writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Russian Romance

Doug Varone and Dancers
The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
February 3 & 6, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright 2004 by Nancy Dalva

Doug Varone's two programs at the Joyce Theatre last week were exhilarating because he has accomplished a synthesis of his dance origins (José Limón and Lar Lubovitch) and the contemporary vernacular (postmodernism) he has long favored. (He founded his own company in 1986). His new work called Castles plays on all current strengths, which include great duet-making, a knack for the small telling gesture, the parlaying of the interpenetration of forms into metaphor, and an economical allusiveness typical of short story writers.

The current company members—John Beasant III, Daniel Charon, Natalie Desch, Adriane Fang, Stephanie Liapis, Catherine Miller, Kaybon Pourazar, Eddie Taketa, and Varone himself; with guests Faye Driscoll, Larry Hahn, Nina Watt—are ideally equipped to be non-literal dramatists. They've mastered the Varone idiom—the swoop and flow, the pedestrian traveling steps, the brief sculptural groupings, the exchange of full weight, and the play of swift slashing movements against and through negative space. They dance about something when it is called for, as in The Bottomland (2002) and in Castles (a world premiere), and infuse with urgent energy the pieces that seem more abstract. They make much of dances that have little to do with steps, and everything to do with shape; little to do with dynamics within phrasing, and much to do with the dramatic encounter and group dynamics.

It is for his duets that I first came to admire Doug Varone, first for his work with Larry Hahn (and for Hahn's wonderful performances with Peggy Baker, herself a fine actress, in Varone's work), and now for his expressive partnering of Nina Watt, with whom he first danced in the José Limón Company. All of these duets are compelling dramas, little plays without words. Drawn in by them, I began to look for the qualities of the duets in the group work: they were my ticket into perpetual motion works like Of The Earth Far Below (2003), and Varone's signature piece—at least until Castles—called Rise (1993).

In Castles, with two central duets, one for two men, one for a man and a woman, no way in is needed. It is not a tricky dance; it is a rich dance. The Bottomland takes the duet ethos and spreads it across an ensemble, with Larry Hahn (retired last year from the company and how guesting) the central figure, not so much because he is on stage the most, but because he is the most.

Larry Hahn is as good a dancing actor as I have ever seen—actually, he's as good an actor as I‘ve ever seen—and not in any overtly emotive way. Imagine Gene Hackman as a dancer, and you get the idea. Hahn brings the interiority of film acting to the stage, but he is the actor and the screen. He does small things big. He is inward looking, but extremely readable.

It stands to reason then, how compelling he is on the film-sized video that is the backdrop for The Bottomland. So too Nina Watt, so reminiscent of Liv Ullman here. In fact, despite its Appalachian setting and country music (Patty Love, with that hammered dulcimer sound of the Carter family), there is a Bergman feeling to the dance—something to do with tone, time, telling gestures of the hand to the face, and inward desperation.

Castles, in turn, is an extrovert work, quite lyrical and romantic. Set to six waltzes by Sergei Prokofiev (Waltz Suite, Opus 110), it swims in the narrative allusions the music inspires. The selections are from Cinderella and War and Peace, and you can tell yourself stories based on them when enjoying the dances. Mice! A coach! A horse! A soldier returning from war! Combat! Romance! However, you could just as easily tell yourself a different story—say, for instance, Romeo and Juliet. The male duet could be Mercutio and Tybalt, the couple the doomed lovers.

About lovers: Varone's couples seek, whether in subtle invasion or great passionate plunges, to inhabit each other's spaces. Or, one seeks to invade the other's space, for a different kind of drama. For instance, in Castles as a man lies prone on the floor with one foot flat, so that the knee is raised, a woman dives through the triangular space between the angles of the leg and the floor, then slithers desperately up his body to get under his arm. She doesn't want to consume him. She wants to merge with him. This is simple enough, but as a sexual metaphor it is potent. And it is potent as itself.

Whether Castles is a series of discrete stories, or chapters from a book, or a story with one through-line is unimportant. It can be whatever you want it to, as long as what you want is romance. Clearly, something Russian is going on, and Liz Prince's various chiffon tunics and trousers enhance the prevailing sensibility with their palette–bone, beige, a really russe red. The open allusiveness and the variety of the encounters make the work not only worth seeing a second time–they make it better the second time. You could probably people the whole thing with characters from Chekhov if you felt like it, or for that matter Nabokov. Every man's home is his castle, after all.

Varone is not an emerging artist; he'd too old and too accomplished for that. But he's something even better. Varone is an emerged artist. He now stands in relation to Limón the way Paul Taylor does to Martha Graham. Not prodigals, but progeny.

Top: Doug Varone company in The Bottomland.  Photo: Scott Suchman
Bottom:  Larry Hahn (on video) in The Bottomland. Photo:  Scott Suchman.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 6
published February9, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on February 9, 2004