Assaulting the Senses and Doing the Opposite

By Anna Kisselgoff

December 13, 2001

 

Yesterday's scandal is not necessarily today's classic. The American composer George Antheil raised a ruckus with the cacophony of famed machine-age score, "Ballet Mécanique," in 1926 in Paris.

But "Ballet Mécanique," with its sirens and assembly-line percussion, is rarely heard today. Antheil, who went on to write music for movies in Hollywood, eventually disowned it.

Doug Varone and Dancers presented a new and riveting look at the score on Tuesday night when Mr. Varone's splendid modern-dance company opened a weeklong season at the Joyce Theatre with two ambitious and highly theatrical premieres.

The more fascinating was the assault on the senses that Mr. Varone has also titled "Ballet Mécanique," with Antheil's music heard on tape. He has paid tribute to the way Antheil originally conceived his project. This was to pair the music with an abstract film by Fernand Léger, made in collaboration with Man Ray and Dudley Murphy.

There was apparently no satisfactory synchronization between the music and the film. Mr. Varone, however, positions his dancers either behind Wendall K. Harrington's striking photographic projections on a transparent scrim or in front of similar black-and-white designs on the backdrop. The images move laterally or up and down, and the sense of swift motion is pervasive.

The designs suggest mathematical equations, striated forms, scaffolds and industrial landscapes. For the most part the atmosphere is oppressive and the eight dancers appear to be in a race against time. It is easy to see them as survivors of a catastrophe when the last two performers fall prone.

Mr. Varone has said in interviews that he created the piece before Sept. 11. By contrast, he did have that tragedy in mind when he choreographed the second premiere, "Approaching Something Higher," set to Brahms's Piano Trio in B (Op. 8).

Here Mr. Varone is typically both oblique and direct in choreography that has a relentless and passionate surge with a sense of community for nine dancers who scatter and cluster repeatedly. The choreography's fluidity matches the Romantic style of the music and contrasts with the jagged blocks of sound and movement in "Ballet Mécanique,"

In using such different scores, Mr. Varone evokes the old aesthetic quarrel between the ancients and the moderns. "Ballet Mécanique" was the epitome of a modernist score. Today it is a curiosity, while the Brahms lives on. Mr. Varone has translated its occasional lushness into dance images of eternal human needs. The dance's titled "Approaching Something Higher," explains his theme of transcending sorrow and seeking comfort.

There are times when "Approaching" bogs down in a similarity of episodes, and there are times when "Ballet Mécanique" seems more inventive in updating Antheil's ideas. Yet, "Approaching" is the deeper work, and there is no doubt that each piece is a challenge to both audience and dancers. As modern dance swings wildly
between the hermetic and the accessible, Mr. Varone occupies a turbulent middle.

An aesthetic quarrel by ancients and moderns

The outpouring of intense physicality in his choreography always has a subtext.
He is an experimentalist versed in trendy high-flying idioms known as contact improvisation and release techniques.

Nonetheless, substance has it over style in his work. The two premieres are examples of his fusion of intellect an emotion.

Even his choice of "Ballet Mécanique" as music is an adventure into the past. It is a revisionist look with an edge. Artists like Léger and Antheiul had a love affair with the machine, a symbol of the future. Mr. Varone's "Ballet Mécanique" does not take the space age and computer age for granted. He asks questions. The eight dancers, dressed in Liz Prince's stunning cobalt blue costumes, are not cogs in simulated machines. They are humans over-whelmed by their environment. The piece is not a tract against the internet and the urban landscape suggested by David Ferri's lighting and Mr. Harrington's projections; yet it is obvious that the love affair with the machine is over.

Daniel Charon and Adriane Fang begin the piece amid the music's metallic clangor and steady beat of the piano. Behind the whirlpool circles on the scrim before them, they prance with knees up and
elbows swinging. They are joined by John Beasant III, Faye Driscoll and Eddie Taketa. The photographic designs change, the movement becomes unpredictable (drops into split-leg push-ups) and the patterns become denser with the entrance of Ashley Gilbert, Larry Hahn and Natalie Desch.

When the scrim rises, Mr. Beassant's brief twisting solo has a violent edge as the dancers hiccup into a more frenzied pace in front of a shadowy cityscape. When the group lifts her, Ms. Desch reaches up like a drowning figure.

The desperation in such gestures and the whirlpools of the choreography and filmed images are under scored by the music's assembly-line repetition. But the dancers are not robotic and reel off to one side, buffeted by the metaphoric artifact of civilization around them. The energy is terrific, and Mr. Varone's final image of Mr. Charon and Ms. Fang running away from some disaster behind them has an apocalyptic impact. Brilliantly put together in its theatrical elements, the work is eerily nihilistic rather than a presumed ode to human perseverance.

At the other extreme there is "Care," an earlier duet full of human truth and warmth. Mr. Varone, in glasses and old sweater, is the child grown aged, perhaps retarded, and cared for by Mr. Hahn, looking weary and loving. Danced in silence on and off a sofa through simple gymnastic formations, the piece is a testament to the human spirit.

"Approaching Something Higher" expands on a similar idea on a grander scale with Mr. Varone often spinning into a solo, among dancers who spill across the stage after initial silence. Seen first in isolation, then in a circle, the cast draw us together into a community. As Brahm's music rises, the dancers sometimes break apart There are trios: Mr. Varone has said he kept the love triangle between Brahms, Schumann and Clara Schumann in mind. True, there is hidden drama amid the declamatory gestures, resistance and force in the movement and alternating, turmoil and calm. But there is also a sense of a larger canvas, a picture of human existence.