Doug Varone and Dancers Workshop

June 21, 2009

It’s a Sunday night, and I’m gearing up for the last week of the Doug Varone and Dancers Workshop. This is my third summer as a student here, but every year I find myself bracing for the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of the three-week intensive.

We got to the SUNY Purchase campus, in upstate New York, about two weeks ago and jumped right into classes Monday morning. The days start with optional Pilates at 8am followed by two hours of technique. Next up is an hour of phrasework, or what I sometimes think of as intellectual dance combat. We learn a combination—sometimes repertory, sometimes movement the teachers have choreographed—as fast as you can possibly imagine. If you’ve ever watched Doug choreograph on his company, you know that movement flows out of him like a waterfall—in a huge, fast, breathtaking rush. He looks for dancers who can match his speed, picking up choreography quickly. Phrasework is all about perfecting that skill—making choices and sticking with them, even if you aren’t positive you’re doing the right step. For example, if you know it’s a turn but you just can’t remember if it’s en dehors or en dedant, you just choose the one you think is correct and commit to it.  It’s the devotion to the movement, whatever you think it might be, that counts here.

After a two-hour lunch break—when we can stop in to watch the company’s open rehearsal or take a much-needed nap—I head to ballet and then to a repertory class, where we learn small excerpts from Doug’s work. Learning Doug’s repertory is one of the things I love most about the workshop. The company works under the philosophy that dancing is more than just learning movement; it’s about bringing who we are as individuals to the work. We are constantly being pushed to put our personalities into the movement.

We started off the workshop learning an incredible duet from Possession that I have admired the past two summers but have never had the chance to learn. The piece was choreographed in 1994 to Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Philip Glass, and the section we learned is informed by the pulsing, driving music. The adrenaline rush from the music alone is enough to get me dancing. After that, we started learning a slower, softer duet from Tomorrow. It’s wonderful to work on two pieces with such differing emotional groundings, to jump from charging and driven to tender and calming.

Perhaps the best part of the workshop is the open, welcoming atmosphere. Competition is just not a part of what is taught here. Doug started off by telling us that this workshop was a place in which he wanted us to feel safe enough to fail. And as my mother always says, if you’ve never failed, then you can never truly succeed. The environment is as supportive as they come—it really allows you the space to go to a new place in your dancing.

What I realize every time I immerse myself in Doug’s work and spend time at the workshop—being taught by people who are not only beautiful dancers but caring and giving teachers (the company and Doug teach our classes on a rotating basis, each teacher switching every two days)—is that there is a way to find beauty in all movement. But what has brought me back every summer goes beyond the movement. What I have learned here the past two summers, and what I already feel from the first two weeks, is a newfound sense of who I am—as a person, as a dancer, and as an artist. It sounds abstract and maybe even a little corny, but it’s true.  It all comes down to being pushed to find not just what my body can do on a physical level, but how that physicality can connect on an emotional level—for me, and subsequently for the audience.

On the first day Doug told us that what we will find in his work is a sense of humanity, and that certainly translates to the theories we’re learning in class. The past two years have been what I can honestly call life-changing experiences, and this summer’s classes—coupled with the company’s showings in the evenings, a BBQ, and a much-welcomed massage night—seem to be heading me down the same path.