'Ballet Mecanique'
eerily reflects N. Y. tragedy

By Hedy Weiss

Sunday, October 7, 2001


The company of
Doug Varone and Dancers performs the mechanical yet organic. "Ballet Mecanique." The company appeared at the Dance Center of Columbia College

Doug Varone's "Ballet Mecanique" would be a sensational piece of work even if the Sept. 11 cataclysm had never happened.

But the fact that the New York-based choreographer created the piece many months before the attack-and that he just happens to have lived within sight of the World Trade Center towers - now endows it with an eerie, almost dizzyingly prescient quality. This fact did

not go unnoticed by the audience at the Dance Center of Columbia College, where this weekend his company, Doug Varone and Dancers, presented the 26-minute work as part of its all-too-brief Chicago engagement.

Set to the music of American composer George Antheil - whose score of the same name caused a ruckus when it premiered in 1926 and blasted audiences with its driving, dissonant, concrete sounds, including sirens, horns and a thundering piano - Varone's "Ballet Mecanique" unfolds with a powerfully muscular, urban-industrial architectural force. Its movement patterns-at once mechanical and organic-amplify and intersect with the sonic effects, as eight dancers (dressed in Liz Prince's cobalt blue jumpsuit costumes, which resemble those of airport ramp workers), alternately spin apart and coalesce in intriguing patterns that are sometimes geometric, sometimes seemingly random.

The movement is, in turn, enhanced by the overlay of brilliantly composed, equally choreographed scenic projections by Wendall K. Harrington, the Broadway wizard who possesses an uncanny sense of the intersection of imagery, timing and locomotion.

Passing into view as the piece progresses are the silvery wheels of industry, pages of complex physics formulas, what appears to be the supporting beams of L tracks and most stunningly of all, a gridlike structure that chillingly resembles the unique skeleton of the World Trade Center tower. These shadowy visions envelop the stage, creating a world that hovers precariously between steely stability and total disintegration - a persistent theme in Varone's overall choreographic vision.

The exceptional dancers-John Beasant, Daniel Charon, Natalie Desch, Faye Driscoll, Adriane Fang, Ashley Gilbert, Larry Hahn and Eddie Taketa - manage to be both mechanistic and all too human, especially in moments of panic and disorder. And they are dramatically illuminated by the company's inspired lighting designer, David Ferri, who also plays with ideas of isolation and mass, as if he were highlighting pedestrians as they moved into and raced away form Ground Zero.

A very different mood is created in Varone's masterful 1994 work, " Possession," which is set to Philip Glass'
unusually lush and sensual Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and is loosely inspired by A. S. Byatt's best-selling novel about two pairs of century-spanning romantic relationships.

The dancers, including Varone, are frequently paired into sets of couples, and their often-uneasy, unreachable, at times tremendously magnetic attachment to each other is explored to riveting effect. Varone has a gift for creating complex simultaneous groupings of movements and alternately drawing the dancers together and jettisoning them apart, as if they were clusters of molecules. Melting movements suddenly erupt into startlingly sharp, staccato gestures, with the dancers at times turning into marionettes who briefly collapse and then jerk to life.

Wrapped in Lynne Steincamp's richly evocative ivory muslin costumes, with hints of Victorian undergarments, they also seem brutally modern, their ankles wrapped in Ace bandages as if they were all the walking wounded of love wars.

For comic relief, there was Varone's recent piece, "As Natural as Breathing, " with its funky jazz-blues music, its dance floor antics and its bubblegum-colored jersey costumes by Liz Prince. The choreographer himself-a small, compact man with a poker-faced expression-performed the work's pivotal solo. Set to a mellow sax riff, it peaked with a hilarious fantasy scene in which one lover after another either quickly slipped on top of him or bluntly snubbed him. A light moment from an artist with a unique and piercing vision, and a company of dancers who give him invaluable help in realizing it.