Newsday - New York City

Something Special to Say

Digging deep into emotion, Doug Varone creates five new dances guaranteed to stimulate the imagination

By Valerie Gladstone

January 2, 2000

Late on a cold afternoon, in the midst of the holiday season, Doug Varone invited members of his board and some friends to a preview of his one-week engagement that begins Tuesday at the Joyce Theater. It was one of those days when most people were out shopping or preparing for office parties. But in the studio in lower Manhattan, you wouldn't have guessed anyone had other obligations if it weren't for the shopping bags that crowded the spectators, many of whom had to fight for seating space on the floor.

The electricity in the room could have lit the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Modern dance aficionados always knew 43-year-old Varone, whose first foray into the field consisted ot tap dancing to '60s musicals in the basement of his parents' Syosset home, had something special to say. First, he proved it as a member of the José Limón and Lar Lubovitch companies and then more compellingly once he established Doug Varone and Dancers, his nine-member troupe in 1986.

But only recently has the variety and depth of his talent become known to a wide public. "I think the work that we do," Varone says, "opens a floodgate to investigating yourself. I like the fact that when people walk out of the theater after our concerts, whether they know it or not they've been emotionally affected. I believe dance can change lives."

That's why the studio was jammed.

Looking lithe and limber in black sweatpants and sweatshirt, Varone, his hair now tinged with gray, stepped forward to introduce each piece. In the last year he's choreographed five new dances, an extraordinary number, especially when you take into account that in this perod of time he also choreographed Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims" for the New York City Opera, "Transatlantic" for the Minesota Opera and recently started working on Patrick Swayze's new film, "Without a Word," and the musical "Night Governess," scheduled to premier at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., in the spring. "I'm in a very fertile place," Varone says, smiling. "I'm on a roll."

Varone's "Agora," set to a commissioned score by Julia Wolfe, proves his words. Named for the Greek marketplaces where communal discussions took place, the piece gives him an opportunity to evoke the tensions and insights integral to intellectual and spiritual growth. It starts in silence -- a long silence -- with six dancers standing motionless in a square. Then comes a crackling sound, like static, and they move, at first pressing insistently against each other and then dispersing in pairs or alone. Over the next few minutes they wrangle in a variety of combinations, miss connections and often fall to the floor where they fold together and separate and fold again, until they begin to relax in intimacy. They end in tentative accord.

What's striking about "Agora" is that Varone's wonderfully physical dancers move much less than usual. However, gestures count for more -- the influence of his experience in theater and opera, where detail is crucial. "I cut down on a lot of the energy that we use," he says. "In those first minutes of silence, I want the audience to feel time and shape and space and slowly be drawn into the dialogues. It was one of those dances that when you're making it, you know you want to break new ground, but you're not sure whether what's in front of you is a new step or just bad choreography." He laughed nervously. "But I'm really happy with it; it was a great challenge."

In the past, Varone has contrasted stillness with high-energy physicality but never to the extent he does in "Agora," where he stripped away everything irrelevant to his theme. As a deeply musical choreographer, he usually begins each piece with a score in mind. Schubert, John Adams, Chopin, Philip Glass, George Gershwin (sung by Janis Jopin) are among the composers he has employed. However, since he had to wait for the score for "Agora," his only choice was to start without music "It made me realize how much my imagination is driven by music," he says. "I imagine energy and visual changes, almost painterly aspects of music when I choreograph. And all of a sudden it wasn't there. Consequently, there's a lot of quiet in the work."

Varone depends on his dancers' artistry and maturity to convey his observations on life. They range in age from 27 to 47, a much older group than most in dance. "It makes sense for the work I do, which is often about community," he says. "The diversity within, not only of race but age, makes it look like there is an ensemble of real people on the stage. They are easily recognizable to people who don't see much dance." It may explain why Varone's troupe, which tours extensively, is popular throughout the country.

"Every time we get together," Varone says, "my dancers know something new and different is going to happen. They make me want to make dances for them. They are a great part of the process." The challenge keeps them around. Larry Hahn came to the company in 1988, Gwen Welliver in 1991, Nancy Bannon in 1993 and Eddie Taketa in 1994. Daniel Charon, Adriane Fang, Keith Johnson and Merceditas Mañago are relatively new.

Varone is not a dictatorial choreographer. "He works with who you are as an individual," says Hahn. "When he gives us material, we have the liberty to do it our own way." Still, Welliver was surprised a few months ago when Varone invited her to moe into the sudio and improvise with him. Varone turned on Chopin's Polonaise, Opus 44, and a video camera, and they began to dance -- "a thrilling experience you can only get from working with someone a long time and know how to read their minds," he says.

Only when they stopped did Varone let her know they'd just made the first and final version of a dance. That was it. No follow-up changes, no alterations. It premieres at the Joyce as "Polonaise #44." "We were playful," Welliver says, "relaxed inside the rigor. But Doug has changed. He always looked for new ways of moving, and a piece would evolve. These new works seemed to come all of a sudden out of nowhere."

While Varone can be funny, as in "Bel Canto," choreographed in 1998 to selections from Bellini's "Norma," and romantic, as in the new "Tomorrow," set to Belle Epoque love songs by Reynaldo Hahn, he often tackles serious themes. "Sleeping With Giants," with a score by Michael Nyman, couldn't be more so. "It is," Varone says, " a very brutal work. The starting point was feeling by body change and watching the aging process take over. Dancing for us is an almost Zen-like experience, and to know you'll no longer have that is very disturbing."

Drawing imagery from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies" -- stories that deal with societies that destroy their own -- he envisioned the journey of a man who moves slower than the world around him and can't keep up. "It's not me," he says. "My work is rarely autobiographical."

As he becomes more in demand for films, theater and opera and his troupe gains wider attention, Varone is increasingly consumed by the creative process and less involved in the physical. Nonetheless, by the time the afternoon was over, he had danced more expressively than ever before.