Review: ‘Doug Varone and Dancers’ at the Prince Theater

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Congratulations are in order! Doug Varone and Dancers (a contemporary/modern dance company) is celebrating its 30th anniversary! Doug Varone’s creativity has stood the test of time. In top form, Doug Varone and Dancers presented an engaging evening of dances and discussion of their art on Thursday, January 19, 2017 in the NextMove Dance series at the Prince Theater.

Doug Varone and Dancers performing 'ReComposed.' Photo by Grant Halverson.

Doug Varone and Dancers performing ‘ReComposed.’ Photo by Grant Halverson.

Doug Varone, the artistic director and choreographer, is the only remaining member of the original company. He has retired from performing onstage, but his young dancers displayed refreshing energy and red-hot intensity in all three of his dances, which included two Philadelphia premieres. The current company includes: Hollis Bartlett, Jake Bone, Xan Burley, Whitney Dufrene, Alex Springer, Colin Stilwell, Hsiao-Jou Tang, Aya Wilson and Ryan Yamauchi.

Before the show, Varone briefly explained the works that were to be performed to the audience. After the show, I participated in a post-performance chat with Varone and the company. (There will also be a post-performance chat after the Saturday matinee). I was impressed by the intricate fusion of visual arts, lighting, literature and dance in this production. The company’s execution of the dances is flawless and their production values are high. Furthermore, I was delighted by their generosity and commitment to dance education by spending time to answer audience questions after performing a physically demanding program.

The dances, ReComposed, Folded and Possession, were very distinct, yet in each one, the choreography reflected the musical scores that accompanied them. Although the choreography is mostly abstract, without a narrative, it is complex in its movement vocabulary and rich in emotion and artistic content.

My favorite of the three was Possession. Possession was first choreographed in 1994 and is a reconstruction of the original choreography to commemorate their 30th anniversary. In the discussion after the show, Varone said that he did not make many changes to Possession, even though he re-examines and re-evaluates every dance that he revives. He does this to ensure that it works with the dancers currently in the company, and that it represents his up-to-date vision and choreographic style.

Possession is set to “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” by Philip Glass, and is romantic and lyrical. The dancers have the opportunity in Possession to recreate the intimate relationships explored in the novel of the same name by A.S. Byatt. In Possession they relate to each other in couples and groups through more sustained movements, lifts, and turns on relevé, (on the balls of their feet). There are variations in tempo, some held poses, mirroring, and a symmetry (dancers doing the same movement and/or arranged spatially in symmetry) that does not happen in the other two dances.

Alex Springer and Xan Burley performing 'Possession.' Photo by Erin Baiano.

Alex Springer and Xan Burley performing ‘Possession.’ Photo by Erin Baiano.

Recomposed and Folded are set to contemporary scores by the husband-and-wife team Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The music in both is dissonant, and in some parts relentlessly so. Gordon’s “Dystopia,” in particular, had no discernible melody, traditional structure or cadence. That said, ReComposed is an interesting dance that combines the visual arts, music and dance in a seamless fashion. The dance was inspired by the pastel paintings of abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. Her paintings are huge swirls and scribbles of color. Varone runs with this image in ReComposed and creates a dance that has lots of fast and percussive movements and dancers flinging themselves up and down and around the stage. As in all three dances there are level changes—from lying on the floor, to sitting/kneeling, standing and jumping in the air. The dancers use the entire stage and the effect is quite epic.

The costumes (designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) and lighting (designed by Robert Wierzel) for this piece reflect the multi-colored pastel paintings. The lights change from white, to pink, orange, green, blue and gray, throughout the dance. The dancers wear black unitards with a stripe of one color—green, orange, yellow, red and blue. At first they also have netting over the unitards, which makes their costumes look gray and muted. Towards the end, they remove the netting (offstage) and the black and colored stripes are clear and pure. This act reminded me of peeling the paper labels off of soft pastels in order to fully make use of them when drawing on paper.

Folded is a duet that is danced by two dancers of the same sex. In the performance I saw it was performed by two women, Xan Burley and Hsiao-Jou Tang. There are two male dancers, Hollis Bartlett and Alex Springer, who alternate performing Folded. This dance is intense and there are many sharp and unconventional movements and gestures that depict a troubled relationship. The lighting design by David Grill is dramatic and spectacular. An eerie mist looks like the tops of mountains, and the stage floor is mottled with off-white light. In Folded the women try to get closer but it never lasts. All parts of the body are expertly used in this dance—feet, hands, legs, torso, knees, and arms—in order to connect and repel. It ends with them shaking their heads frantically to a deafening final chord in the music.

Join Doug Varone and Dancers for a program of dances that engage mind, heart and soul. Doug Varone’s choreography for this show puts pastel paintings and literature into motion, and translates human feelings through movement. Celebrate thirty years of contemporary dance with this lively company whose interpretations remain fresh and spontaneous.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

Doug Varone and Dancers performs through January 22, 2017 at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 422-4580, or purchase them online.

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