NextMove Dance presents Doug Varone and Dancers (first review)

Dystopia or utopia?

What is a dystopia? Perhaps we are living in one: Some of us have more than enough and some of us barely get by, while others can never have enough. Doug Varone and Dancers’ concert opens the NextMove at the Prince series with his 2015 work ReComposed, a Philadelphia premiere, to Michael Gordon’s score Dystopia.

Doug Varone and Dancers in 'Possession.' (Photo by Erin Baiano)

The music, conflicted, sometimes skirling or wailing, sometimes buzzing like insects, gives Varone’s dancers a world to inhabit with his deeply inflected choreography. I couldn’t get enough of his inversions and inventions in this 35-minute work, much less its striking imagery inspired by Joan Mitchell’s pastel drawings and prints. Just a quick overview of her work suggests that she was at heart a dancer; her brushes certainly danced across her canvas.

Painting with movement

Robert Weirzel’s lighting and Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costumes fulfill the work -- as if all the artists are of one mind and heart. Gauzy, loose jumpsuits cover black leotards striped with Mitchell’s vivid colors, which can only be seen clearly once the jumpsuits are shucked. Then those vertical bands of color follow the dancer bodies like animated paintbrush strokes.

Whitney DuFrene’s red stripe coiled against the backdrop, forcing me to focus on its sinuous whorls. Soon my eye followed ochres and delphinium blues on the other dancers, falling and crawling over one another with disregard or carrying each other horizontally, like dead logs or carcasses. You can always see where all the choreographic movement gets its powerful charge: from the spine, between the scapulae running energy along outstretched arms and upper torso to fully opened chests.

Near the end, the dancers stand in black silhouette against the now-white backdrop before recomposing themselves into yet another splash of color. It expresses neither utopia nor dystopia, but an ongoing struggle to reach a communion between artists.

Old and new (to us)

Another Philadelphia premiere, 2016’s Folded, is a duet that was danced on opening night by Hollis Bartlett and Alex Springer (Xan Burley and Hsiao-Jou Tang alternate.) Here again, Varone uses beautifully rough contemporary music, by Philadelphia–born Julia Wolfe. Wolfe, a 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, is married to Michael Gordon and the two, along with David Lang, founded Bang on a Can in 1987.

Folded’s inky lighting by David Grill throws little shine on the two intertwining figures. Though I found much to enjoy in their dance, the biggest statement or question came at the end when they stood before us furiously shaking their heads. Were they negating all that came before?

Since 1999, this is the third time I’ve seen and reviewed Varone’s 1994 Possession, set to Philip Glass’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. It’s a remarkable privilege for a critic to see the same dance multiple times, but even more remarkable to find something new to excite her. As Varone said in his pre-curtain talk, they reworked the piece; of course, by now, all new dancers bring to it a sizzling vitality. Though in the concerto’s first movement the full company dazzles with as much vigor as they express in the energy-draining opening work, it was the last movement that made me hold my breath. Bartlett, DuFrene, Jake Bone, and Aya Wilson form interchangeable duets. Dufrene drops from Bartlett’s grasp like a rag doll and later slides her hand up the back of his thigh. Bone grips Wilson in the crook of his arm and both women slither around and between the men. The choreography finds myriad ways to insert minute stillnesses in the driving music. 

To read Camille Bacon-Smith's review, click here.

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