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Flash Review, 12-14: Possessed by the Muse
Nothing Mechanical About Varone & Dancers

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2001 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- One thing is certain about Doug Varone: he is not stuck in a creative rut. "Ballet Mecanique," which premiered this week at the Joyce, could not be more different than last year's "Neither," a wonderful site-specific dance theater work at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. In addition to "Ballet Mecanique," the company presented "Possession" and "As Natural as Breathing" at the Wednesday performance, in a rich sampling of Varone's choreographic talent.

"Possession" (1994), for eight dancers, seemed a close relative to Varone's recent premiere of "Short Story" on the Limon Dance Company, also at the Joyce. The language was emotionally complex, freighted with non-specific, yet tremendously evocative hand gestures. In "Possession," in a typically loaded move, Varone's back is to us as he watches another dancer walk away from him. He slowly curls his spread hands into tense fists which rest at the small of his back, visible only to us. In another section, he and a partner grasp and swipe at the air, delineating a dense story with hand scribbles, as lucid to each other as sign language. The dancers often seemed to recoil after a bold move, as if they'd been burned or hurt. These gestural phantoms were as riveting as their origins.

Such detailed moments combined with hugely physical movement, including big arabesque lunges, slicing arms, and sudden drops to the knee. Larger hand gestures were important -- gnarled, open fingers; fanned-out, fully stretched hands; pointed, tightly clutching fists that rotated in circles. Varone is impressively skilled at taking emotional melodramas and creating abstracts of them, a kind of psychological, kinetic shorthand which is felt, and not necessarily understood, by the audience. Eddie Taketa and Adriane Fang made a great impact with a brilliant, fast duet in a white circle of light. "Possession" was ideally matched with Philip Glass's dramatic Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, with luminous costumes by Lynne Steincamp and lighting by David Ferri.

In "As Natural as Breathing" (2000), set to a series of jazz tunes from the 1960s, the performers wore synthetic (in fiber and color) period costumes by Liz Prince, which combined effectively with the saturated lighting schemes by Ferri. The eight dancers, in a roiling cluster, performed individual club dancing. Then, as if wired to one switch, their heads suddenly listed sideways collectively, a motif which was repeated with effectiveness. In smaller groups or solo, they dug into the stage with angled releves, and quickly reversed the energy flow in outside soutenus and pas de bourrees. Partly hidden by the proscenium's legs, dancers made funny little pony gestures and engaged in other visual pranks. Varone, in a stunning solo, at one point lay down and was joined in turn by a number of temporary mates. Thinking the swinging was over, he trudged dolefully across the stage, only to drop to his back in a flash upon sighting some more potential partners. Ultimately, he reverted to his sad, solitary state.

"Ballet Mecanique" was guided by George Antheil's cacophonous 1924 score, music which was such a technical bear that it wasn't performed until 1999, when MIDI technology caught up to Antheil's specification for 16 synchronized player pianos. (Dance fans may be familiar with the related Leger/Man Ray/Murphy film of the same name, a restored version of which screened at the Whitney this fall.) Scenic projections by Wendall K. Harrington depicted hard- and quasi-science in black & white, lit again by David Ferri, with factory-issue-style royal blue costumes by Liz Prince. At times, and most likely intentionally, the projections overwhelmed the production when they jiggled or whizzed across the scrims. In moments like this it was difficult to see the dance, which was a less emotional rendition of Varone's style.

Instead of interacting, a pair of dancers (Fang and Daniel Charon) moved in tandem for a long section, spinning their arms in horizontal planes, making wide echappes in fourth position, and boureeing rapidly with their fists held high. Taketa, who is a terrifically clear, smart dancer, showed his virtuosity in simple passes with his open turnout and still, sustained releves; deep lunges; and strong, split-legged push-up poses. The dancers stopped and started like machines, hitting friezes, then moving in a frenzy, like technology in a state of potential chaos. Larry Hahn repeatedly provided a solid, tree-like foundation for his partners, who would bounce against him and hang on his limbs.

The accomplished company also included John Beasant III, Natalie Desch, Faye Driscoll, and Ashley Gilbert.

Doug Varone and Dancers continues at the Joyce through Sunday.

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