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Doug Varone and Dancers

Navigating a New Language

by Cecly Placenti

May 19, 2007 -- BAM Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn, NY

As the twelve dancers in Doug Varone’s company ran and slid onto the stage, sat in or moved chairs, abruptly stopped or forcefully changed direction, you got the feeling that this was going to be a deeply emotional evening. As a video of these dancers, plus one actor scribbling ferociously across the walls and floor of his small white room, was projected on to a series of onstage screens, you also got the feeling that these emotions were going to be disturbing, complex, and communicated not only through movement, but through gestures and words as well.

Creating a rich emotional landscape is something choreographer Doug Varone does exceptionally well. In “Dense Terrain,” the one hour and fifteen minute work commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the audience witnesses the tense interior life of a desperate man. As each layer slowly unfolds, one gets the feeling of genius versus insanity, reminiscent of John Nash’s life as depicted in the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” As the actor in the video becomes increasingly agitated, vocal, and erratic, the dancers’ attempts at communication become more urgent, hopeless, and violent. A duet for two men hinted at an angry, sexual tension highlighted by moments of tender surrender. At other times the dancers related to one another in nurturing ways, supporting, manipulating and gently soothing each other.

As the dancers pushed and pulled large white rolling screens around the stage, separating the large space into claustrophobic boxes, you suddenly got the image of a sanitarium, the dancers learning a bizarre gesture language created by their teacher, the deranged genius. As he taught them specific gestures to correspond with each word of his made up language, the gesture phrases grew in confidence to a conversation transposed to movement. The movement itself was often like stream of consciousness writing, the dancers seeming to interrupt themselves as they followed a thought pattern in their bodies. Varone’s dancers have a distinct way of moving, bound yet extremely fluid, like a record being scratched on a turntable. The movement is propelled by the throwing of arms and legs in circular patterns and the shape of the phrases go from circular to angular in unexpected sequences. The score, written by indie rock and film composer Nathan Larson, was also derived from the language created in the dance and composed bit by bit as Varone fed him evocative images.

While the movement language and gesture phrases were interesting and emotionally provocative, I left having more questions than answers. The work unfolding on the stage could have been the manifestation of a conflicted mind, or the tortured man could have been the teacher as they explored a physical language together. I wondered about the relationship of dancers to actor and found the terrain often too dense to navigate.

On a purely emotional level, “Dense Terrain” stired up a mess of disturbing emotions, and when the lights came down on the dancers, still entrenched in their fractured communications and disassociated connections, I was able to take comfort in the relative stability of my own mind and relationships.

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