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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 92-96

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Doug Varone and Ballet Mécanique

Cheryl Tobey


Doug Varone and Dancers, Dance Center of Columbia College, October 2001.

It's hard to believe that Doug Varone and Dancers is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. When I saw them several years ago at New York's Joyce Theater, Varone's trademark combination of melting lyricism and mechanical, puppetlike movement was already apparent in the duet Home and in group pieces like Rise. His style has continued to evolve over the years, and his work has now achieved the polished, refined quality of a choreographer at the height of his career. Like his mentor, Lar Lubovitch, Varone is gifted at creating highly kinetic, fluid movement and grouping his dancers into attractive patterns. Like Paul Taylor, he is able to infuse his work with a sense of humanity. Like Bill T. Jones, he takes a small company and makes dances of epic proportion, in scope if not always in length. Varone does not shy away from grand ideas; he has tackled everything from site-specific work to television to opera.

His latest project, Ballet Mécanique, received its premiere in July and recently made its way through Chicago. Choreographed to George Antheil's groundbreaking work for 16 player pianos, it elucidates the range of this contemporary choreographer's vision. To balance out the program, Varone also presented two of his previous works: Possession (1994) and As Natural as Breathing (2000). The former is a billowy octet in three sections, full of swooping undulations punctuated by abrupt falls and mimed hand gestures. A vibrant, athletic couple is juxtaposed against a more static pair; the second couple seems bound, unable to communicate but trying to heal. The Philip Glass score becomes more percussive, and violins are introduced. Eddie Taketa and Adriane Fang lead their quartet in a series of dives to the floor. A stunning visual moment occurs between Daniel Charon and Natalie Desch. He lunges and she floats on his lap, an image straight out of Michelangelo's Pieta. In this version, however, he takes the maternal role while she becomes the child. As the piece ends I wonder, how does Varone make his dancers so human? The answer is that he has mastered the nuances of human relationships. It is [End Page 92] this seemingly esoteric ability that keeps his work free from melodrama yet gives dances like Possession a genuine poignancy.

In contrast, As Natural as Breathing makes us chuckle. The choreographer and his posse are transformed into teenagers, cavorting merrily in their Saturday night garb. An appropriate title, since everything about this piece is free and easy: the goofball "superfreak" moves, playful attitude, and jazz-pop tunes by Art Neville, among others. The dance never loses its sense of innocence, even when Varone lies down in the middle of his solo and is mounted, one at a time, by the rest of the group. Nevertheless, this is not the wild crowd; the movement retains a deliberate self-consciousness that can only be described as nerdy. These are the geeks letting loose at the school dance, not the popular kids patronizing the trendy nightclub. Here Varone succeeds in evoking the nostalgia of high school and its many antics and embarrassments—depending, of course, on which clique you were in.

Doug Varone is not the first to be inspired by the idea of the ballet mécanique, or "mechanical ballet." Francis Picabia, one of the founders of the Dada movement along with Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, sculpted a metal Ballet Mécanique out of remnants from a Model T. By 1923, Ray had become a filmmaker and was shooting an avant-garde montage (called Ballet Méchanique) in Paris with cinematographer Dudley Murphy. As is always the case, money ran short. Cubist painter Fernand Léger was brought on board as producer and director. Around the same time, composer George Antheil began work on a highly experimental score called Ballet Mécanique. It is unclear whether he or the...


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