Dancing with Doug Varone
by Nancy Bannon
I met Doug Varone when I was cast in a work he was creating for The Juilliard School where I was a student in my last year of training. I was instantly electrified by the movement. His vocabulary was athletic with diving to the floor, catching and throwing people, playing with momentum -- a traveling, twisting, reversing-on-itself series of unfinished or interrupted intentions, and yet at the same time, incorporated softly nuanced gestures, unrolling from the torso and spilling gently out from the center. The large movement felt like a flurry, yet required technical precision to bring out dynamic changes and specificity. The initiation points were constantly changing- the chest wraps open to the right with arms unfurling, the pelvis then shifting and falling to the left with feet in delayed stepping to accommodate, and finally the head swirling in yet another, opposing direction. We had energetic goals within the dancing, rather than visual ones. I felt on fire. By the way, Doug loves roller coasters.
My first project with the company was in 1991. I found myself involved with a group of wonderfully funny and bold performers who deeply inspired me. I continued performing with them and joined officially in 1993. I stayed until the end of December of 1999 but performed again in a new duet in 2004.
Making dances with Doug was a fascinating process. He usually was inspired by a piece of music and created the work to it. He often built with shocking speed, allowing very intuitive creative impulses to guide him. I enjoyed rehearsing and creating just as much as I enjoyed performing with him. The studio was charged and to decipher and inhabit the material pouring out of him was dream-like in its wordlessness. For awhile (and, maybe, still), proximity seemed to be very useful to him creatively. He is a master of organized chaos. While dancing furiously, I also usually had to complete a series of interrelated physical tasks: i.e. pull someone’s ankle to initiate their change of direction, then bump someone’s shoulder to start them spinning off, throw myself onto someone’s back to push them down and forward and on their way, and, finally, perhaps, pull someone’s leg out from under them to assist their level change. All the while, I was to be dancing wildly on my own path. He created these hugely physical works with do-or-die spacing. Doug mentioned being distracted by the space between the dancers so we were to get closer and closer together. The final version would sometimes be quite claustrophobic, with other people’s arms, legs, heads and torsos slicing the air-space I was aiming for. He built these exquisite extreme near-misses, rich with both craft and metaphor.
At the other end of the creative spectrum for Doug, were these hauntingly beautiful dramatic non-narratives. Here, he often, but not exclusively, played with that special gestural world, full of suggestions of literal-ness but not actually landing in it. He found a soft, overlapping rhythm that I felt reflected the experience of passing thoughts. The dramatic work was very effective. I was repeatedly moved by his exploration of emotional need and unavailability. It was heartbreaking for me to watch and perform.
In my experience, Doug was rather private about his stirrings, inspirations and motivations yet very generous in the creative process. He allowed me to improvise a bit, to respond by suggesting a continuation of phrase, or he would sometimes give me just verbal directions. If we were creating a duet, or even a few passing moments together, he was flexible and, I think, trusted my intuition in response to his impulses. We had a very compatible aesthetic at the time, a similar vision, and I hope this made for a fruitful artistic relationship. It served me for a very long time.
With my limited perspective, it may be hard to place Doug’s work in a proper cultural context. It was accessible, and yet introduced to many audiences this wild abandon; a kinetic virtuosity. It was satisfying musically and energetically as it swept or blasted through the space. Most of all, though, Doug’s work was emotional at a time when that was not so popular. The swirling bodies, the momentum, the spiraling and streaking across the stage, all spoke of a sense of being overcome. There was the essence of passion everywhere. This was in strong contrast to a general focus within the dance community on abstract and cool.
My time with Doug Varone and Dancers was a very, very special time in my artistic growth. I was lucky enough to truly fly around the stage. I was fortunate enough to get to express gentle and subtle emotions. I was encouraged and supported by Doug my entire time in the company and still, to this day, he supports every work I do. I would not be exploring the kind of concepts I do now in my own creative work without his influence. I am indebted and always grateful.