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Body Language

From the moment Doug Varone’s “Somewhere” opens on the figure of Hollis Bartlett leaning into a lateral arabesque, and we hear the sound of a certain unmistakable finger snapping, it’s clear that the GPS for this particular somewhere is the misty pre-dawn of an empty NYC tenement street in Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story.” During a week that celebrated 35 years of performance, Doug Varone and Dancers presented a program of four works that map the evolution of a master story teller.

Performance

Doug Varone and Dancers: mixed repertory

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, May 31-June 5, 2022

Words

Karen Hildebrand

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

The beauty of Varone’s version of “West Side,” performed in its New York premiere for an audience that surely could sing along to the original by heart, is that he presents the story as if it were a dream sequence. “Somewhere” is pure dance relieved of storyline and lyrics. We may be able to identify the iconic characters—Riff, Tony, Bernardo, Anita, Maria, Officer Krupke are all present—but Varone’s interest lies more in the way they move than in who they are. The nine member ensemble, dressed in gender neutral t-shirts and pants, form a kinetic tableau that rises and falls to the jazzy syncopation of familiar selections from the Bernstein score. The gang fight isn’t so much the Jets versus the Sharks as it is a domino spill of skids and falls. The ill-fated romance of Tony and Maria is depicted with an intertwining trio of Bartlett and two women—Courtney Barth and Joniece “Jojo” Boykins. The pinnacle moment of gang confrontation has the dancers spin, then freeze in place for a slow-mo fade, and an aftermath marked by the sound of church bells. As Officer Krupke makes his final patrol, the street lights flicker and buzz to fill the empty stage with the reckoning glare of artificial light.

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Rise” by Doug Varone. Photograph by Joe Gato

With the sober “Somewhere” shown on the same program as an exuberant “Rise” from 1993, one can detect a subtle deepening in Varone’s craft over the years. In “Rise,” eight dancers are paired up, with graduated entrances in swing tops and matching wide legged capris of glowing jewel tones—first to enter is the indigo pair, then the purple, then green and finally red. Varone’s Limon dance heritage of breath driven fall and recovery is on full display. The dancers are swinging pendulums in sections of unison. One can see the deep body origins of each phrase bubble up, spiral through the torso, roll the neck and head, flinging out arms and legs in a fluid feat of body physics. The choreography compliments the dynamics of the John Adams music without miming it. We can hear the chugging of a train, its whistle warning, as the velocity builds until all eight dancers collapse in a pile. Lights go to blackout. The audience begins to applaud. But no, the dancers return, replaying their original color coded entrances as a coda, each taking a moment in the spotlight before lining up to bow. The piece made me nostalgic for simpler times in the 1990s. Back then in an interview, Varone told me “Rise” was his first purely abstract movement piece after years of more linear story telling. He had just completed a 9-month community immersion in Lewiston, Maine. The resulting work was powerful but didn’t translate outside that particular community, and thus didn’t become part of the company’s touring repertory. Instead, it triggered a seminal change for Varone. “I now color my work imagistically,” he told me, “and shape the essence of a story rather than being a literal agent with it. ‘Rise’ is still a story about a community of people, but it’s a purely abstract work.”

Brad Beakes and Aya Wilson in “Short Story” by Doug Varone. Photograph by Joe Gato

Luckily though, Varone hasn’t completely abandoned his story telling impulse. On the Joyce program, between “Somewhere” and “Rise,” were two compelling gestural sketches that, stripped of narrative detail, reveal the more universal emotion at their core. “Short Story” (2001) is a duet for Brad Beakes and Aya Wilson as a couple arguing. It’s a study of body language—the nuance of a shoulder shrug, a hand flung from a shoulder, a head turned away. Beakes repeats one particularly memorable gesture when he absently brings his fingers to brush his mouth and chin. The exact same gesture when repeated plays as irritation, disdain, and attempt at reconciliation. “Nocturne” (2007) is a solo for Varone, performed with a similar alphabet. A man seemingly facing the advance of age, paces with his gaze focused downward, has second thoughts, turns to retrace his steps, stops, flutters his fingers, covers his face with his hands. In these two pieces simple movements are placed under a magnifying glass, and in the way a direct hit of sun to that glass can spark a fire, these instances of human vulnerability are burned into the viewers’ psyche. It was my favorite part of a completely satisfying evening.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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