way not often utilized by dancers, making us feel its volume, its expansion and compression.

Up until the piano-touching moment, the dancers all wore similar, but differently colored costumes that were extremely responsive to the light. Designed by Reid & Harriet, these consisted of sleeveless tunics over sheer pants, each set striped vertically in a different hue. Beneath these, as we came to find out, was a wet-look leotard or unitard to which the dancers stripped down – or else they removed the sheer pants and exposed the legs. From the piano-touching moment on, the viewer was very aware of the intimacy of both the music itself, and of this performance.

When the music came back around to its initial theme, the musician was closely encircled by the dancers, the sense of wholeness and completion was so beautiful that it brought tears of joy. If I were giving out stars, this would be a 10-star event. See our sidebar for performance repeat details.