DOUG VARONE AND DANCERS
at the Dance Center of Columbia College
Multiple perspectives can throw the critic into chaos. If a dance is performed differently from one night to the next, and the critic responds differently from one night to the next, which night does the critic write about? And what to do with a dance concert that’s not a two-hour but a two-week affair?
Doug Varone and Dancers, a company based in New York, was in Chicago for two weeks before last weekend’s concerts for a residency sponsored by the NEA, the Illinois Arts Council, and the National Performance Network. It featured classes, workshops, a lecture-demonstration, parties, a press conference, an open rehearsal, and a premiere, Force Majeure, jointly sponsored by the Dance Center, MoMing, and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I heard Varone talk about his works and saw two of them before the concert itself. Why not go whole hog? I thought, and saw two performances, too. So I saw each of the three works at least twice, and one of them–Home–four times.
All this seeing and hearing made “reviewing” seem an impossible task. But out of the critical chaos came a few questions, particularly on the issue of readability. Is the best dance the one that may be obscure at first but stands up to repeated viewing? Or is it the one that bowls you over on first viewing, the only viewing most people have?
Home (1988) is the most readable dance I’ve ever seen. There is absolutely no mystery to it: this duet lays bare, in painful detail, a relationship gone bad. Watching it is like seeing a corpse dissected onstage. But though the text is obvious, the subtext is not; and the audience is free to fill in many blanks. Why is this relationship falling apart? Whose fault is it?
Varone has a uniquely conversational style of dance: his dancers look as if they’re talking in movement. (In fact, Varone often composes by fitting gestures to words.) Home could be a single 12-minute conversation–it looked to me at first like a director’s wordless blocking of a crucial scene–or it could be months or years of conversations, whole huge cycles of rejection and rapprochement telescoped. What you see, no matter how you interpret them, are layers and layers of anger, yearning, hurt, brought out by Varone’s unusually lyrical and metaphoric use of body language. Fidgeting–plucking at one’s pants, pulling one’s ear–is what you do after an especially painful exchange, a way of filling up time. Touching your own torso expresses hurt and withdrawal; because this zone is so intimate, allowing someone else to touch your stomach is dangerous. Copying your partner’s movements can be a threatening or a sympathetic act–or both at once.
A. Leroy’s score for Home, composed after the dance had been choreographed, complements the work almost uncomfortably well. In fact, the musical, emotional, and physical impulses in Home have been so exactly and completely orchestrated that it’s possible, especially after several viewings, to worry that you’re being manipulated. Home surprised me into great emotion the first time I saw it; I relived its most painful moments for days afterward. But by the third or fourth viewing its impact had lessened.
Whatever wallop Home packs is due largely to the dancers’ immersion in the work–both casts managed to make feeling as fleeting and monolithic as it is in real life. The older couple–Varone and Mary Govern, Home’s original cast–buries the dance’s feelings more than the younger couple, giving a greater sense of problems accumulated over time and now impossible to budge. Varone captures the macho man’s springy, self-absorbed jungle ethic, while Govern has a granitelike stoicism–though you can imagine her chewing over past wrongs. The younger cast makes the feelings more immediate. Matthew Cazier is turned in and sensitive, his bouncy walks around the periphery of the couple’s space more meditative than self-assertive. Bonnie Wong, a superbly sumptuous and merry dancer, is vital and transparent where Govern is intriguingly opaque.
Force Majeure, like Home, banks on the dancers’ emotional reserves. (The third work, Oscillating Thirds, is more abstract, though Varone’s gift for conferring emotion also colors this piece, which is at first glance cool and glassy.) Inspired by a 1938 novel by Hermann Broch called The Spell and featuring an original score by Christopher Hyams-Hart, Force Majeure uses six chairs, a table, and six strongly differentiated characters to document the disintegration of a society. The six also seem to have the character of an extended family: Larry Hahn, with his construction worker’s physique and bald head, seems a kindly, dim uncle; Wong is an irrepressible child; Govern is tight-lipped and half crazy, a tough-as-nails Appalachian mother of 12; Cazier is emotional but a show-off; Nancy Coenen is a motherly hysteric; and Gabriel Masson is a boyish homosexual preoccupied with purity. It’s difficult to give them definitive characters, however, because we see them in such different lights in the first and second halves of the dance.
