The Philadelphia Inquirer

Thursday, January 7, 1999


'A choreographer's choreographer'

The lavishly praised Doug Varone is returning with his dancers, who move like people possessed, to open a series at the Annenberg Center.

By Elizabeth Zimmer

He's the best choreographer in the world," gushed one savvy producer recently, as Doug Varone showed two new works to an invited audience in a New York performing space.

Returning to Philadelphia under the sponsorship of Dance Affiliates and the University of Pennsylvania. Doug Varone and Dancers open Dance Celebration/Next Move Festival's new Prince series of first-rate emerging modern ensembles Jan. 12-14 at the Annenberg Center's relatively intimate Harold Prince Theatre

Company director Varone, though essentially a modest sort, richly deserves the theater's accidentally royal appellation. "We consider him a choreographer's choreographer," says Dance Affiliate artistic director F. Randolph Swartz. "The dance community comes out in droves."

Varone's dancers move like people possessed, throwing their bodies through space, twisting their torsos, but always engaged primarily with one another. His choreography "pulls at the heart," observes critic Deborah Jowitt; "the dancers seem so valiant, so bemused, so tender with one another, so lost. "In addition to choreographing for his own troupe, Varone has been making dances for the Limon Dance Company (which he joined after graduating from SUNY Purchase in 1978) and for a group of Japanese modern dancers who will premiere Varone's Need on Saturday at New York's Japan Society. The 41-year-old artist, a native of Syosset, N.Y., performed with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company for eight years before forming his own group in 1986. Lately, he has been putting in 16-hour days, racing around Manhattan when he's not racing around the world.

"The thing that's great about Randy Swartz," Varone said in a dawn phone interview before he headed out to work on the Limon commission, "is that he invests over time in companies. We've come of age at a time when dance presenting has become a little less generous, but this is the third time he's brought us." Varone choreographed Triumph of Love, which closed recently at the Walnut Street Theater. "It's a very interesting thing," he comments. "I worked on the show on Broadway and in Philly, choreographed it, musical-staged everything - and nowhere in the Philly reviews was I ever mentioned. In the theater world, people don't understand what a choreographer is or what he does. On my company, people understand that I choreograph every gesture and reaction on a musical note, but that's not recognized as choreography in the musical theater."

At the Annenberg Center, his troupe will perform the hilarious Bel Canto, which sends up the overwrought histrionics of opera and classical ballet to the music of Bellini; and Possession, a work for four pairs of fraught lovers, whose score is Phillip Glass' Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. Then the troupe will make a 180-degree turn and show excerpts from Let's Dance, a charming suite to popular tunes.

"It was an experiment for me in finding my way back to material I grew up with, based in social dance and musical theater," says Varone. "Let's Dance takes knowledge from film and my tap classes and bad productions of Hello Dolly, and figures out how to weave it together with the craft and vocabulary that mark my evolution in contemporary dance."
Varone grew up in suburban Long Island in the Million Dollar Movie era and would "run home and watch Singin' in the Rain one day, Kiss Me Kate the next. By the time I was 10, I could dance Singin' in the Rain." He thought he wanted a Broadway career, and in 1997, with Triumph of Love, he finally got his shot. (He had previously worked on the Off-Broadway show America Dreaming.)

While his remarkable diverse choreography can jolt you from laughter to tears, it's Varone and his seven remarkably diverse dancers who deliver the goods. They're unusual in several respects, including their range in age (the youngest, Adriane Fang, is 26; the oldest, Larry Hahn, is 48), size (from tiny Nancy Bannon to the Amazonian Gwen Welliver), and ethnic backgrounds, which include Filipina Merceditas Manago, Chinese American Fang, and Japanese American Eddie Taketa. Varone and several of his dancers have been recipients of Bessie Awards, given annually to shining lights of New York downtown dance. As company members, they're steadfast - unusual in a chronically underpaid, highly migratory profession. And they're all terrific teachers.

"The destination of choice for most modern dancers is Doug Varone," says the anonymous "Post-Modern Mole" in a new journal, The Dance Insider. "When I ask why, it's often because young dancers had very positive experiences learning from him and his company while in college. Varone's dances seem to have easy, nonthreatening appeal."
Alas, few new arrivals can get in the door, because, as the Mole note, "his dancers say with him a long time."
It bewilders Varone when people say they don't get modern dance. "I want them to trust their imagination. I'm always amazed to find how few people do. I love doing post-performance discussions because people will stay. They'll say, 'I don't understand.' People aren't used to letting themselves discover any more. That's why dance is so foreign for so many people. In theater, they use words, and you can at least follow that.

"I ask them, 'What did you see?' They explain the work to me, and as they explain it, their insight becomes very, very clear. Details will be shared. I'll say 'So, what's the problem?'

"It's always thrilling. When you see abstract art for the first time, you have an intense reaction. It's not about understanding it, it's about appreciating it."

The company will hold "Q&A's" with the audience nightly during Varone's run.