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Flash Review Journal, 12-10: Cave-dwellers; Winter was Hard
Varone Mines Kentucky; Brown Winters with Schubert

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2002 Susan Yung

NEW YORK -- Doug Varone's "The Bottomland," an evening-length dance-theater piece in two distinct parts which premiered at the Ohio Theatre Thursday, is a fascinating virtual expedition to the exotic setting of Kentucky. Varone, who directed and choreographed the work, continues to demonstrate a voracious appetite for theatrical experimentation. Such boldness complements his choreography, which can range from voluptuous lyricism to the most pathetic gestural expressions of human nature. "The Bottomland" shows an extraordinary level of conceptualizing and planning, in addition to the creative elements. Varone has added a dash of high technology and a dedicated company of talented performers to create a memorable evening of theater.

The evening's first part, "Songs That Tell a Story," was performed in front of a breathtaking high-definition video, conceived and directed by Varone, shot in the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky. (The lead commissioner for the project was the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts Face of America 2002, which promulgates the exploration of America's national parks through the performing arts.) The clarity of the picture was jarring; the moss gem-like; the smallest movements alarmingly clear. The performance began with a video shot of eight dancers leaning against a rock wall; they began to move almost subconsciously. Varone has a knack for flowing prosaic movement and dance together seamlessly, as if the dancers learned his choreographic vocabulary when they learned to walk. The performers entered the stage dressed in cotton clothes (by Liz Prince) identical to those they wear in the video, threw their arms open, then gathered in a cluster. Faye Driscoll walked an invisible tightrope, foreshadowing a tendency to go her own way.

The women lip-synched the words to music sung by Patty Loveless, a native Kentuckian who performed (and co-wrote one of) the first act's nine recorded songs by artists such as Ralph Stanley and Emory Gordy, Jr. Downstage, Larry Hahn and Natalie Desch worked out a quarrel at the same time they were shown on-screen in a happier moment, dancing in an embrace. Driscoll and John Beasant, in a poignant match made in heaven, traded facial contortions and clasped hands, nearly simultaneously both live and onscreen. In the song "Rise Up Lazarus," the dancers moved in bold phrases, their upper bodies carving concave loops, their arms swinging up to complete an X. As the group created geometric formations, the video showed the same sequence in plan, providing uniquely complete information about the dance. The only drawback to the video was that it was so vivacious it sometimes distracted from the live performances.

The company's older dancers are the most interesting to watch -- Varone's style rewards not so much physical virtuosity as emotional investment and trust. Thus, Hahn and Nina Watt, a veteran of Jose Limon's troupe who made her Varone company debut in this run, were riveting as a couple at odds due to his philandering, abusive ways. (Watt performed with Limon alum Varone in "Short Story," a gorgeous duet he set on the Limon Company a couple of seasons ago.) The second act, to filmic music by Gaeton Leboeuf, zoomed in on the sociological makeup of this couple and the group we'd earlier watched dancing through the cave. The dreamy facade was stripped away -- the film replaced by beautifully crafted, miniature, depression-style houses on wheels (by Allen Moyer) -- leaving us to confront a community rife with xenophobia, bullheadedness, radical religion, and more.

While it was an interesting turnabout, Act Two was somewhat undermined by the success of Act One, and by a reliance on acting, rather than metaphor or implication. In the second half, the dancers were required to flesh out the details of their roles, and it is here where maturity was an advantage. Varone's older dancers have either been with his company for a long time, or, like Watt, have a long-term connection with the choreographer, so that they bring maturity, familiarity, and, again, trust. Eddie Taketa and Adriane Fang, in a bit of obvious casting, played an Asian couple new to town and rejected as outsiders, eventually hunted down and stripped naked by the rabid, snarling townspeople; they communicated affectingly in a mysterious sign language but I wanted to see more from these two consistently riveting dancers.

