DANCE REVIEW; A Choreographer's Minimalism Reveals Its Emotional Content

By Anna Kisselgoff

June 11, 2003

 

'Two men on stage are involved in a symphony of arm movements, a relationship that seems beyond repair but still filled with deep feeling. After an intermission, eight dancers spill across the stage in a tumultuous cascade of shifting heaps and lifts that evoke struggles for domination.

The first image comes from ''Distance'' and the second from ''Of the Earth Far Below,'' the two splendid premieres that Doug Varone choreographed to Steve Reich's music for the ''Face the Music and Dance'' series at Symphony Space. The all-Reich program on Thursday featured Doug Varone and Dancers with the String Quartet of the Steve Reich Ensemble and was completed by Mr. Varone's 1997 ''Proverb.''

It may seem odd that Mr. Varone is interested in choreographing both to Berlioz (the Metropolitan Opera's ''Troyens'' last winter) and to pioneers of minimalist music like Mr. Reich. Yet this very interest in a wide range of composers may explain why his approach to minimalist-derived music differs from that of most choreographers. He has jettisoned their strict adherence to repetitive structures and modular blocs of movement and played with stillness and dynamics. This contrast makes for drama, and Mr. Varone's choreography inevitably carries an emotional undercurrent.

''Distance,'' the program's best piece, showed Mr. Varone's genius for distillation at its most profound. Mr. Reich's ''Violin Phase'' was offered as a vivid dialogue between Elizabeth Lim-Dutton, a live violinist on a platform, and a tape of her own playing.

At the start Mr. Varone stood at some distance behind Larry Hahn and then engaged him in a gestural conversation in which Mr. Hahn's rejection of Mr. Varone acquired a ''this hurts me more than it hurts you'' intensity.

Mr. Varone made Mr. Hahn place his own hand on his own heart. Later he violently placed Mr. Hahn's hand on his, Mr. Varone's, heart. When mounting frustration led Mr. Varone to retreat, Mr. Hahn looked back and touched his own heart, a symbol of feelings his character still had.

Mr. Hahn, a study in exasperation through a quietly mobile face, and Mr. Varone, a portrait in seething desperation, joined Ms. Lim-Dutton to make it all work. Mr. Varone's coup was to counter the music's jagged phrases not with a corresponding frenzy of steps but with a flow of gestures that created an emotional silence.

Mr. Reich's ''Triple Quartet,'' played onstage by Ms. Lim-Dutton, Jeanne LeBlanc, Scott Rawls and Todd Reynolds, provided the three sections for ''Of the Earth Far Below.'' The dancers in Liz Prince's black costumes tumbled onstage, regrouped, collapsed and formed trios and pairs in which power games seemed dominant. Here, Mr. Varone allowed the music to chug along with the movement and to build with its insistent folklike rhythms.

The second, quiet, section for four dancers used some gestures of restraint. Natalie Desch emerged as a victim before the third section erupted with a clangor that was matched by the full cast's dynamic outburst of circling, dives, lifts and huddles. Ms. Desch, Adriane Fang and Eddie Taketa stood out in a finely tuned cast that included John Beasant III, Daniel Charon, Stephanie Liapis, Catherine Miller and Kayvon Pourazar.

''Proverb'' was accompanied by a tape of the Steve Reich Ensemble and a choral group, Theater of Voices. It is a grave piece with a pretentious edge in its liturgical aura. Ms. Desch was a preacher type among seven dancers in white. Roma Flowers provided the striking lighting.