Doug Varone and Dancers

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, October 4-6

Many dance photographers try to make their subjects look like they’re flying, which can be a challenge with some companies. But with Doug Varone and Dancers it’s simple photojournalism. Varone’s choreography keeps every part of every performer in motion, and his troupe engage with it so completely that even their hair seems to be dancing. This clean-lined, athletic, cerebral, music-driven work suggests a supercharged version of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

The company’s recent engagement showed Varone to be the complete modern choreographer. Modern as opposed to postmodern, his choreography challenges alienation rather than reifying or deifying it. Whether his dancers are catching one another in difficult leaps or lifting one of their number above their heads or diving full-length into nothingness, they’re the embodiment of fearless connection. Proudly displaying its roots in modern dance of the early 20th century, his work is nevertheless far from quaint or dated.

Possession, the first of three pieces on the program, is set to Philip Glass’s challenging Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Varone’s choreography has more than its share of virtuosity to match, but it’s not skill for skill’s sake. Rather it reflects the fear of being possessed by a spirit or a feeling greater than oneself–and the profound hope that possession isn’t necessary to love. This meaning is clearest in the first and third movements; the second suffers from a lack of musical momentum. Work as cerebral as this gains its visceral kick from speed and acuity. Done slowly, it seems a shade didactic, as when Varone has one dancer draw next to another, then deliberately look away: The Head Contradicts the Body. But when the music provides the necessary urgency, the dancing is exhilarating. A quartet in a circle seems to create its own private windstorm. Individuals run backward across the stage like a film in reverse, then turn and collide. The moves match the frenetic music while permitting the dancers to engage, disengage, and reengage in a multiplicity of satisfying combinations. In one repeated virtuoso maneuver, a woman lies supine across her partner’s knees, seemingly floating with limbs in motion like a mermaid. Then suddenly she stiffens, and he seizes her around the waist and flips her over.

Possession foreshadows the robotic movement that blossoms in the evening’s finale, Ballet Mecanique. Different foursomes make futile attempts at coupling in Possession, then collapse like toys whose batteries have run out. Hands are prominent, with dancers reaching awkwardly like automated fortune-tellers at a fun fair. Watching hands is not all that exciting when a company is capable of flips and floats and swoops and arcs, but Varone’s protest against alienation comes through loud and clear. “We must love one another, or die,” said W.H. Auden in 1939. The look and feel of Possession also recalls an antiwar song from Hair: “We starve, look at one another short of breath, walking proudly in our winter coats, wearing smells from laboratories, facing a dying nation.”

All these evocations of war may have less to do with what Varone was thinking in 1994, when he choreographed Possession, than they do with the context today. But like every great work of art, the piece effortlessly accommodates the passage of time. Its sudden changes of direction and position are fresh, startling, satisfying–particularly as people try to regain their personal balance in an upended world.

The second piece, As Natural as Breathing, might have been entitled “And Now for Something Completely Different.” In this funny and joyous work, set to a smorgasbord of jazz fusion, Varone celebrates dance qua dance. In stark contrast to Lynne Steincamp’s elegant white costumes for Possession, the dancers are dressed (by Liz Prince) as 60s and 70s fashion victims, with colors clashing and patterns shrieking. Yet they look adorable and boogie like Rudolf Nureyev at a party. Then they play a sort of dance Red Rover, joining hands in lines that shift as individuals cross over or break out. Varone’s delight in the body’s plasticity, and the dancers’ fearlessness and seeming unbreakability, are particularly welcome right now.

No matter how “natural,” this is rigorous stuff, and Varone the choreographer is unforgiving even of Varone the dancer. His solo in the second movement involves, once again, too many hand gestures, presumably because Varone-style dancing requires the kind of swings and leaps he can no longer do. By comparison to the other dancers jubilantly reinventing the pony or the jerk, his shaken booty looks a bit pathetic. But that’s obviously part of the point: near the end of the movement, he lies down on his back as a succession of dancers lies on top of him, each more briefly than the last. He rises to walk off, but when he encounters another dancer he instantly lies back down with a hopeful expression. This laugh-out-loud moment, and his playful screwing-machine persona, make us forgive in Varone what he can’t seem to forgive in himself–the loss of superhuman flexibility and speed. The piece does indeed feel as natural as breathing, and nearly as life-giving.

Ballet Mecanique, first performed last summer, returns to the serious themes of Possession. Set to music of the same name by George Antheil, which produced riots at its premiere in 1926, the piece projects visions of catastrophe both mathematical and physical, first onto a scrim and then the back wall: black-and-white images of melting walls, wiring plans, op art patterns, a Mondrian design, a Mobius strip.

The visuals take Varone’s off-balance choreography to the next level: even when the dancers are balanced, doing something routine like marching in place, the world shifts around them. Though the scrim is annoying–we don’t want anything separating us from the dancers–once the projections move to the back wall, they complement the choreography’s military-industrial arrangements. Replacing one another in shifting lines going nowhere, each dancer is a cog in a terrifying machine.

The music’s recurrent siren and abrupt shifts from melody to discord give the whole piece the nightmare-future feel of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. External influences are apparent in the dancing too: while some moves suggest Chaplin in Modern Times and others Jerome Robbins in West Side Story, Varone’s most obvious debt is to Martha Graham. This piece pays brilliant homage to her Steps in the Street, which protested the abandonment of workers in the 1930s. What Ballet Mecanique lacks in Depression-era desperation it makes up in intensity of belief that “the center cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In the shadow of physics equations, the dancers bounce around at random like overstimulated atoms or float across the stage narrowly missing one another–for good or ill. Finally the ensemble writhes in the middle of a projected vortex and breaks apart, leaving two dancers to run faster and faster until they finally dive forward into space–and we gasp at their willingness to risk everything. Despite its threatening overtones, Ballet Mecanique, like the rest of Varone’s work, champions the human spirit–and the human body–against all obstacles.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lois Greenfield.