One National Park Is Part of the Dance at Another

By Stephen Kinzer

Tuesday, August 27, 2002


VIENNA, Va., Aug. 25 - Exuberant one moment and mournfully reflective the next, dancers who took the stage here on Saturday night played out the joy and pain of life in Kentucky. As they performed, larger-than-life images of them dancing in a cave 300 feet below Kentucky's surface were projected on three giant screens above them. This unusual dialogue of live and filmed dance was part of a celebration of Kentucky culture at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts. For the third consecutive summer it presented a new work choreographed to evoke the experience of a national park.

This one was devoted to Mammoth Cave


Doug Varone and Dancers performing onstage at Wolf Trap and on film inside Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

National Park in Kentucky, where what is said to be the world's longest cave has more than 300 miles of underground passageways. There are chambers the size of cathedrals and crevices barely big enough for a burrowing rodent.The choreographer Doug Varone took his company, Doug Varone and Dancers, into the cave for a week in May, and they made a high-definition film touching on the loneliness of isolation, the comfort of community and the danger of life in coal mines.

Onstage the dancers wore the same simple backwoods costumes they did in the film. Sometimes they mimicked their moves on film, while at others they took their on-screen images as partners. At several points they seemed to emerge from the screens or melt into them.

"The idea of this series is to bridge the gap between art and, dare I say, the rest of America," Mr. Varone said. "This audience is not here to see an evening of dance. They're getting dance, film, music and theater all woven together."

This is not an easy sell. Saturday's program included a traditional Appalachian dance company and two country singers as well as Mr. Varone's dancers. Patrons who flock to Wolf Trap for mainstream acts like B.B. King and the Beach Boys may not have known what to make of the combination. More than a few seats were empty.

"Whenever you do anything new and out of the box, there's no easy way to market it and tell people what it is, especially if it involves modern dance, which puts some people off," said Terrence D. Jones, president and chief executive officer of the Wolf Trap Foundation. "You have to explain that this isn't something they can see anywhere else. We get a combination of people interested in parks, people interested in new approaches to artistic expression and people who are just curious." Wolf Trap is on a 130-acre tract close to Washington. It opened in 1971, the same year the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened on the other side of the Potomac. The land is owned and managed by the National Park Service, and its partner here, the Wolf Trap Foundation, runs the artistic and educational programs.

In earlier years Wolf Trap sometimes seemed uncertain of its mission, and several administrators left after short terms. Mr. Jones, however, has brought both stability and a new vision since 1996.
Like other summer festivals, Wolf Trap offers a variety of entertainment ranging from symphony concerts to pop shows. But Mr. Jones arrived with a passion for commissioning new work, and he has made that a hallmark of his tenure.

Under his direction Wolf Trap has commissioned classical music, jazz, film and modern dance. Each summer three or four new works have their premieres.

"We're a national park for the performing arts," Mr. Jones said. "We need to contribute to the national repertoire."

Two summers ago Wolf Trap began a series of multimedia events called "Face of America" to celebrate national parks. Each event focuses on a single park and is presented just once.

To begin the series Mr. Jones chose Yosemite National Park, one of the country's best known. On its cliffs he filmed Project Bandaloop, an aerial dance company, performing a site-specific piece, and later used the film as a centerpiece of a Wolf Trap evening. A flutist and an American Indian dance company also performed.

Last summer's tribute was to the Virgin Islands National Park/Coral Reefs National Monument on St. John. It featured an original work choreographed by Donald Byrd and filmed on the island, along with a storyteller, jazz composed by Steve Turre, and a performance by members of the United States Olympic synchronized swimming team.

Future subjects will include the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the Grand Canyon and Shenandoah National Park.

To help keep these works alive beyond their one performance at Wolf Trap, edited versions of the films are sent to the visitors' center at each park. There are also plans to turn them into a television series.
Some of those in Saturday night's audience, like Bryant Davis, a 40-year-old English teacher, came because they were interested in the country's wild places.

"I like going to National Park Service sites," Mr. Bryant said. "It's good for the soul. You can find out about these places in various ways, and this is an especially interesting one."
Others were drawn by the marquee attraction of the performers, especially Mr. Varone's company. "There's been so much hype about him being in the cave and dancing down there that I just had to see it," said Susan Wallace, who traveled from Vermont to attend.

Fran P. Mainella, director of the National Park Service, was also in the crowd. She said events like this one helped showcase "unfound jewels" in the park system.

"As demographics change in this country, we need to reach out to visitors and tell them the story of our parks in ways that are more meaningful to them," Ms. Mainella said.

"Tonight Mammoth Cave got a new voice."