Doug Varone and Dancers
Doug Varone and Dancers overtook the Winspear Opera House with a performance that left audiences awed. The show opened with little circumstance. The curtain lifted and dancers in grey and neutral-toned, street wear-like costumes were revealed. There was something a bit androgynous about the style on initial impact.
The work was markedly contemporary. The choreography is full of the wide, deep plies reminiscent of Martha Graham; the small, intrinsic wrist moves of Bob Fosse; and the long, leggy leaps of classical ballet. The dancers covered the stage leaving the very air around them filled with movement.
The dancers' talent defies description, each movement challenging what the body is truly capable of. It wasn't pretty, pretty dancing. No sweet smiles and fluffy tutus here. Instead, as Varone himself explained, the work "questions what the body can do and how it can do it in relation to other bodies."
The music for the opening piece was Carrugi, the Mozart Opera "La Beulia Liberata," written when he was only 18. The piece is about the biblical story of Judith. But Varone says he was not looking to tell that story. Instead, he wanted to "build an alternate universe around the libretto." That he did.
And in that universe bodies come together and move away from each other, creating new forms and shapes and conversations. These dancers are incredibly powerful, making even the most difficult moves appear to be as easy as walking.
An intermission followed the first piece, and, just as it was scheduled to be over, Doug Varone himself took the stage along with Charles Santos, the head of Titas, the arts group responsible for bringing Doug Varone and Dancers to Dallas. Apparently there was a problem with both the sound and light boards; lucky for the audience because that meant an impromptu Q&A with Varone.
Varone talked about the second piece, "Able to Leap Tall Buildings," that the dancers were to perform next, which he explained, " comes out of superhero action figures and how they dialogue with each other." He had me at superhero.
When an audience member asked where Varone draws from for his choreography, he answered, "Sometimes dances comes out of my head. Some come out of the body. Some come out of the bodies of the dancers. Some come out of play."
"Do you start with the music or the choreography?" another patron asked. "I have no idea," Varone answered and the audience laughed. "I hear a score and it compels me to make a dance to it. Sometimes I create a dance out of a need of something I need to say."
Yet another asked pointedly, "What do you look for in a dancer?" I imagined the questioner was a dancer herself. Varone answered, "I look for people. I look for dancers who are people. They know who they are as individuals and they know how to bring that to the work."
The company is comprised of eight dancers. "All dancers that live within the palette of my imagination," Varone said. "I look for dancers that fill the palette for the company that's in front of me. But when you look at them, they look like a whole universe. But they each have a completely different way of dancing. I look for an ownership in their persona. At the last audition, 400 women showed up for one position."
The company has been eight members since its inception. Why so small? "Economics," Varone said simply. He explained that he wanted to pay his dancers well and, in order to do that, the company must remain relatively small.
It's incredible how those eight bodies fill the stage though. I would have sworn there were more of them had I not known the company's size. And the small group's loyalty to Varone and his work is unmistakable. One of his dancers has been with the company for 18 years.
In closing, one attendee asked if the company does much improvisation. Only while creating something, Varone explained. "Within the course of the creative process we dabble in it to get ideas. But not when we do choreography. It's choreographed to look spontaneous. I just need to see bodies in space "moving" in order to create a work.
"It's a good intermission, right?" Varone said with a sly smile as he and Santos left the stage and the curtain rose for the second piece to begin.
The second piece did indeed look like action figures, some of the moves disturbingly unnatural in the dancers' bodies. All in black, their movements were more plastic and less fluid than the natural movements of a dancer. The duet with only Erin Owen and Alex Springer was dramatic and challenging. The dissonance of the music ("Cruel Sisters #2" by Julia Wolfe) marked by uncomfortable sounds, added to the unsettling tone. As in the first piece, the work of the dancers is masterful.
The partner work was seamless, as if the two dancers were part of a whole that could function both as one and as two. It's a rare quality, and one that I greatly admire. The piece wove a story of how things not human but more than human move through space when humans have to portray the movement. It was fascinating.
Another Q&A ensued before the third piece went on. As luck would have it, the sound and light boards began misbehaving once again. An audience member asked Varone what he did when he has a creative block.
"I will walk away from something that isn't working rather than banging my head against something," he answered astutely. "I don't get uptight about it. I'll find an answer. Otherwise, it's not worth finding."
Then the million-dollar question was asked. "How do you know when a work is done?" "I have my dancers tell me to stop," Varone said after a feigned shudder at the inquiry. "I don't know that it ever is. It's a living, breathing art form. It changes. The work breathes within their bodies and within this company. When a piece is ready to be performed you put it up." Then he added, "It would be great to not invite a critic for a year."
Finally they cleared the stage and the curtain rose again. The final piece, "Rise," was danced like the first one was, by the entire company. Though still contemporary, it had something strangely traditional about it. Perhaps it was the more lyrical choreography. Or maybe it was the jewel-tone costumes, each of the four male/female dance pair dressed in the same color as one another and each couple dressed in a color different from the other pairs.
This work was no less strong than the first two but significantly less disturbing, although the title of the music used, "Fearful Symmetries" by John Adams, belied that fact. As I watched, I noticed what Varone mentioned during the first Q&A: Each of the dancers is so unique, one long and leggy, another quite short, a variety of ethnicities and body types. And yet, as a whole, they were a whole, and to watch them on stage together was to watch bodies that know one another.
The lighting design played a huge role in this final piece. Much of the drama came from the slivers of light the dancers moved in and out of, as if blinds were in front of the light source, allowing only certain silvers here and there to play alongside the dancers. It was a powerful resource used here with as much prominence as music or costumes or even the dancers themselves. The light has a persona all its own, to which everything else must relate.
Doug Varone and Dancers is a stellar company. One to watch, I would say, and one that is a pleasure to watch, to be sure. The number of dancers in this company may be small. But their rightful place in the dance scene is sure to be sizable.
Note: Although there are normally eight company members, four men and four women, Doug Varone Dancers currently features nine dancers, with Netta Yerushalmy finishing a five-year membership with the troupe, and Xan Burley having just joined this spring.
Doug Varone and Dancers performed on Sept. 29 at the Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. in Dallas. For info on upcoming shows, call 214-954-9925 or visit http://www.attpac.org/index.cfm?pagepath=Tickets&id=44918.