Doug Varone and Dancers

May 16, 2007

Doug Varone and Dancers

BAM Harvey Theater, NYC

May 16-19, 2007

Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

In a post-performance talk about Dense Terrain at BAM Harvey, Doug Varone avoided interpreting this new dance and invited each viewer to find his or her own path through its thickets. Nevertheless, Dense Terrain has a whopper of an elephant-in-the-living-room in the person of Scottish actor Anthony Cochrane.

    Large, bearded Cochrane looms in Varone’s video, which runs behind the live dancing, his character filling the white walls and floor of Varone’s tiny SoHo apartment with black, indecipherable calligraphy. He performs arcane gestures and emits squeaks and babble (actually words from old and obscure languages). He’s like an undiscovered outsider artist—a Henry Darger—except that now we have penetrated his dense (dance?) terrain. Varone’s 20th anniversary showpiece is 75 minutes of dance theater so congested, claustrophobic, and visceral it makes the skin crawl and the breath labored.

    Nathan Larson’s sensitive score starts with a heartbeat rhythm and the sound of chanting voices as the video presents us with a close-up of Cochrane’s lips stretched stage-wide. On stage, Eddie Taketa flits and scampers amid a stark forest of grey metal chairs. Other dancers in drab costumes emerge on stage or in the video as slippery, faint apparitions. Allen Moyer’s sets and Jane Cox’s lighting create shifting spaces that alternately constrict and unsettle the stage environment. Video and live action split the viewers’ attention. Patches of live dancing, here and there, also compete to be noticed. The sensational, aggressive choreography, rendered by Varone’s acclaimed ensemble, commits to no one pattern or direction. It’s all melting and slippage, fast forwards and reversals, propulsion and repulsion performed with the high-strung intensity one senses beneath Varone’s own thoughtful persona.

    But dancers sometimes quietly align like earnest students intent upon their master Cochrane’s every utterance. Do they exist, independent of his psyche? The question lingers.

    Cochrane’s character finally appeared onstage—stripped of aesthetic distance, revealed under bright light. Alone, enclosed—like any denizen of the theater—by three walls, he paddled on all fours, twitched, yelped, and generally displayed profound mental disturbance. Some audience members bailed out.

    But Varone also gives his artist elements of focused, elevating beauty, having Cochrane intone, with sweet innocence, what sounds like a Slavic anthem or hymn, or humbly take a seat at the rear of an orderly formation of dancers. The terrain, if as yet untamed, settles into momentary peace.