Doug Varone’s strong sense of design, color, and music lends depth and a certain mystery to his dances.
Doug Varone and Dancers, presented by World Music/CRASHarts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, October 16–17.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Doug Varone begins his solo The Fabulist (2014) in a circle of light. As the dance goes on, two more circles appear on the floor, through which he passes on a journey from upstage to downstage, entering and withdrawing from the light. A stocky but agile man in pants and a vest with gauzy underlayers, he stays rooted to the ground but not at all immobile. In fact, he’s constantly in motion, with gestures that spread from his hands, face, fingers, to folding, twisting, and stretching of his whole body. Even the full stops are charged with high energy. Drawn to the audience by the three-circle pathway, he seems to have more stories to tell than he can convey. The dance is both spare and loaded with suppressed meaning.
I hadn’t taken in the title of David Lang’s accompanying score (“Death Speaks”) before the dance, but after a few minutes the thought struck me that the seductively mournful soprano on tape was calling the dancer from the grave. In the last of three songs, she was joined by a soft male voice, a follower perhaps. Doug Varone is approaching the fateful age of 60; he made The Fabulist after a year-long break from dancing and a hip replacement. If this dance is autobiographical, Varone uses the devices of art-making to transform his personal narrative into images all of us can recognize. In that sense, he’s a modern dancer.
With his lush and resilient movement style Varone belongs in the lineage of Doris Humphrey and her descendants José Limón and Lar Lubovitch, both of whom he danced with before establishing his own company in 1986. Varone also shares the modern dancers’ idealism, and their sense that the parts of a dance composition should have some aesthetic unity if not structure. His strong sense of design, color, and music lends depth and a certain mystery to his dances.
Both the other pieces at the ICA over the weekend, an older work of Varone’s and his newest, included all eight company dancers, and both works, like The Fabulist, overflowed with ideas to see and hear.
Lux (2006) was set to Philip Glass’s big orchestral piece “The Light.” A small yellow moon hovered against a black background at the beginning and gradually, almost stealthily, rose high by the end of the piece. The dancers wore black costumes of indefinite shapes. As they wheeled and ran, the silky pants and tops rippled up to reveal inner panels of a different color—blue, green, white. Finally I discovered the panels were taking on the colors of lights falling on them from the sides and above. Costume designer Liz Prince and lighting designer Robert Wierzel made these magical effects happen, aided by the dancers.
I kept getting watery images from this dance, despite the persistent allusions to light. The dancers swirled and streamed in a continuous flow of movement. The music changed tempi in Glassian fashion, speeding up and slowing down without pause, as a string section pumped a steady pulse and trumpets above shifted from quarter notes to 16ths and back. The overall stage light ebbed and flowed, too, as the dancer population changed, though the moon kept its steady glow during its ascent.
What was harder to follow in this dance, and in the other ensemble work on the program, ReComposed (2015), was the movement itself. I wouldn’t say either dance lacked structure, but both kept the dancers in nearly continuous motion, scattering and reassembling in various combinations. I couldn’t retain any particular attachment or grouping, only the bodies surging and subsiding and moving on into new actions. Neither dance took any trouble to show off for the audience or address it directly as Varone’s solo did. But both were very visible, with strong colors and vibrant movement.
Varone said at a pre-performance talk that ReComposed was inspired by the pastels of artist Joan Mitchell. Since I didn’t know her work, I looked her up on the Internet, and discovered an abstractionist who used intense color swatches and streaks, layered textures and slashing lines. I can see why Varone feels connected to her work.
On a white floor and against a backdrop that changed its bold colors throughout, the dancers wore garments that looked at first like light gray warmups with touches of color. These too were layered. Late in the action the dancers began leaving. They returned without the filmy coveralls, now wearing only the black unitards with bright stripes that had been underneath. (The intriguing costumes were by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, and Wierzel produced the lighting effects.)
The music for ReComposed was Michael Gordon’s “Dystopia,” a loud, fanfarish-circusy orchestral piece that seemed to combine the minimalist repetition of a Philip Glass with the coloristic gestures of a John Adams. Sometime into the piece, I realized that the large orchestra was playing five or six rhythms simultaneously. Overlapping layers again. The dancers were running and jumping and falling, seemingly a random tangle of movers, but if you looked at their feet, you could see that individuals were following the various rhythms of the score, and this held the piece together like the color palette in Mitchell’s paintings.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.