Works With a New Ring In the Wake of Sept. 11

By Jennifer Dunning

December 9, 2001


Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Members of Doug Varone's company performing his new "Ballet Mécanique."


"I'd kind of rather not go there," Doug Varone said when asked about the reported impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on dances that he will present at the Joyce Theater this week. Living on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, Mr. Varone finds the sky's new emptiness to the south to be "very present." Choreographers tend to be reluctant to interpret dances for their audiences. But Sept. 11 loomed as a spectral presence in the conversation.


Mr. Varone, 45, talked of two new works on the Joyce program. One is "Ballet Mécanique," set to George Antheil's iconoclastic 1926 score of the same name. Mr. Varone knew the score and its history and at one point felt he might pay homage to it in his new dance.

An evocation of the machine age, the music was written for eight player pianos, eight grand pianos and the sounds of airplane propellers, sirens and ringing telephones. "It's very driving in certain places," Mr. Varone said. "It has a melodic line, a familiar theme that constantly reissues itself. But it has a great deal of dissonance. I started out trying to make an abstract work to this abstract score. But I don't think there is ever any way I could make an abstract dance.

"The odd thing about it is that there is a sense of annihilation in that work, and a sense of catastrophe."

Mr. Varone was not the only one to feel that, at least after Sept. 11. The piece had its premiere at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, Calif., in July. Then, several weeks after the attack, his company performed it at Columbia College in Chicago. "The response to it was just as strong, but people took the imagery to heart as something that was incredibly reflective of everything we had just gone through," Mr. Varone said.

Two people run in place at the end, with film images passing by quickly. "It's been a dream of mine to make a dance that has a visceral sensibility almost like film. But a lot of the images are of steel beams and many people said they looked like the World Trade Center." Suddenly the piece had taken on "all this different weight."

Mr. Varone described "Approaching Something Higher," a work set to Brahms that will have its world premiere at the Joyce, as a big glorious dance. "When I look at it and listen to the structure of the score, I see the piece kind of rising slowly," he said.

He and his dancers rehearsed on Sept. 10, then went back into rehearsal on Sept. 12. "I felt it was important for us to be together, as a family," Mr. Varone said. "We spent a lot of time just sitting and listening to the radio. We worked a little bit. It was nice to touch each other again. To be physical.

I went through a period of time trying to figure out the relevancy of making art. And when I felt like I had found the answer and the strength, we went back to working on the Brahms."