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Speaking in Body Language

Doug Varone's signature choreography features movement from the spine, with legs and arms flying in various directions.


New York choreographer Doug Varone has received accolades many of his peers would die for.

He's been called "the best choreographer in the world" and "a choreographer's choreographer."

Dancers, we're told, flock to join his troupe.

His works embody "risky speed" but also "pull at the heart."

Perhaps most impressive of all, he's invented a signature vocabulary style in which movement originates from the spine instead of the pelvis, as in so much other modern dance. Dancers' legs and arms fly about in various directions.

"Limbs are extremely important to me," Varone said in a recent phone interview from Princeton, N.J. "I like to use limbs to slash through the air. I really believe all of our limbs come off the back."

The 43-year-old choreographer was speaking during a break in preparing a new musical by Polly Pen, opening Friday at the McCarter Theatre.

He won't be there, however, because opening night conflicts with his dancing with his company Thursday and Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

The Irvine engagement--the company's first in Southern California--will include four Varone works: "Rise," "Bel Canto," "Home" and "Sleeping with Giants."

"I don't like talking about individual works, mostly because I get into trouble when I do," he said.

"When I go into a studio to create, the inspiration can be hundreds of many little observations. So it's never truly about one thing. It's about the life experience I'm having at the moment and how that's transformed into choreography."

Music, however, is typically his guiding force.

"Usually I will locate a score that I'm really intrigued to create to. That begins the thought process. I always have to go into the studio with an idea, some kind of concept from A to Z.

"But I've learned over the past 13 years, that concept is always wrong."

At some point the work takes over. "Some door opens and I know how to get in and put ideas together. The work tells me intuitively where to go."

Varone didn't start out to be a modern dancer. He studied tap when he was a child. He said it was a story straight out of "A Chorus Line": "I followed my sister to classes."

His interest in tap stuck, and he expected to pursue it on Broadway with a career in musical theater. But dance studies at Purchase College in New York changed all that.

"Within a year, I was blown away with the idea that dance is an amazing art form in which to speak," he said. "I grew up a lot in formulating those ideas."

After graduating, he landed his first job with the prestigious Jose Limon Company, a move he credited to "fate and luck."

"I graduated from college on a Monday, auditioned Wednesday and started Friday. Things happen like that."

Limon's style appealed to him because "there was nothing pretentious about it. It was very comfortable. I also liked the fact that Jose presented men in a very vulnerable way."

But the company was still in turmoil after the death of its founder in 1972. Hungry to work for someone who built dances on him, Varone moved on after a year, joining the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company where he stayed for about eight years.

"There's a lineage that I have fallen from," Varone said. "It's what attracted me as a dancer--a sensibility that there's a humanism that underlies what is being said choreographically, that there is a greater sense of community, that there's a way of thinking that's genteel, in a way, that can be explored and exploded."

A Change in Attitude Led to Choreography

He was long interested in choreographing but didn't plan to create his own company.

"I really respected the art form too much to make the assumption that here was another dancer who should start a dance company," he said.

But that attitude changed when a representative of the Colorado Dance Festival asked him to bring his work to the Boulder-based series.

"You don't say no to that," he said.

So he launched Doug Varone & Dancers in 1986, and it has thrived ever since.

Writers have remarked on the unusually wide range of ages and body types in the company.

"The real world is like that," Varone said.

"I'm also drawn to mature artists. I'm drawn to an artist who has an incredible facility for knowledge, someone I can grab from who has a life underneath them, an intuitive sense of who they are that they will bring to the work.

"Sometimes they have that at 21. Very often, they don't."

Varone believes that his work "has to find its way to someone," but that doesn't mean that people have to like it.

"I'm interested in eliciting a response--whatever that might be. I like to believe that the work has an effect on people, that they wake up the next morning and remember ideas it generated, and in some small way it's affected their life.

"I'm not big on dance as entertainment."

Ironically, entertainment played a big part in his aesthetic.

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