Doug Varone and Dancers Seen Through a Heavy Metal Lens
I cannot ignore or change the fact that I went to Hofesh Shechter at BAM’s Next Wave Festival the evening before attending Doug Varone and Dancers 25th Anniversary season at the Joyce Theater. Like eating dessert before dinner, I can only imagine my palette was altered by the chaotic jolt to the senses I received (along with earplugs) at the Gaga technique meets heavy metal band performance. Therefore, when Program B opened with Varone’s 2006 work Boats Leaving, I couldn’t help wanting to reach for the salt shaker. It should have been complete with the masterful layering of tableaux, the dancers phenomenal ability to make group work look as effortless as their solo dancing, and the elevated moving image created as the cast made a gate with their bodies only to exit through it one at a time. But something pivotal was lacking and a strong sense of the conventional was overpowering.
In the second work of the evening, the premiere of Able To Leap Tall Buildings, Varone delivered the missing element: surprise. The duet, featuring Erin Owens and Alex Springer, played into Varone’s wheelhouse where flowing limbs and dynamic spines come in contact with humanistic body language, awkward breakdowns, and sculptured stops. His strong sense of craft and composition allowed the audience time to linger in the pleasure of his choreography. The same could also be said of any one of his works. However, what set Able To Leap Tall Buildings apart was the unsettling score by Julia Wolfe, which served as a natural contrast to the relative ease and logic of Varone’s aesthetic, the intense arena of light which provided focus, and the unexpected ending in which Owens claws her way up towards Springer’s shoulders. The lights cut to black before we found out if her desperate gesture ends in a leap forward into the unknown or a fall back into him. The uncertainty left behind a desire to see more and provided a window into the darker themes of struggle–of the individual vs the group and of the individual in a relationship–rippling under the surface of Varone’s dances.
After a short pause, the evening was on track to end essentially where it began when the curtain lifted on Rise, from 1993. I mention the date because even with Varone’s organized chaos and forward momentum–particularly luscious in the long limbs of Julia Burrer and her pocket-sized partner Eddie Taketa–the piece had the faint scent of a relic wafting from it. The loose flowing pants and undesirable vests, in garish color sets for each couple, contributed to the modern dance time capsule. Yet again, elements of the unforeseen and stark lighting design served Varone well and saved the piece from the I-have-seen-this-a-million-times-before realm. Like a secret track hidden at the end of an album, the audience was ambushed when the dance continued after an assumed finale. Audience still clapping in confusion, the dancers returned to the stage, one by one, to perform a decelerated version of their particular movement motif in a cone of light. Rise parted ways with the feeling of slow free fall.
Sometimes the most important thing about a journey is not what happens on it, but rather ending up in a different place from where you began. The strongest moments in all three dances of this program came at the culmination. With shock and awe in my recent past, I can’t help but imagine that if Doug Varone and Dancers begin to explore the ambiguous “leap” into the unknown as a starting point, they could be rewarded with an infinite number of new and exciting places to land in their next twenty-five seasons.