Daniel Charon portrayed with powerful intensity a healing preacher. In many ways, Charon reminded me of Varone -- the explosive, feline manner in which he moved, the natural way he shook out his legs between steps, his shoulder carriage, even the tilt of his head. This was fortunate as it emulated some of the missing electric presence usually conveyed by Varone, who did not perform. Desch danced with fierceness, sinking her chest into a deep contraction, then reversing it to carve a convex arabesque. Beasant's character went a step too far by actually sobbing at the loss of his funny-faced sweetheart, Faye Driscoll, who made a dramatic stage presence despite her absence for most of the second act. We knew Driscoll was different, as she was the only character who seemed to acknowledge the camera or audience.

The second act of "The Bottomland" in some ways felt like an apologia for an underlying travelogue tone in the first act, which was presented last August at Wolf Trap, the lead commissioner. (One wonders how the second act's searing sociological profile might have been received had it been performed on that occasion.) Varone's work has something for everyone, from his richly coded, subtle hand semaphores, to his blatantly play-acted scenes. My one wish is that he would trust his audience to interpret his unspoken but lucid movement code more, rather than relying as much as he does on acting. Somehow, we get it, and the magical part is, we're not certain why.

"The Bottomland" continues through December 22, witih lighting by Jane Cox, video production by Blue Land Media, and photography directed by Rob Draper and Vincent Gancie.

Like Doug Varone, Trisha Brown has been branching out for years. Both, in fact, have made serious forays into opera; Varone has choreographed productions which have been presented at City Opera and soon, a production of "Les Troyens" at the Met. Brown has directed and choreographed opera, notably a glorious production of Monteverdi's "Orfeo." A new production of "Winterreise," directed by Brown and featuring baritone Simon Keenlyside, pianist Pedja Muzijevic, and dancers Brandi Norton, Seth Parker, and Lionel Popkin, premiered last week at John Jay College as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. (Trisha Brown Dance Company performs two other dance programs as part of its season, which runs through Friday.)

Seen December 6, this cycle of 24 songs by Franz Schubert, set to poems by Wilhelm Muller, may seem like a modest-scale proposal to stage, but it must have been difficult to resist overshadowing the solo baritone and piano, who sort of plow through the cycle's dark, compact range of emotion. (Composer Arvo Part recently said in The New Yorker that "Schubert's pen was fifty percent ink, fifty percent tears.") Yet Brown rightly chose to match the range of movement to the intense, focused breadth of Schubert's cycle rather than letting dance overtake the work.

Muller's poems concern lost love and in its bleak aftermath, the journey to life's end. (If it were not already tragic enough that, just 31, Schubert edited final proofs on his deathbed, Muller had passed away the prior year at age 32.) The prose is incredibly dark, but Jennifer Tipton's lighting gave the stage a brilliant, bleak Arctic iciness, rather than gloominess. Apart from the first song, in which Norton wore a delicate dress whose skirt comprised a lattice cage and crystal strings that shimmered as she strode in spirals, the dancers wore cool-hued PJs designed by Elizabeth Cannon, and Keenlyside warmer-toned shirt and slacks under a waistcoat.

Brown chose simple, quiet movements which either alluded to the text or played off of the rhythms of the music. The choreography rarely mimed the words; rather, Brown introduced motifs that recur throughout the poems: walking and wandering, icy tears, shadows, rest (temporary or permanent), and predatory nature -- winter, dying trees, circling crows. The performers repeated a tree motif, holding their arms at 90-degree angles alone or while standing in a line, giving the appearance of a many-armed shiva. Often the dancers supported Keenlyside, either imagistically, with their arms paralleling his, or literally, using their feet to right his listing body or supporting his frame on their aligned shins. In "Rest," the arms floated softly as if on currents of air; the dancers helped the exhausted Keenlyside to walk. Were they guardian angels, or harbingers of death?

"Winterreise" is a true collaboration between Brown and Keenlyside, who previously portrayed Orfeo beautifully under her direction. Keenlyside blended in naturally with Brown's dancers. His stature is similar to theirs, and he moved confidently and easily without a hint of stiffness, through all manner of positions, even singing crouched to the ground like a dog sniffing the earth. His voice was clear, accurate, agile, and seemingly gained strength throughout the rigors of the cycle. Brown remained sensitive to the singer's innate talents while pushing him beyond an opera singer's normal limits. She showed palpable respect for the songs by matching their scope and focus, and by asking her dancers to assume an important, if supportive and subservient, role.

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