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Doug Varone and Dancers

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

February 22–24, 2013
92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival
New York, NY
Performance reviewed: February 22

   
Stripped/Dressed—a dance-demystifying strategy Doug Varone created a few years ago—is, in theory, a great notion. “A way to help audiences feel at ease and take ownership of their ideas,” he calls it. “A way to see the company close and dirty.”

A Stripped/Dressed event begins with an informal talk about the genesis and process of making dance and a demo illustrated by dancers in practice clothes. After intermission—during which, this time, we were invited to watch a video of Varone performers dancing in children’s hospital rooms—the group gives a formal presentation of a work. It concludes with a Q&A. All of that can add up to a lengthy evening, as it did on Varone’s recent bill in the Y’s intimate, dance-historic Buttenwieser Hall. The audience needs as much focus and stamina as the Varone dancers, and theirs are downright legendary. I can’t say mine held up nearly as well.

Doug Varone and Dancers certainly made the case for the persuasiveness of seeing dance live and close up. For their Harkness Dance Festival program, the troupe demo-ed the reconstructed Rise (1993), set to music by John Adams. This rousing dance has no business being shown just a few feet from our noses, but here it is—an abstract ensemble with the expansive feel of a zooming, bustling city of massive forces, risk-takers, big appetites, bigger ambitions. Varone rolls his dancers like dice, throwing them hard, way off center where they cling to Earth with tenacity. If you’re going along for this ride, pack your Dramamine.

 

Mouth Above Water by Doug Varone

From left: Eddie Taketa, Alex Springer, Erin Owen and Julia Burrer in Doug Varone's Mouth Above Water
Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy 92nd St. Y

 

Mouth Above Water, the new work, shares some of those qualities but compresses the surges and blaring movement into tighter, more disturbing intersections and interactions among the eight dancers–Hollis Bartlett, Erin Owen, Xan Burley, Alex Springer, Hsiao-Jou Tang, Julia Burrer, Eddie Taketa and Colin Stillwell. For the Harkness premiere, Varone used the stage space for a kind of Punch and Judy show of three performers and their looming jet-black shadows. The rest danced on the floor in front of us, as they had during the demo, with the tall and willowy, breathtakingly expressive Burrer appearing to be a sacrificial victim. These performances and composer Julia Wolfe’s orchestral string piece—“Cruel Sister,” inspired by an old English ballad about two sisters’ lethal rivalry over a man--made me shift in my seat to release the effects that this tension and violence had on my own body.

Bottom line: Doug Varone’s troupe might be the last one that needs to sell an audience on its methods. If this work and these dancers can’t move you, I don’t know what would.

 

Pictured at top: Xan Burley (right) and Hsiao-Jou Tang in Doug Varone's Mouth Above Water
Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy 92nd St. Y