Doug Varone and Dancers
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

May 31, 2022
Somewhere, Short Story, Nocturne, Rise

Jerry Hochman

Doug Varone and Dancers returned to the Joyce Theater this week with a 35th Anniversary Program celebrating the company’s history. The program is dedicated to all those dancers over the years who have performed with the company, with each of these alumni (as well as current company members) listed in the evening’s program notes. This alone speaks volumes about Founder, Artistic Director, and Choreographer Doug Varone’s sensibility; the evening’s program, which included one of Varone’s most well-known dances, Rise, as well as a relatively new one making its New York premiere, Somewhere, speaks volumes about Varone’s craft.

I’m generally not a fan of dances that milk every ounce of energy from its dancers for no greater purpose than to satisfy some anticipated audience craving to see dancers pushed to their physical limits. Many of Varone’s dances look this way, but examined further that’s not the case. Of those dances I’ve seen, his pieces feature choreography that’s highly kinetic, highly expansive and fluid – without the overwhelming angularity that often plagues other pieces where the dancers’ engines are pushed to their limits.

Indeed, as the two featured dances on this program show, there’s more to Varone’s dances than non-stop movement. To the extent his choreography can be descriptively pigeon-holed, its movement looks predominantly circular, with rotating torsos that seem to carry the rest of the dancers’ bodies with them, and with their limbs (usually arms) sometimes used to punctuate a phrase. In some ways his choreography is remindful of Paul Taylor’s (and Varone has had a close relationship with that company over the years), but that’s a superficial observation. Varone’s visual statements are his own.

Joniece “JoJo” Boykins and Hollis Bartlett
in Doug Varone’s “Rise”
Photo by Joe Gato

I appreciated all four pieces in this program, although Rise is, by far, the most successful. I’ll address the opening and closing pieces first.

According to the program note, Varone secured the right to use Leonard Bernstein’s music from “West Side Story” with the specific understanding, and with the express limitation, that it would present Bernstein’s score independent from its Broadway and film musical narrative context to “expose a new way to visualize the score.” That’s a great idea. But as good as the choreography is, and it’s quite good, escaping the music’s iconic baggage is easier said than done.

There’s no narrative in Somewhere, but the music doesn’t need a narrative to bring the context for which the music was created immediately to mind in an audience’s ears. The choreography isn’t Jerome Robbins (the choreographer of the Broadway show and the first film version), nor is it Justin Peck (who choreographed the second film version), but the music is so fixed in audiences’ minds, as well as in the narrative intent for which it was composed, that this doesn’t matter. When the score for Somewhere begins with the recognizable somewhat tentative, under-the-radar whistling sounds that begin the musical, no matter what Varone presents choreographically, the viewer’s mind envisions an empty schoolyard or tenement alley filled with invisible eyes waiting for an opportunity to make something happen. When the score is the music for the original’s “rumble,” the viewer sees the rumble; when the score is the music from the musical’s “gym dance,” the viewer sees the choreography within a “gym dance”; when the score plays “Somewhere” the audience hears Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics; and when, at the dance’s end, that music is reprised and bells sound, the audience knows that someone has tragically died, not a group of random notes stripped of their meaning. Somewhere’s choreography says what its score was created to say, even without a specified narrative.

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Somewhere”
Photo by Joe Gato

And frankly, even though there’s no narrative per se in Somewhere, Varone doesn’t try very hard to divorce the music from its context. He can’t. Even Somewhere’s stage setting evokes a brick-walled playground or tenement structure.

This isn’t to say the Something is a bad dance. On the contrary, it’s quite good – filled with dancers, individual or in groups, turning and twisting and physically exclaiming, and without any dancer in the nine-dancer cast touching, or even communicating with, another. The choreography is abstract to be sure, but it’s not inconsistent with the narrative baggage that the score inescapably brings.

I don’t know whether any dance choreographed to Bernstein’s “West Side Story” music can escape its heritage, but certainly an abstract form consistent with, and even evoking, the original narrative isn’t the way to do it. Perhaps presenting the score within a different narrative context, rather than without a narrative context, is a way to do it. Or some sort of parody of the original narrative. Or, perhaps, a non-narrative piece that forces a viewer to see familiar music in a completely different context (the only example of that that comes immediately to mind is Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes for NYCB).

Hollis Bartlett and Ryan Yamauchi
in Doug Varone’s “Rise”
Photo by Joe Gato

But while Somewhere is quite good but doesn’t quite work as intended, Rise is quite good and has no similar burden to overcome. The score (“Fearful Symmetries” by John Adams) evokes nothing more than what the music compels the listener to feel. Varone translates this into enhancing, and independently explosive, kinetic motion with whatever narrative, if any, the viewer cares to give it.

Although describing his choreographic style makes it sound repetitious (primarily circular movement, generally at lightning speed, accompanied by limbs that take their instructions from the torso and occasionally thereafter act on their own to add particular punctuation or some particular significance), Varone lets his choreography evolve very skillfully here via complex and refreshingly unpredictable staging.

The program listing divides the eight company dancers into pairs. The dancers first enter the stage in these pairs (or with one member of the pair to which the other is added shortly thereafter), occasionally briefly overlapping – although these pairs are not always introduced in the order indicated in the program. The costumes (designed by Lynne Steincamp) are utilitarian, but distinguishable between each pair. There’s nothing unusual to any of this.

