A Disjointed Deconstruction
Varone and Dancers
Sometimes the old outdoes the new. As a whole, Doug Varone and Dancers Friday program, which included Mr. Varone's 1988 “Home” and 2004 “Castles” alongside his world premiere of “Deconstructing English,” was successful. The dancers were excellent, if more slight and athletic than previous incarnations of the company, and the two past works displayed Mr. Varone at his best. A longtime staple among New York City’s downtown postmodern scene, Mr. Varone is known for his ability to manipulate small everyday gestures, as he does in “Home,” and for a loose, seamless construction of movement, on display in “Castles.” “Deconstructing English” seemed a departure from Mr. Varone’s usually smooth surfaces tethered to moments of emotional insight. Artistic departures can be valuable, but this work’s disjointedness may mean its value will be revealed later, either in future, retooled performances of it or by opening new avenues of thought for Mr. Varone.
“Deconstructing English’s” slow pace and interrupted phrases made the piece the movement equivalent of a poem full of unwanted commas and semi-colons. The insertion of kinetic punctuation marks dissolved the emotional fluidity that usually propels Mr. Varone’s dances. His choreography does not work in the same manner as language, where punctuation marks and capitalization make meaning clearer. In “Deconstructing English,” Mr. Varone shows the audience that one dancer’s leg moved because another dancer’s hand hit the back of the first dancer’s knee. Seeing the nuts and bolts of the phrases diminished the dance’s power.
Mr. Varone has broken down his process on a variety of levels here. He manipulates his movement in a less connected way. He commissioned David Van Tieghem to transform Bach’s “English Suites.” And, through ten weeks of blog entries on the Clarice Smith website, he chronicled his rehearsal and development process. (I chose to skim two entries of the blog, only after seeing the work. Like reading the world’s longest program note, I felt like reading the ins and outs of the process would color my viewing of the actual piece in its final form. However, I applaud the Smith Center and Varone’s attempt to demystify the dance-making process for audiences.)
Van Tieghem’s music and Varone’s movement generally gelled, but the video projections of Wendall K. Harrington distracted my eye throughout, partially because of content and partially because of scale. The best part of seeing dance in Smith’s Kay Theater is the sense of intimacy between stage and audience, but Mr. Harrington’s projections entirely covered the stage’s back wall, a very large, very tall space. The pictures’ size overwhelmed my eyes, drawing me away from the dancers, and I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out the pictures’ connection to the dance and the different sections connections to each other. Projections included a white brick wall, shining with fluorescent pink, green and yellow overtones; slowly mutating icicle-like black triangles, roaring clouds (think of the tornado scene from the black and white “Wizard of Oz”), and faint, partial images of the dancers.
The size of the projections countered the overall progression of the movement as well, particularly in “Deconstructing English’s” first half. The dancers began moving, using their bodies’ full lengths, particularly Natalie Desch who repeated a skipping chug with a long curve of the back, leg extended in an arabesque so lovely, long, and in a way, classical, that she rivaled any Shade’s entrance in “La Bayadere.” As the piece progressed, the movement grew tighter and tinier, dancers drawing more closely together. The smallness climaxed in a solo for Daniel Charon, where he tinkled his way about the stage in a tap dance.
Past Mr. Charon’s solo, I grew confused about the work’s overall trajectory. Two men engaged in a laughing conversation, moving their mouths and gesturing wildly. Stephanie Liapis began her solo by laughing out loud and John Beasant III continually threw himself on the ground, sliding on his stomach. Well danced and sometimes interesting, the work just never found continuity.
Both “Home” and “Castles” overflow with the sense of continuity I found lacking in “Deconstructing English.” I was elated to find “Home” replacing “Rise” on the program. “Rise” is a great program closer, but “Home” has long been a Varone favorite of mine. (Former Varone dancers Gwen Welliver and Larry Hahn’s performance of it once made me cry.) Performed Friday by Mr. Varone and Adrienne Fang, “Home” had a slightly different balance, the pair’s relationship dominated by the weightier Mr. Varone. Home shows a couple in a relationship that is at times violent, at times soft, but always extremely intimate. The work bleeds with Mr. Varone’s sensitivity to the power of tender gestures—the way he softly nuzzles his face against Ms. Fang’s back and, most movingly, as the curtain goes down in silence, the way he slowly rubs her shoulder with his thumb.
"Home" feels like a glimpse inside a couples’ shared soul, a trait shared by “Castles’” duets Mr. Varone’s work helps me settle a quandary I’ve often pondered about the causal relationship between movement and emotion in dance. It seems unrealistic for a dancer to move because of an emotion: “I am happy, therefore I will sauté.” In duets for Mr. Beasant and Mr. Charon, then Ms. Desch and Kayvon Pourazar, the dancers do not move because of their feelings, but their movements are their feelings. Mr. Varone’s choreography makes the interior exterior. In a dance of new love, Ms. Desch crawls through Mr. Pourazar’s bent legs and outstretched arms, symbolizing the invasion of one person into another’s space and body, but most importantly his heart. The invasion is not unsolicited; Mr. Pourazar opens himself and allows Ms. Desch to softly place her head on his chest at duet’s end.
Mr. Beasant and Mr. Charon’s duet plays most effectively with “Castles’” reference to fairy tales, made most obviously by the work’s musical accompaniment, sections of Prokofiev’s “Waltz Suite, Opus 110,” known to dance audiences as “Cinderella.” In “Castles’” group sections, as in fairy tales, men and women couple. Mr. Varone references the formality of these couples in short moments: one man unfolds his arm regally to a woman, who performs the modern dance version of a courtly curtsy, her legs bend and her torso scoops underneath the man’s hand.
But, by putting two men in the work’s first non-group section, Mr. Varone gently asks about the relationship between men in fairy tales: what do the prince and his footman do while they’re riding around in the carriage together? The duet unfolds as the two men grasp at each other. They repeatedly run into each other, chests hitting with a loud smack. Mr. Beasant puts the top of his head against Mr. Charon’s stomach. They seem to want to connect, but cannot accomplish their desired merging. Finally, they come together again; their chests touch softly with a sense of embrace. They walk to opposite sides of the stage, stare at each other with a squinting hesitancy, then Mr. Beasant runs to Mr. Charon, who lifts him high above his head. They dance through a series of similar lifts, turning and waltzing with the elation usually only enjoyed by Cinderella and her prince. But Mr. Varone reminds that the glee must be tempered by the constraints of the fairy tale world (and the real world), Ms. Fang interrupts them, Mr. Beasant runs offstage, and Mr. Charon tightens his imaginary tie.
Compared to “Castles’” New York premiere last spring, Mr. Varone has retooled the work’s physicality and comedic effects, both of which help give the work a greater dynamic range. Mr. Charon and Mr. Beasant’s chest slapping was just one of several moments where the sound of body hitting body echoed through the theater. And, both in the men’s duet and in a group section featuring Ms. Fang, comedic moments have been freely sprinkled throughout. Ms. Fang continually tries to escape from the dancing group around her, once crawling on hands and knees out of a circle of swinging arms and looping legs.
by Scott Suchman)