Jacob's Pillow '99 Dance Festival

Pillow Notes

By Suzanne Carbonneau

Pillow Notes are a series of essays commissioned from dance writers to provide the audience with a broader contest for understanding the works on the stages of Jacob's Pillow.

In his essay, “The Unsayable Said,” the eminent American poet Donald Hall makes the case for poetry as conjuring profound truths that are ultimately nameless. Poetry, Hall asserts, is different from prose precisely in its ability to evoke rather than to pin down, to operate by indirection and association, to layer thought and feeling. Moreover, Hall reminds us, poetry is as much a bodily pleasure as it is an intellectual experience. The way words sound and feel, the inner sensations they trigger as they are formed and vocalized, constitute the alchemy that turns ordinary speech into a communion with the ineffable.

Hall’s insights into the way that poetry operates can be also read as a key to understanding the work of choreographer Doug Varone. Reveling in the indefinable, in the indescribable, in the enigmatic—in that same “unsayable” quality apprehended by Hall—Varone has created a body of work that is regarded as among the most compelling of the contemporary repertory. From his earliest dances (his company was established in 1986) Varone has been interested in discovering a movement parlance that embodies thoughts, ideas, and feelings for which there are no linguistic equivalents. Beginning with Force Majeure (1991), Varone has developed a vocabulary and narrative scheme that allows his choreography to exist almost completely as subtext, excavating layer under layer under layer of meaning, substance, suggestion.

The reductive sureties of science are at odds with the mysterious ambiguities of art. And in some crucial ways, Varone’s goal in engaging in movement research is the exact opposite of those scientists who study movement in order to stipulate precise meanings for body language. Instead, Varone is interested in the ability of movement to convey larger, multiple, more resonant meanings. He is fascinated by the power of movement to embody ambiguities and mysteries, to sustain emotional complexity. When movement is chosen for its poetic qualities, meaning emerges that we understand but have no words for. Varone understands that this is the very reason that dance exists.

Over the course of his career, Varone has developed a movement language that reflects our inner worlds, our most private thoughts and moments. In his vernacular, gesture is amplified, intensified, and magnified. What looks like sign language is actually an invented vocabulary. Minutely detailed gestures seem to take on monumental significance and keen psychological insight. It is almost as though the scale of the gestures is inversely proportionate to their emotional power. In this vocabulary, even the crook of a finger provides insight into character. Varone himself has remarked that he believes that the key to movement is how we are in everyday life. A very subtle shift can be far more interesting than a huge leap. The limbs are propelled by movement that is initiated in the torso—the cradle of the heart—and it is directly from the heart that the movement ultimately seems to emanate.

Often in Varone’s work, there are distortions in quality and timing, suggesting that the nervous system is directly exposed. This invented vocabulary erases all assumptions and preconceptions of what dance should look like; it is as though the emotional aphasia gripping our times has demanded the creation of an entirely new system of communication. His choreography possesses extraordinary psychological acumen, as well as the potential for expressing anomie and heartbreak. The movement can be characterized as divinely awkward, as it often seems deliberately lumpy, tortured, and unrefined, beggaring our understanding of dance as elegant, graceful and lyrical. For example, in his extraordinary solo, on the field of destiny (1993), set to a John Adams score inspired by Walt Whitman’s experiences as a hospital orderly in the Civil War, Varone performs movement that possesses the qualities of coagulated blood. In its defiance of flow, harmony, linearity and articulation, this work is able to show something about the insanity of war as it is experienced by those whom it maims physically and psychologically. It is as acute and compelling an anti-war statement as exists in all of art.

Varone understands the virtues of significant contrast. His work provides us with a spectrum of emotion, experience and movement style, but seems to reside most comfortably at the edges. It alternates among the ecstatic—as it does in the joyful music visualization Rise (1993), the gloss on the lindy hop Let’s Dance (1996), and the giddily love-besotted Bel Canto (1998); the ruminative—in the examination of suppressed passion and uneasy connections in Home (1988), Possession (1994), In Thine Eyes (1996), and As Natural As Breathing (2000); the catastrophic—in the unflinching depiction of ostracism and brutality in Sleeping With Giants (1999), and of racism and abuse in The Bottomland (2002); the tender—in the loving constancy of an attendant for his afflicted charge in Care (1989); and the existential—in the search for meaning and the solace to be found in community in Approaching Something Higher (2001). One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is its sense of scale, veering as it does between the grandiloquent and the delicate. In its title and structure, Aperture (1994) provides insight into Varone’s interest in developing choreographic structures that mimic the abilities of a camera to sharply focus the world in a close-up, or to allow for the broader, more allusive sweep of the wide-angle lens. This theme was revisited in The Bottomland, in which performers danced with gigantic filmed versions of themselves, simultaneously depicting closeness and distance, detail and amplitude. In movement terms, Varone accomplishes this by veering between telling gestures and huge swathes of supercharged motion. He is also able to suggest contrast through the amplification of time, from fiendishly quick movement that tears through space, to sudden, frozen shards.

Varone’s vocabulary is capable of articulating thoughts that we never even knew that we had, but that we recognize immediately as authentic. The power of the work ironically resides in its nonspecificity, allowing, as it does, for complexity and nuance. Varone is interested in the interstices of experience. He recognizes that literal narrative limits what can be expressed to a particular situation or character. Over the years, he has developed a unique form of quasi-narrative, which suggests the fraught situation, but one whose borders and specifics remain enigmatic. Varone is interested in the moments of hesitation, of indecision, of the space in between words and gestures. He limns the infinite gradations of gray, leaving the black-and-white of certitude to those who see human experience in starker terms. The treacherousness of emotional life is his metier, as he delineates how we are—all of us—divided souls. In Varone’s work there is no payoff, no revelation. Ultimately, we must accept ambiguity—as we learn to do in life.

2003 Suzanne Carbonneau