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Intensity and humanity propel choreography

Varone's 'Chapters' makes subliminal connections in dance

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By Valerie Gladstone
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2011

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NEW YORK — Seven dancers dashed across the stage, as if fleeing a storm, in the opening moments of choreographer Doug Varone’s “Chapters From a Broken Novel.’’ Tumbling to the floor, they quickly rose only to scatter, waving their arms. The tension continued to mount to the swirling sounds of composer David Van Tieghem’s score. The audience at the 92d Street Y Harkness Dance Center last month watched, transfixed, as one engrossing episode after another unfolded, the first, titled “Spilling the Contents,’’ signaling the intensity of what was to come. World Music/CRASHarts presents the work’s Boston premiere at the Institute of Contemporary Art Feb. 18-20.

Varone, 54, regularly shows his works at the Harkness, where he is artist in residence. Gray-haired, stocky, and eager to answer a question about the impetus for the piece, he explained to the crowd, “It’s an amalgam of the many types of dances that live in my brain. The vignettes are inspired by random things, which I’ve jotted down in my notebook: overheard conversations, quotes from books, movie scenes, sayings from fortune cookies, and my experiences. They’re subliminally connected.’’

Since founding his company in 1986, Varone has established his reputation with emotionally gripping works for opera, theater, film, television, and the concert stage. He counts among his choreographic credits “Orpheus and Euridice,’’ for Lincoln Center, Geoffrey Beene’s fashion runway shows, and the Patrick Swayze film “One Last Dance.’’ He has also choreographed for the Metropolitan Opera and choreographed and directed for Minnesota Opera and Washington Opera, among many others. In March 2012, he will choreograph and direct “The Barber of Seville’’ for Boston Lyric Opera.

Working in so many art forms, especially his experience in opera, has given Varone unusual perspective. It’s made him a better choreographer, he said, because he has been allowed to create in a larger format. “Opera is so defined by the libretto, and one must stay true to that,’’ he said, “so it’s quite a contrast to come back to a movement-based palette. It’s honed my sensibility.’’

It’s that sensibility that earned him the position at the Harkness. “Stylistically,’’ said Renata Celichowska, the director, “Doug represents a fascinating mix of formal classicism and organized disarray. He treats the subject matter in ‘Chapters’ metaphorically and poetically, in the process inviting you to reflect on your own life. Each chapter evokes its own mood and each one is a complete world. By the end, you feel you’ve taken a journey with seven distinct characters.’’

After the performance, Varone showed the audience what went into choreographing the piece. Standing in front of his dancers, he threw himself forward, swept his arms above his head, and spun in a circle. One dancer followed him, while the others waited for directions. He produced new movement almost nonstop, his dancers re-creating and adapting it to their bodies. For such a cerebral man, he is extraordinarily physical, a provocative duality that informs his work. At the evening’s close, people rose and cheered.

He spent a year creating “Chapters From a Broken Novel,’’ slowly building the vignettes with the dancers. “Most of them have been with me for a while,’’ Varone said on the phone recently, “and we don’t need a lot of words to understand one another. When I hire someone, I’m not so much looking for dancers as for people, real individuals. Though, of course, they are also great movers.’’

Natalie Desch joined the company 10 years ago. “Doug’s works are incredibly physically challenging,’’ she said, “so hard technically that they’ll make your lungs burst. But there’s also always a beautiful sense of exploring. He emphasizes that we’re part of a greater community as well as individuals. His focus is on the human condition and people’s humanity.’’

To increase the effectiveness of “Chapters,’’ Varone commissioned a score from Van Tieghem, who has previously collaborated with composer Steve Reich, the Talking Heads, and performance artist Laurie Anderson. “I have a strong aural sense,’’ Varone said. “Music takes my imagination to all kinds of places. I worked with David before; he’s an incredible collaborator. He kept giving me bits and pieces to use, all completely varied and unique.’’

Van Tieghem composed a score that one moment sounds like a clip from a James Bond film and the next a section of a sacred orchestral work. “I tried to match the emotional and rhythmic character of Doug’s movement,’’ he said. “His work has unusual depth and I wanted to help bring out that deeper level.’’

Varone sets high standards for himself. “I tend to avoid the obvious,’’ he said. “I’m more interested in expressing the essence of an idea rather than particulars. I try to locate that essence in movement. It’s a subtle way of crafting a story. I want it to percolate for the viewer.’’

Valerie Gladstone can be reached at vgladstone@saharaltd.com.

DOUG VARONE AND DANCERS: Chapters From a Broken Novel

Presented by World Music/CRASHarts at Institute of Contemporary Art, Feb. 18-20. Tickets: $36, $40. 617-876-4275, www.worldmusic.org

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