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Uncommon Sense

Doug Varone's compelling new "Plain Sense of Things" highlights an eclectic Limón Dance Company program at the Joyce.

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To some degree, the Limón Dance Company, recently at the Joyce for two weeks, knew what it was getting when it commissioned a dance from Doug Varone. Varone performed for a while with the group back in the late seventies and remained connected to the humanistic Limón outlook and to the fluent grace of the Limón movement style in the work he subsequently made for his own troupe. In 1997, he mounted a version of an ambitious piece he'd created for his own people on the Limón dancers, who took to the material as if it were familiar turf.

The new work -- The Plain Sense of Things, set to Philip Glass's Saxophone Quartet -- is a typical Varone dance, handsomely loose-limbed with a good command of stage patterning, more abstract than not, its subtext focused on the fraught nature of the personal relationships that nevertheless lie at the heart of human existence. I'm predisposed to Varone because his choreography isn't pompous or gimmicky, either in theme or in action, so one more manifestation of it, sound and serious-minded, is fine with me. Still, I've got to admit that business-as-usual Varone never quite holds one's interest sufficiently as abstract dance; it cries out for some indication of what it's about -- information Varone too often relegates to a program note and doesn't really make manifest in the dancing itself.

In The Plain Sense of Things, he moves beyond that state of affairs. His triumph occurs in the third of four movements, where he reveals a family -- let's assume they're mother, father, and two grown daughters -- seconded by a kind of society at large. Mother is unraveling, physically and mentally; let's call her condition Alzheimer's disease. She's terrified and enraged by her dissolution and dependence, all too understandably volatile in her responses. Her nuclear family and their larger circle try to cope, but who, in such a situation, could do enough? They're all hurtling toward a terrible end -- the isolation of death. No amount of love, no amount of support can rescue anyone involved.

Varone has found the physical metaphors to say all this exactly and piercingly, in the most ordinary terms. Each gesture might be something you did a moment ago in your living room. Whether the choreography would be so cogent without the performance of Nina Watt, a veteran dancer of genius, as the central figure is hard to say. After seeing her twice in the role, I didn't even want to know if there was a second cast.

The major novelty of the Limón season was the company's production of Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies, created for England's Ballet Rambert in 1937 and subsequently a staple in the repertory of American Ballet Theatre. Many important issues converged in this event. While Tudor is indisputably one of the century's foremost choreographers, his output was limited; there are perhaps a half-dozen masterpieces. These poignant ballets, in which the classical vocabulary is transmuted into a language of psychological expression, are rarely performed today. The classical-ballet world, from which Tudor sprang, is no longer interested in work that emphasizes emotional nuance over technical virtuosity, and so hasn't cultivated dancers competent to perform the small, precious Tudor canon persuasively. What's more, Tudor's work registers most tellingly on stages of modest proportions, now the province of modern dance, while the ranking classical companies prefer to operate on a huge, bold opera-house scale. The infrequent and ineffectual productions of Tudor in the past two decades have served only to undermine the legend of his genius.

So, Tudor being the ballet choreographer most naturally allied to the concerns and strategies of mid-century modern dance, it seemed right that a traditional modern-dance company adopt a segment of his oeuvre. Dark Elegies was the obvious choice, since it doesn't require pointe work. The Limón company seemed to be nicely suited to the undertaking, since Tudor and Limón, almost exact contemporaries, were both essentially explorers of human feeling. By all accounts, the people in charge of the Tudor legacy considered the company worthy of being the first modern-dance troupe granted permission to perform the piece. A credential-laden custodian of the Tudor repertory, Donald Mahler, was entrusted with the staging so that nothing would be lost in the translation. And yet the results, so far at least, are astonishingly disappointing.

Dark Elegies, set -- indeed, bonded -- to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), is a half-abstract depiction of a small peasant community in the aftermath of the sudden, tragic loss of all its young. It is a universal dance of wrenching anguish and eventual resignation. Effective performance of the choreography requires the impassive surface of people stunned by grief to be inflected with spasmodic bursts of gut-sprung energy suggesting the coiling and thrusting of a trapped animal. In their first performance, the Limón dancers were scrupulously careful, weightless, and bland, lacking even the force to make their moves, let alone the feeling behind them, strike home. Where they should have been viscerally expressive, they hovered between the timid and the mechanical. One can only hope, now that they've mastered a fastidious blueprint of the choreography, that they will apply themselves to fleshing it out, both physically and emotionally.

A modest blast from the past came from the reconstruction of Sophie Maslow's 1948 Champion, inspired by the Ring Lardner story of the same name. Maslow and Donald McKayle (a fixture with the Limón company, who was in the original cast) put the present version together on memory and instinct, without benefit of notation or film. The dance tells the tale of a mean-minded fellow who thrusts his way to the top of the boxing racket, remorselessly leaving beyond-the-ring violence and sorrow in his wake. Simplistic in its characterizations and its theme -- as is Lardner's tale -- the piece takes on ironic relevance today, when so many of our top dogs' personal-life failings are being exposed. Maslow doesn't come up with a dance equivalent for Lardner's striking prose style -- lean, unerring colloquial-American. Her choreographic language is more conventionally lyrical and sentimental. But she seizes and echoes the vivid graphic quality of Lardner's work, and that alone makes the piece worth keeping. I hope somebody's making a reliable record of it this time round.


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