Down Home Doin's Through Mixed Media

By Anna Kisselgoff

December 9, 2001

 

''The Bottomland,'' Doug Varone's highly imaginative new multimedia piece celebrates a national park in Kentucky with an oblique tale, the stuff of which country music is made.

Fragment by fragment, Mr. Varone creates a sense of place at the Ohio Theater, where the two-part work commissioned by Wolf Trap Park's Face of America series about national parks will be performed through Dec. 22.

The first half includes a film of the company, Doug Varone and Dancers, inside the caverns of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

Love gone wrong seems hardly the theme in this section, as the filmed dancers in their plain Appalachian clothes interact with their live selves.

Nonetheless a tape by the country singer Patty Loveless hints at the domestic drama to come. The seeds of Part 2 are imbedded in the first half, in the way that the dancers are defined through spatial composition. An image of a love triangle flashes by with subliminal fleetness.

By the end of the performance on Thursday night at the theater (66 Wooster Street, between Broome and Spring Streets, in SoHo) a story had been told. An abusive husband gangs up with fellow rednecks on an Asian couple, the outsiders in a rural community. Most of his time is spent tormenting his wife as he makes advances to the town tease, who can't make up her mind about him. A fire-and-brimstone evangelist tries his best to set things right.

The tale may not be new, but Mr. Varone fills the telling with surprises, not the least of which is his use of movement in a strong theatrical setting.

Each component works on its own level. The dancing, although not continuous, can erupt with violence and intricacy, then subside into occasional calm. Gaétan Leboeuf's original score for Part 2 has its own drama. The video by Mr. Varone can teach city slickers something about the huge expanse that nature can cut through rock with underground rivers. When the dancers move a set of dollhouses by Allen Moyer, the gabled props suggest both a town and the way a community can close in upon itself.

Mr. Varone, 46, has emerged in the last decade as one of the few modern-dance choreographers of his generation still able to convey depth of emotion through movement. There is a strong pure-dance aspect to his highly physical and fluid choreography. But even the most plotless of his works have an emotional undercurrent. He has done a remarkable job here of coaching his dancers, down to every dour, pained or joyful facial expression and frozen posture.

Recently he has become increasingly interested in storytelling indirectly conveyed through dance. ''The Bottomland'' nonetheless has some antecedents in ''Momentary Order,'' a wonderful work that he created about a Maine community of French-Canadian descent that was seen at the Ohio Theater in 1992. That piece was more stirring than ''The Bottomland,'' possibly because Mr. Varone and his company were immersed in that community in Lewistone, Me., during a seven-month residency. In that piece, as in the new one, Larry Hahn offered a brilliantly complex portrayal with his weather-beaten persona as a heavyset protagonist whose feelings cannot be contained. In both productions the community is dressed in plain garb (this time by Liz Prince).

The first part of ''The Bottomland'' was seen without Part 2 in August at Wolf Trap Park in Vienna, Va., near Washington. The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts commissioned Mr. Varone for the third annual event intended to celebrate a national park (Yosemite in 2000, Virgin Islands National Park in 2001).

''Songs That Tell a Story,'' the first half, has all the earmarks of a work done on assignment, and there is something familiar about dancers dancing the same thing both live and on film or picking up motifs transferred from one medium to another. At the same time the huge size of the caves and Mr. Varone's play with perspective on film create a wondrous space.

Essentially the dancers look like dancers in Part 1, although there are vignettes that explain the action in Part 2. Mr. Hahn and Natalie Desch, both outstanding in the subtlety of their acting, do some country dancing in the cave on film. Only later is there a hint that Nina Watt will play a major role as the brutalized wife who befriends the Asian couple who teach her to use chopsticks, Adriane Fang and Eddie Taketa.

None of this is as simple as it sounds, and there is a witty duet between Faye Driscoll and John Beasant III set to the song ''Raging Fire.'' Performed on chairs, the duet is filled with grimaces with the dancers both on film and live as they express their desires. In ''As Told at Night, When the Air Is a Different Color,'' the second half, Mr. Beasant is at first indifferent to Catherine Miller as he mourns Ms. Driscoll, who has left him.

There is no humor, however, in the performance of the suffering Ms. Watt, long a great dancer in the José Limón company, or even in the exaggerated solos of Daniel Charon as the preacher. By the end of the work, lighted by Jane Cox, Mr. Varone has brilliantly brought his dramatic tension to a peak. The cumulative impact is unmistakable.

 

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