However, after each pair is introduced, the choreographic interest is ratcheted up. As Adams’s score evolves, with changing tempo and changing emphasis, Varone’s choreography evolves as well. Within the generalized description above, the choreography for each dancer varies both compared to others and in its own orbit depending on the nature of the music. More significantly, the stage character is incessantly changing. While it’s true that dancers move off and back onto the stage repeatedly, that’s far less important than the changing identity of the dancers in any one segment of the piece. One might enter and dance a solo; a pair might enter thereafter (with a dancer from one listed pair joining one from a different pair); these may be joined seemingly at random by another, followed by another solo or pair or trio, each multiple group sometimes matching the pairs originally listed, and sometimes not. It may sound somewhat hysterically put together, but it’s not. The choreography and staging, combined with Adams’s score, create the kind of visual excitement that’s rare in any dance, much less one where non-stop movement provides the only basis for excitement.

Aya Wilson and Daeyana Moss
in Doug Varone’s “Rise”
Photo by Joe Gato

Sometimes while watching a dance my mind wanders, and what I’m viewing brings to mind something I’ve seen and/or heard before. This is very different from my inevitable response to Somewhere. It’s a permissive comparison, not a compelled one.

As I listened to Adams’s music, which was composed in 1988, and watched Varone’s choreography, what came to mind was a vague similarity between Rise, which premiered in 1993, and Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse. The latter piece, which premiered in 2006 for the Royal Ballet (and which is now regularly presented by New York City Ballet), seems quite similar to Rise emotionally and physically. Wheeldon’s piece was choreographed to Michael Nyman’s score, “MGV (Musique à Grande Vitesse,” which was composed in 1993 to commemorate the inauguration of the north European line of the French train à grande vitesse, more commonly known as the TGV.

Both orchestral scores surge with an increasingly rapid pulse (tempered by tempo changes), and both scores suggest inescapable movement. Both pieces of choreography do the same, appropriate to their respective scores, and both suggest continuing energy release until they suddenly stop (in Wheeldon’s case, the choreography suggests that the train has stopped; in Varone’s Rise, the choreography simply stops (or appears to), without a specific reference point. Each score, and each dance, is independently brilliant.

When I saw that Rise suddenly stops similarly to the way that Danse à Grande Vitesse does, that cemented the connection in my mind … but Adams’s score and Varone’s dance continue after this false ending with something of a slowly-evolving denouement in which each dancer is reintroduced and then disappears into the stage darkness, with the last one joining the others, but raising his arm as he did (an echo of an earlier image), as if suggesting some ambiguous, albeit final, finality.

There’s no character development in Rise, because no specific, or even generalized, characterization is intended (with one possible exception). The dances are forces, and each of the eight dancers made Varone’s choreography come alive. In pairs order as listed in the program, they were: Hollis Bartlett and Ryan Yamauchi, Alex Springer and Courtney Barth, Aya Wilson and Daeyana Moss, and Jake Bone and Joneice “JoJo” Boykins. Springer was the dancer who seemed to add some sense of character to his performance, either on his own or following choreographed direction (he was also the “final” dancer in the denouement described above.

Aya Wilson and Brad Beakes in Doug Varone’s “Short Story”
Photo by Joe Gato

The other two pieces on the program, piano dances sandwiched between Somewhere and Rise, are brief, and not nearly as expansive and portentous as the other two. Short Story, which Valone created in 2001 to Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor and which was danced here by Wilson and Brad Beakes, is a story of the disintegration of a relationship over time, reduced to its essence. The story is nothing new – relationship dances, including breakup relationships peppered with futile attempts to revive it, have been done many times before. Although presented with unusual clarity here, and although Wilson and Beakes executed it well, it’s nothing new.

Nocturne, created in 2017, is a solo danced here by Varone himself. Choreographed to Chopin’s “Nocturne in E Minor, Op. 72 #1,” it’s not anything special either. The brief dance shows a berobed Valone, in dim light, circling over and over appearing to be in distress about … something. But this anguish doesn’t appear to be only about something that happened; it’s directed inward, as if in sorrow and self-blame. The audience does not know what it was that happened.

The two dances were presented without a pause between them, which is highly unusual. One just segued, with the stage briefly going dark, from one to the other. After Nocturne ended, Wilson and Beakes, and then Varone, took their bows, one following the other but without any other visual separation between them.

Maybe this presentation is something that has evolved over time since Nocturne was added to the company repertoire, and maybe, like Balanchine’s Monumentum/Movements, they’re now always presented as a paired set. Regardless, as presented, one can be seen as a continuation, years thereafter, of the other, with Varone’s Nocturne visualizing his regret at the relationship break-up displayed in Short Story, and angrily blaming himself. With the advantage of hindsight, Varone’s character in Nocturne recognizes how the acts visualized in Short Story negatively impacted the rest of his life, and how much of a loss it was.

I don’t know if this was Varone’s intent in presenting Short Story and Nocturne connected, as he does here, but it’s the only explanation I can think of that makes sense. More than that, if this was Varone’s intention, it represents a brilliant and insightful decision that takes both pieces way beyond whatever individual significance they may have had.

All these dances, and the company’s dancers, are very good, and even though I don’t think that Somewhere accomplished what it was intended to, they’re well worth seeing. Doug Varone and Dancers will be resident at the Joyce until June 5.