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Somewhere and Fearful Symmetries Meet in Doug Varone and Dancers

When a choreographer takes on volcanic and iconic works from American musical giants like Leonard Bernstein and John Adams one move they could take is to cool them down with a couple of more soothing European works in between. At least to give the eye and ear and the soul and mind a few moments of thoughtful reflection. Doug Varone and Dancers brought a program that does exactly that over last weekend at Penn Live Arts Annnenberg Center.


Doug Varone and Dancers, mixed repertory


Zellerbach Theater, Penn Live Arts Annnenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA, November 18, 2023


Merilyn Jackson

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Somewhere.” Photograph by David Bazemore

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His 2019 “Somewhere” had its Philadelphia premiere in this well-wrought program and gave us a pithy take on Bernstein’s score for “West Side Story.” The musical arrangement caromed between some of the most well-known sections, gave only brief nods to others and left some sections out altogether. In a brief after show talk, Varone said the Leonard Bernstein Foundation gave his company the rights to the music for “Somewhere” only on the day of its premiere in at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theater once they saw the work. It was a pretty ballsy risk for Varone to take, but he and his dancers have never been risk averse. It was also updated with a very effective electronic opening mix of subway whistles, police whistles and other New York noises that could be picked out as the dancers entered to it. They mostly wore contemporary street or rehearsal togs, pants in the darker spectrum of colors with pops of color and patterns in the tops.

I first reviewed Varone in 1999 and noted immediately that his choreography bases the footwork on walking (the thought that conceives movement,) running, (the action that embodies the thought,) and small jetés or skips, lifts and crossover kicks that spin the body into drops and downward poses that may end in falls (the consequences of the embodiment of the thoughts.) But it’s the upper body movement that then, and still, catch my breath. Although others see his port de bras emanating from the torso or sternum, I see the arms flung out violently from the midspine giving him and his dance artists the propulsive look that distinguishes them from other choreographic styles. I once asked him why he subjects himself and his dancers to such possibly hazardous moves.

“Because they begin at the spine, mid-torso, they hurt my back and shoulder blades,” he said. “But sometimes it’s the only way to open the chest and suggest vulnerability.”

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Somewhere.” Photograph by David Bazemore

You see this in “Somewhere,” and later at the end, even more exaggerated in “Rise” to Adam’s “Fearful Symmetries.” “Somewhere” allows those movements a less snappy, more lyrical aura. I’ve seen Courtney Barth, Bradley Beakes, Jake Bone, Ryan Yamauchi since 2017, and the inimitable Hollis Bartlett who left the company after 12 years, came back for this run. He has a commanding, yet unaffected stage presence. It’s always good to see dancers you recognize in any company, especially after the Covid hiatus.

Barth takes the opening solo soon joined by Joniece “JoJo” Boykins and Thryn Saxon as the stage begins to fill with a blur of the full company, arms airplaning and punching at the air, making sudden freeze poses, interweaving with each other, occasionally touching and letting go as if in moments of regret. They take turns in solos, mini-duets, and what could be full-out rush-hour traffic that somehow never ends in full collision. Yet nearly. 

Bartlett and Boykins dance to a slightly Latin beat in lit in a spot lit by Derek Van Heel. Daeyana Moss seemed most likely to be playing Maria among a group that comes out to romp together not rumble. Yet when the “Somewhere” theme began a floor duet between Beakes and Yamauchi, I felt a stir in the house and became weepy myself. The tentative tenderness between them was palpable. The open-ended narrative leaves the viewer to interpret it as they recognized elements of the well-known score.

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Rise.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Europeanizing the tone, a section called “Two Piano Pieces” follows intermission. The first, “Short Story” to a Rachmaninoff prelude, finds Beakes and Moss in the fraught situation of a couple on the edge of a relationship that has a long story of rejection and reunion. It ends with Moss striding angrily offstage, leaving Beakes disheartened.

The second piano piece, 2017’s “Nocturne” (Chopin’s in E Minor) was a solo for Varone that had me engulfed in tears by the end. He paces a spotlight in dusky lighting by Stacey Boggs. Enigmatic and introspective, at first he’s like an ageing bear looking for a way out of the circle. He alternates between graceful, near balletic moves, hands lyrically expressing longing and then street walks the diameter of the circle toward us before more furiously tracing its circumference. He ends again on the diameter towards us, pulling his hand slowly down his face. He’s a man who hasn’t come full circle yet, but he knows he has things to set right before he does. 

This was the interlude needed to prepare us for 1993’s “Rise,” a masterful staple of the company’s repertoire to Adams 1988 “Fearful Symmetries.” It couples the members up in jewel-toned loose cut pants and tops by Lynne Steincamp. 

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Rise.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

Bartlett bursts onto the stage with the ferocity of the first locomotive notes of the score. He’s soon joined by Yamauchi, in Sapphire Blue in a rising and falling duet, initiating the signature moves of forward flung or uplifted arms in the piece. They are followed by three more duets, Barth and Beakes in Amethyst Purple, Saxon and Moss in Emerald Green and Bone and Boykins in Ruby Red. I began to wonder if this was some sort of paean to George Balanchine’s “Jewels” which had similar speeds and groupings. But no, the similarities end there. 

By the time you get to the fifth duet the music has accelerated and become almost deafening along with the group’s sweeping propulsiveness. But Saxon and Moss get the ritenuto and diminuendo section, the sudden slowing down and muting of the score, softening in swirls around each other. Bartlett returns with an almost lazy ronde de jambe, joined once more by Yamauchi. As the music builds again to fortissimo levels, Beakes bursts out from the wings in a leap like some predatory bird about to snatch prey. Yamauchi takes the final breathtakingly beautiful solo, before the group breaks into a riotous dance as the music blasts to its end and they collapse on each other. There’s a momentary blackout and then lights up as each dancer flies out for a final solo, like birds who’ve been flushed from a field. Perhaps by a tyger burning bright.

Merilyn Jackson

Merilyn Jackson has written on dance for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996 and writes on dance, theater, food, travel and Eastern European culture and Latin American fiction for publications including the New York Times, the Warsaw Voice, the Arizona Republic, Phoenix New Times, MIT’s Technology Review, Arizona Highways, Dance, Pointe and Dance Teacher magazines, and Broad Street Review. She also writes for tanz magazin and Ballet Review. She was awarded an NEA Critics Fellowship in 2005 to Duke University and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for her novel-in-progress, Solitary Host.



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