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Able to Leap Tall Buildings: Doug Varone and Dancers at the Joyce Theater

October 14, 2012

Erin Owens & Alex Springer in Doug Varone’s “Able to Leap Tall Building” Photo: Bill Hebert

Doug Varone and Dancers celebrated its 25th Anniversary at the Joyce Theater with two premieres and four revivals in two separate programs. I was able to attend Program B, and it was in interesting program.

Boat’s Leaving is a revival of the Bessie Award winning work created in 2006. The work opens with eight dancers standing in shadows against a sea blue background. The dance, for me, brings to mind the immigrant experience and the transience of Ellis Island as the port of entry to so many hopes and dreams.

The dance is shifting moments of movement and stillness mixed with a casual pedestrianism. There is an element of darkness, an unknown that resides right below the surface, an expectation that is mixed with both hope and fear. There are moments when everything stops and time seems suspended, allowing a voyeuristic glimpse of the struggling emotions attempting to come to light.

Boat’s Leaving is a portrait of deviance, resurrection and the refusal to give up, the refusal of surrender; it’s about exploration and patience. There is a majestic stillness to the simplicity of the movement. Everyone spacing themselves into a large rectangle around the stage, then joining into a simple line on a diagonal, backs to the audience, and then someone moves to pull someone out of line and then takes their place, this person does the same thing to someone else.

The dancers seem to be looking, but not knowing what could be found. A sense of community is established where a helping hand is given quickly to a stranger that is in need as well as comfort, of succor. The music is Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum and its minimalism enhances the stark beauty of the dance.

Erin Owens & Alex Springer in Doug Varone’s “Able to Leap Tall Building” Photo: Bill Hebert

Able to Leap Tall Buildings, which premiered this performance, left me perplexed. I’m not sure if I loved it or it just left me confused. It is a duet for Erin Owens and Alex Springer in which Mr. Varone explores unusual movements and body placement. The lighting, designed by Mr. Varone and Dan Feith, is a trapezoid of white light with the two dancers at its center. The music is an excerpt from Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister.

Mr. Varone used super hero action figure dolls in stop motion poses to create the work. But if I had not read this from the press release, I would not have ever guessed the fact. There was no super action figure visualization, even the name Able to Leap Tall Buildings, Superman’s mantra, left me confused.

Is the work extremely abstract yes, does it scream post-modernism, yes. But, there is too much literalism within the work that muddles the abstract elements, some of which are startling in their beauty and complexity.

Liz Prince’s costumes, and I am a big fan of Ms. Prince’s work, further added to my confusion for the dancers are dressed in casual urban chic, a lacy black top and black pant for Ms. Owens and Mr. Springer in a long-sleeved brown shirt, gray vest and slacks. These costumes combatted the abstraction of the work; I could find no relation of the costumes with the movement style and the stark lighting. I longed for something simpler, a colored unitard perhaps, something that did not pull from the movement and lighting.

The movement itself is pure Varone. Simplistic gesturing explored and expanded, became a language of intimacy. There were times when it seemed, though speaking the same language it was not the same dialect, hesitant touches, placement of hands, a turning away as if in misunderstanding of supposed intent.

Ms. Owens and Mr. Springer approach each other slowly, an unhurriedness evident. They seem to be searching to find a common ground, a place of comfortability for both to reside, but once found it is a place fragile in balance.

In the end Ms. Owens finds an understanding, an acceptance, even appreciation in the arms of Mr. Springer, using him as a scaffold to climb to greater heights and when she falls it is into the security of Mr. Springer’s arms.

Erin Owens & Alex Springer in Doug Varone’s “Able to Leap Tall Building” Photo: Bill Hebert

Able to Leap Tall Buildings is a work worth seeing, there is a dazzling simplicity to the complication of movement that only Doug Varone can create and navigate. It is a post-modern statement made in a landscape riddled with deconstructed works from today’s younger crop of choreographers, and it is a strong statement. But I still am not sure if I loved or it left me just confused, maybe that was Mr. Varone’s intent, to have the viewer question that which is seen.

Rise, a revival that was created in 1993 to the music of John Adams’ Fearful Symmetries, is a work of sheer delight. Where I question Able to Leap Tall Buildings I reveled in Rise.

The work is a series of duets that inter-plays and weaves across the stage. One couple leaves and another enters to replace them, the movement is continuous, a fluid blend of body and music. Dancers, in bright colors leap into the arms of one another with a sense of abandonment and trust.

Rise flows, falls and rises again in arcs of movement that are physical and possess a certain sense of joy. This is Doug Varone at his best and determined to never let you forget.

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