The opening section, for three seated women, is a kind of prologue, later reprised, whose gestures evoke the work’s themes. A hand curled around one’s own wrist seems to restrain that hand’s reach forward. When one leg reaches at the same time as the hand, the other leg remains firmly planted, indicating a divided nature, conflicting impulses. A line drawn firmly several times in the air, the hand and arm slicing from top to bottom, the torso pulled forward by the energy of the effort, looks judgmental, a ritual of censorship.
The next section shows all six dancers around a table, eating, talking, laughing, whispering, capering, but not in any way you’ve seen these things done before. Splayed hands, flexed knees, flexed feet, and exaggerated smiles and frowns all contribute to the impression of a whole villageful of village idiots. Perhaps partly because of the dark “peasant” costumes in shades of brown, purple, teal, and olive, this scene looks like van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters. The “social dances” that follow are filled with a similar playful galumphing. Though some repressive force sends the dancers scurrying back to their seats, Wong’s playfulness erupts again, first in jiggling fingers and feet and then in whispered gossiping in an incomprehensible tongue that sets them all off again–all except Masson, who’s not a member of the male or the female group and who suddenly starts “singing,” holding his hand upside down over his heart in what seems a weird patriotic salute.
So far Force Majeure has all the charm and mystery of a society created out of whole cloth, offering the same pleasures you might once have gotten from making your sandbox into a village, with roads and people and little trees. But it is mysterious: especially on first viewing, Varone’s creation may well make you scratch your head. For one thing, watching it is like trying to pick up on the fine points of a three-ring circus, since all six characters, in numerous shifting relationships, are engaged in the kind of gestural conversation characteristic of Home.
Of course the expanded scope of Force Majeure is what makes it so impressive, but that great scope creates even more problems in the work’s second half. Some dark shift occurs at about the middle of the dance–perhaps when the dancers start marching, perhaps when they “fall asleep” and begin their nightmares–that culminates in such monstrous greed and sorrow and murderous violence that no explanation for the change could possibly be sufficient (and none is offered).
I wonder whether Force Majeure may be both too removed and not removed enough from its original source. Broch’s novel, which tells how a young man obsessed with purity corrupts an innocent mountain village, is itself an allegory of Hitler’s Germany. Varone has created an allegory out of an allegory, and it’s as if vestiges of each level have remained in this highly but not completely evolved dance. What is the irresistible force of the title, for instance? It’s not the novel’s lead character because Varone said after one performance that he eliminated him from the dance. (It seems to me that he actually kept the character but made him not only a victim like everyone else but a greater victim than anyone else.) The result is that no one and nothing really motivates the midpoint shift that’s so crucial to the work.
And why are the villagers such buffoons? Varone said during the same question-and-answer period that he made the characters cartoonish because he wanted them to be larger than life. But dance is always larger than life–it always looks metaphoric. To me, the village group of the first half of the dance seemed almost a cruel parody of stereotyped bumpkins’ innocence and simplicity. Force Majeure seems to show us one kind of goon turning into another kind of goon, and that’s a puzzling thing for an audience to handle.
On first viewing Force Majeure is simply bewildering, a work whose undeniable emotional energy and breathtaking physical courage exist in a chaos of ideas, a matrix that makes moments of emotional power seem isolated and inexplicable. On second viewing it made more sense, though still it wasn’t completely satisfying. Is this a work so brilliant and original that it must be seen several times, and perhaps over a period of decades? Or is it the mess it seemed at first? It has Varone’s musicality, it has his unique and uniquely moving gestural language. What it may or may not have is staying power.