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Dance Review

The Vibrant World of Doug Varone

His troupe, making its Los Angeles-area debut, creates a distinctive dynamic that is filled with human drama.


Sometimes, Doug Varone and Dancers seem like pieces in a kaleidoscope, flying about randomly within limits and then falling inevitably into a sharply etched design. These pictures are often satisfying, as if a puzzle has been solved. But before you get to them, there are many pleasantly off-kilter moments with the vibrating, colorful pieces of the puzzle.

The New York-based Varone company, founded in 1986, made a strong Los Angeles-area debut with four pieces on Thursday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Its style is partly familiar--the decorous flinging and rebounding of release-oriented modern dance (Varone's own history includes dancing with the companies of Jose Limon and Lar Lubovitch)--and partly unique, because of Varone's idiosyncratic gestural vocabulary and his sense of place. In each of the works, he creates a world, not only by using group maneuvers and solo musings that suggest the individual's dilemma of fitting into society, but also by choosing music that's full of drama and event.

In "Rise," from 1993, a recorded version of John Adams' "Fearful Symmetries" provided much of the atmosphere to create a pulsating community, with horns and percussion standing in for traffic and people on the go. Couples in vibrantly colored loose pants and filmy tops romped, slowed down, mused and sometimes gathered in clumps or circles. A symphony of continuously flowing steps--windmilling arms, leaps, strides, hops and kicks--made certain sections look like exquisitely orchestrated play.

Although the movement dynamic was often unvarying in "Rise," it looked different on several dancers--sharper and more articulate on Eddie Taketa, while Adriane Fang gave it a certain delicacy, Gwen Welliver a suspended sensuality and Nancy Bannon and Keith Johnson a compact fleetness.


Music again buoyed the action in "Bel Canto" (1998), this time acting as backdrop to humor when noble poses and inventive noodling were done to the florid arias of Bellini's "Norma." In two duets, Varone's gentle, quirky touch came through in conversational movement that evoked the longing and vulnerability of romantic encounters--a slight ducking of the head, a crooked elbow going nowhere, a hand hovering near an ear but not touching it.

In a quartet, on the other hand, it seemed that each person who joined in had to figure out how to speak the language of the others, until they connected up in athletic unison. Dancing in lock-step, which Varone uses sparingly, always brought to mind the arduousness and serendipity involved in finding harmony.

If "Bel Canto" was about the spritely meandering that comes about when people make contact, "Home," a 1988 duet, evoked a more solemn stage in a relationship. To a string score (by A. Leroy) that sounded like winter setting in, Varone and Welliver stared off in different directions at first, eventually working into a "danciness" that seemed affected, then appropriate--as if it were forced conversation. It was a duet made of telling details, at once obvious and compelling--the pressure of a grasped hand, an incomplete caress, clockwork pauses. At the end, you wondered if the tenaciousness that kept the couple trying to move together was a good or bad thing.

Varone's most recent work, "Sleeping With Giants" (1999), was perhaps his most complex on this program, driven by a deceptively simple theme--not fitting in--and by Michael Nyman's dynamic minimalist score, Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra. Again, there was a feeling of societal organization, with playmates, couples, and groups that go off in different directions, running, skipping and changing course. They touch and don't touch, circle in opposite directions, and all know the same rules, until one is separated from the rest, seeming to have lost the communal knack.


Larry Hahn danced this role with a wonderfully underplayed sense of bewilderment and blundering. He bumped his fellow dancers and they elbowed him; they seemed to welcome him, then shouted at him incoherently and formed battalions in which he couldn't figure out how to keep step.

At one moment Hahn was frozen, trembling in flickering bright light, and it seemed he was in an ordinary cold sweat that might pass quickly. Maybe this was an interior monologue, the nightmare of daily accommodations and conforming. But mimed violence took the piece where mere rejection had not. Although Varone doesn't dwell on the violence, it's there, executed as quickly as a sound bite on the evening news, and all the more effective for its brief appearance and casual acceptance.

In these four pieces, it's easy to see why Varone has been lauded for establishing a distinctive voice on the contemporary dance scene. He and his dancers seem to balance elegant containment and rapid, rapturous tossing away. But the style is only part of what Varone does; in the center of each of his kaleidoscopic puzzles is a faithful, questioning iteration of a worldview that pulses with human dilemmas.

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