Varone’s Passionate Whirlwind: Emotions, Honest and Urgent

Doug Varone’s Castles is the best new dance piece I’ve seen in a long time. I watched it, with growing admiration, on three consecutive nights. It brings together, distilled and heightened, the qualities Varone is generally known for-the physical excitement, the depth of feeling, the implication of story (but what story?). And Castles perfectly suits his company, which, although diverse in look, is so united in approach (and so carefully prepared) that it really does seem to carry out his purpose like a single instrument.

The music for Castles is Prokofiev’s throbbing Waltz Suite, Op. 110, music that back in 1973 Jerome Robbins used, to lesser effect, for a ballet called An Evening’s Waltzes , which didn’t stay long in City Ballet’s repertory. At the time, the score came in for a share of the blame-critics found its discordant romanticism off-putting, and as I vaguely remember the piece, Robbins worked against the nature of the music rather than with it. But Prokofiev’s conflicting impulses are perfectly suited to Varone’s, whose work is consistently, almost obsessively, devoted to reconciling aggression and tenderness. Varone doesn’t resist the percussive, overheated climaxes of the music; he rushes at them with a kind of manic joy-this is waltz music danced the way a whirlwind would dance it.

At the start, eight thin shafts of light from above pinpoint the eight dancers. They’re wearing costumes by Liz Prince that at first seem awkward-tunics casually falling over pants or skirts or leg-warmers; a kind of Greek or classical palette-variations on Attic red and pale gray or cream. The costumes move, though, and that’s what matters in this piece. Projected on the back wall are luminous blurred images of gates or other ornamentations, but they’re more suggestive than literal. It’s the dancing that counts.

Almost at once, the full company explodes into a Varone specialty: They fling themselves at each other and around each other and past each other. Everything is sudden, galvanic, dangerous. But as two dancers seem to be on a collision course, one may reach out a hand and gently divert the other’s trajectory. Small gestures have big impact as they personalize the group’s clangorous dynamic.

You begin to sense that the color coding of the costumes has a point: Are there two rival camps here, one dominated by red, the other by gray? The first duet is between two men-John Beasant III and Daniel Charon. It’s a love duet-maybe. It’s also two guys confronting each other. It’s emotional but not sexual. Not surprisingly, the music reminds you of Prokofiev’s famous Romeo and Juliet score-are these two men Mercutio and Tybalt? Romeo and Benvolio? Are they being playful rather than intimate? Are they angry, or loving, or angry because loving? Varone isn’t going to tell us.

Later there’s another duet, this one for a girl and a boy-the striking blond Natalie Desch and the dark, sensuous Kayvon Pourazar. She’s almost all in red, he’s almost all in gray. She plunges into a deep supported arabesque-the most balletic moment in the piece-but mostly they’re on the floor, lying side by side or on each other or inching themselves forward. Much of the music comes from Prokofiev’s Cinderella score, but the references seem to be to Capulets and Montagues, not to ugly stepsisters. (And if these two are indeed Romeo and Juliet, what a relief to have them down on the ground after all those swooning lifts in Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet -they’re enough to make you air-sick.)

The electric Adriane Fang hurls herself on, dominating the stage with her rattlesnake-quick movements and gestures. Then the whole company is back, surging, clashing, plummeting to the ground. Many choreographers do these things, of course. What makes Varone different is that everything seems felt, emotionally true, earned. You might think that too much is going on, or that he repeats himself, but never that he’s fakey or empty or showy.

Castles appeared on both the programs Varone brought to the Joyce. Also on both was a 1993 piece for four couples, Rise , that works perfectly well but is nowhere near at the level of the later work. He also showed Of the Earth Far Below , which premiered at Symphony Space last year and which, given its Steve Reich score, is appropriately more propulsive and less nuanced than Castles . Also at the Joyce was The Bottomland , or at least the first half of it-the entire two-part work was shown at the tiny Ohio Theater about a year ago.

This remarkable work, you may remember, is set in Kentucky’s Appalachia, with giant films of the dancers outside the Mammoth Caves serving as backdrop and echo of what’s happening on the stage. The music is a group of moving country songs, sung by Patty Loveless. The costumes, again by Liz Prince, could have come straight from Sears Roebuck catalogs. This is a piece about a community and a way of life, but it’s also a series of individual, personal crises. Daniel Charon is the fiery preacher (“Daniel Prayed”); Natalie Desch and Larry Hahn are a couple unable to fall completely apart (“Someone I Used to Know”); John Beasant III and Faye Driscoll are an inarticulate couple in torment as they try to express their feelings for each other (“Raging Fire”); a grieving Nina Watt is comforted by the neighbor women (“Sorrowful Angels”). The grimness of the life these people lead is underlined by the final song-“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”; their humanity is revealed through their emotional intensity and their stubborn resistance to the hand life has dealt them.

The extraordinary Larry Hahn retired recently from the company after 15 years. Luckily, he’s back as a guest artist, since his massive presence and implacable integrity seem central to The Bottomland . Nina Watt-for 30 years a crucial figure in the José Limon company, from which Doug Varone himself emerged-is also a guest, and she, too, would be irreplaceable in The Bottomland . Several years ago, Varone made a brief duet for Watt and himself which they performed again this season- Short Story , to Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor. This sad vision of two people trapped by love crystallizes Varone’s talent for us: his startling use of lightning gesture to punctuate stretches of stillness, his deep sensitivity to the anguish of human relationships. He bares himself to us, as do his dances and dancers, not in emotional exhibitionism but in honesty and generosity.

What a distance from the work of Bill T. Jones! The program I saw at B.A.M. of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company opened with a new work called Chaconne , to Bach. Exhibitionism? Narcissism? Take your pick. Imagine a solo by a dancer whose strength is seriously diminished and yet who postured and gestured with obvious self-satisfaction through what seemed an eternity. Oh, yes-there was also an almost total absence of steps. Some years ago, Arlene Croce created a scandal by refusing to attend a Jones special about the terminally ill, which she labeled “victim art.” Watching Chaconne , I could only think, “Lucky Arlene.”

Jones’ Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger was a masterpiece by comparison, one’s attention held at first by Flannery O’Connor’s superb story (tactfully pruned, and read with affecting simplicity by Susan Sarandon and Jones himself). But the dance accompaniment provided some interest, too. Pairing various combinations-men, women; black, white; short, tall-to portray the story’s grandfather and little boy, Jones deliteralized the narrative, and managed to suggest the emotional content of the disturbing yet transfiguring tale. When the story was over, the dancers stayed on, to further distill the experience into “pure” dance, reflecting motifs that had figured in the narrative part of the work. Jones’s vocabulary proved less effective on its own, without the mediation of Flannery O’Connor’s words-he just doesn’t have enough dance stuff to keep you going for long-but at least it’s watchable. After Chaconne , I was grateful for that modest blessing.

The meritriciousness of most of what Bill T. Jones has to offer-and of so much else that makes up the New, Newer and Newest Waves at B.A.M.-points up the virtues of an artist like Doug Varone: honesty and passion, the missing links in so much of dance today.