Choreographer-director Doug Varone (blue shirt) and members of his dance… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
NEW YORK — "Take your balancé from side to side, instead of just traveling backwards, to make it a broader move," instructs choreographer Doug Varone to two of his nimble female dancers as they perform a waltz-rhythmed step in unison.
Dressed in well-worn sweat pants and draped T-shirts, Varone and his dancers are dissecting one of his latest dances, "Carrugi," at a rehearsal hall at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, to extract the nuances of the choreography. Filled with Italianate gestures, fluidly arcing backs, light footfalls, rough-and-tumble tugging and human friezes that freeze movement like Bernini's marble sculptures, "Carrugi" spins a cyclone of choreographic images.
But Varone wants to demystify the process of dance-making, to show the audience the bare working parts via his dual-sectioned program "Stripped/Dressed," Friday and Saturday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, featuring Doug Varone and Dancers.
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Designed as a way to open a window onto the creative process, "Stripped/Dressed" intimately reveals to an audience within sweat-spray range how a dance is constructed by stripping it down — no costumes, minimal lighting — and rebuilding it to its fully dressed performance state.
"It begins by taking a look at one specific work, talking about its inspiration, talking about it conceptually, talking about the score, showing how it was created, and showing what things we didn't use," says Varone. "After intermission, the audience gets to see that work from start to finish."
The idea for "Stripped/Dressed" began as a way for Varone to take audiences deeper than the lecture/demonstration model and to provide studio showings of new works. "When you're not part of an art form, you don't really have a sense of what it's about," Varone says. "It seems foreign. With a proscenium, an audience doesn't get a vision of what it's like to be in the mix of a dance. 'Stripped/Dressed' really is a way of seeing the art form up close." Since the program's inception in 2010, Varone has curated a number of "Stripped/Dressed" events at the 92nd Street Y featuring other contemporary dance companies.
Julia Burrer, a statuesque five-year veteran of Varone's company, compares "Stripped/Dressed" to "a tutorial that breaks down that fourth wall and allows the audience a direct connection with Doug's work and contemporary dance."
The program focuses on audience collaboration not just through asking questions but by actually participating in the crafting of dances. During the informal first half, the dancers in rehearsal clothes are introduced by name. "We show the different devices we use in order to build material and the audience can come onstage and try them out," says Varone. "We coalesce dances around the audience members. It should feel like a big, open studio."
The Segerstrom program will include the stripping of a short opening piece, "Lux," set to Philip Glass' composition "The Light," then move on to "Carrugi," set to sections of Mozart's oratorio La Betulia liberata, in its stripped and then, after a short intermission, dressed format. After the show, Varone conducts a post-performance discussion to distill the audience's experience.
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The formative ideas for "Carrugi" came from Varone's summer residency in Bogliasco in Italy's Liguria region. The word "carrugi" is the plural of "carruggio," a narrow, winding alley, in Ligurian dialect. "Every day I would walk the hillsides on the carrugi, the pathways that take you down the hill past farmhouses and lit cafes," says Varone. "I'd get lost going up and down the hills, and it reminded me of my dances turning in on themselves."
Varone was drawn to the vigorous Mozart oratorio, with a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that recounts the biblical story of Judith's beheading of Holofernes. Eschewing the literal libretto, Varone focused on "themes that felt like little slices of humanity and life — acts of heroism and scenes of duplicity" that motivate the communion and interaction of eight dancers.
One ensemble section of the half-hour-long "Carrugi," for example, ebbs and flows with the surging choral music but is predicated on the word "hope" in the libretto. "It's about locating the energy and the generator behind a word like that to spill that idea across the stage," says Varone, whose diverse career has included choreographing and directing operas and musical theater. "A lot of what I do in opera has been informed by looking at a libretto and finding ideas that might not necessarily be on the surface."