It’s always fascinating—and sometimes a little disquieting—when two first-rate critics violently disagree. A jarring example: the response to Doug Varone’s Dense Terrain last week at B.A.M.
Alastair Macaulay (The Times) calls it a “numbingly tedious and relentlessly earnest show…. Not one moment here is fresh.” And more of the same.
Tobi Tobias (Bloomberg) acclaims Varone’s “[m]asterly ability to blend dance, music, video and set design with an idea about the human predicament: the daunting challenge of not merely speaking, but of making oneself understood.”
I admire these writers and am usually in agreement with both of them. But not this time out. Although Dense Terrain seems to me a flawed work, I was utterly gripped by it, as I always am by what Mr. Varone does. This is his first season at B.A.M. (and the 20th anniversary of his company), and he’s made a highly ambitious piece, employing all the impedimenta—film projections, sliding panels, voice-overs—that have become a boring symptom of so much modern dance. And yet, like all his work, it’s alive, exciting, moving. To hell with the oversize actor who’s intoning and shrilling and scribbling an invented language up on the big screen and, later, on the stage itself. It’s the dance invention that counts, and the dancers’ deep connection with each other.
Varone dancers are kinetically thrilling. They go all the way, both when they’re in vivid, rushing motion and when they’re in deep stillness. In full flow, they crash across the stage, brushing against each other as they pass, jumping up to carom off each other, every moment unexpected and—yes—fresh. As a group, they’re like molecules, breaking up and reforming, yet never randomly—I always sense intelligent design.
But other choreographers create kinetic excitement. What makes Varone so special is the marriage between pure dance thrill and profound human interaction. In two climactic duets, we recognize life as we know it, or sense it. The first is between two men—angry, clashing, frustrated at their inability to connect in any way other than a violent and barren kiss. The second is between a man and a woman—the blond, beautiful Natalie Desch and the affecting Daniel Charon—who lie together on the floor, barely in motion, cupping each other’s heads, wrapping a leg over a body, lifting a hand to a face, bound up in their mutual tenderness: a beautiful and moving passage of achieved intimacy as a corrective to the anxieties and frustrations of all that’s come before.
How can educated and sophisticated viewers react so differently to a work of art? Is it just Kulture Klash? No, since most of the time there’s no Klash at all. On the occasions when we disagree, it may be because we’re looking for different things in dance. That’s why some of us prefer Paul Taylor to Merce Cunningham, say: It’s not a rejection of, or blindness to, one man’s genius in favor of the other’s; it’s a matter of temperament. From the first moment, some years ago, when I first encountered Doug Varone, I knew he was for me.