Daring dances on a human scale

By Karen Campbell, Globe Correspondent


3/5/2004

"So often there's a piece that pushes your artistry to another level," says choreographer Doug Varone, "makes you believe that other things are possible. It pushes you to find what's next."

Varone found that kind of watershed piece in Ballet Mécanique, which he and his award-winning company present this weekend in their Boston debut. Featuring a provocative landscape of scenic projections by Wendell K. Harrington (who has created the projection images for such Broadway hits as Ragtime), it is set to the groundbreaking score of the same name by American iconoclast George Antheil. An ode to the machine age, the score's cataclysmic barrage of crashing pianos, percussion, sirens, and alarm bells set off a furor at its premiere in 1926. Varone brings a new perspective to the landmark piece, imbuing his Ballet Mécanique with a persistent humanism, undercutting the mechanized with the spirit of independence, the industrialized with the personal.

That abiding undercurrent of human warmth is part of what makes Varone's choreography so distinctive. While his work is some of the most physically daring and viscerally exhilarating out there, it's not just empty virtuosity. Varone is highly attuned to the nuances of human interaction, and his generally plotless works are often laced with wit and rich in emotional details. Arms that slice the air one moment can gently cradle a partner's fall the next. "His work has structural integrity, musicality, and soul, which is a good combination," says Ella Baff, director of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, where Varone's company has been featured twice over the past few years.

If Varone's work looks both daring and accessible, that may be because it's grounded in the subtleties and ambiguities of everyday reality. "I'm very struck as a dancer by what it's like to move in the moment as a human being," says Varone, 47. "It's that blurring the line between pedestrian movement and dance movement that I really find fascinating."

The fluidity and propulsive lyricism in Varone's work recall the eight years he spent with Lar Lubovich's company before forming his own group in 1986. Since then, Doug Varone & Dancers have toured the world and garnered a whopping seven Bessies (New York Dance and Performance Awards).

Ranging in age from 26 to 53 and representing a variety of shapes and sizes, the dancers are known for their muscular athleticism and unwavering commitment. It's not unusual to see them crashing to the floor as often as they soar above it, flinging themselves into one another's arms with daredevil delight.

"It's a really interesting blend of top-speed technique and human attributes," says Adriane Fang, who has danced with the company for eight years. "Doug's very appreciative of everybody's contributions, their differences, their uniqueness. We're all very much individuals, and I think he plays upon that."

In addition to Ballet Mécanique, the Boston program also features the 1988 Home, a poignant duet of marital disaffection, and a new work, Castles, set to an elegant suite of waltzes by Sergei Prokofiev and featuring a hint of a fairy tale woven into the work's little details. "It's incredibly ornate," Varone claims, "the result of five months of nitpicking." He deliberately chose music that was lushly romantic and lyrical, setting for himself the challenge of creating diversity within a constant musical form.

That sense of continual challenge is part of what drives Varone to keep choreographing works that refuse to settle for easy familiarity. He is also in demand in the world of musical theater and opera: He started his dance career wanting to be a Broadway hoofer.

Recently, he's entered the "larger playground" of the opera world and is currently choreographing the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Salome. "I just have a brain that doesn't stop," he says matter-of-factly. "I see things, I read things, I hear things -- everything inspires me. The smallest gesture I see someone do on the subway makes me imagine what's possible, and dance is my preeminent vehicle for expressing that."

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