Doug Varone, a postmodern choreographer for the intelligentsia, has been diversifying lately. Though his main focus remains the concert stage -- his company greeted the new century with a week's run at the Joyce -- Varone has pursued freelance gigs in musical theater, opera, and the movies. In recent interviews, he says that his adventures on this outlying turf have rekindled his interest in narrative. That should be all to the good, since explicitness is something even his finest dances could use more of. A typical Varone piece is all ravishing motion -- at once gutsy and fluid, full of thrilling risks yet natural-looking -- the point of which remains obscure. A full program of the stuff exhausts the attention. After fifteen glorious minutes, the watcher, glutted, starts craving bones on which to hang this magnificent flesh. Once the senses are sated, the mind demands a focal point of character, of situation, even of story.
To create Sleeping With Giants, the most ambitious of the five works new to New York in the Joyce engagement, Varone turned to literature, specifically Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Here he found searing incarnations of his theme: the impulse of a social group to turn on its weakest member -- single him out, expel him from the sheltering matrix of the society, savage him in escalating rage, then destroy him utterly. Apparently, the young-middle-aged Varone, who has been witnessing his own forces as a performer diminish, conceived the main character in Giants as a person faltering because of age. The vulnerability can be interpreted more widely, to apply to any kind of marginalizing condition.
Unfortunately, the idea remains aloof from the actual dancing. The two elements stubbornly refuse to mesh. At some points, the choreography is almost literal, like mime; elsewhere, it's so vaguely abstract it might easily belong to any other Varone piece. With intent performances from dedicated dancers, a here-comes-trouble score by Michael Nyman, chic-ominous stage and costume design, and suitably portentous lighting, Sleeping With Giants lays claim to major significance, yet it doesn't actually deliver the goods. The action is pretty much just what you'd expect. (Compare it with Martha Graham's pithy Heretic, and you see immediately how it waffles instead of striking home.) Varone may have recognized the fact that his work would benefit from stating its case more concretely, but he hasn't yet found an effective, original way to make that happen.
Nevertheless, there's a compelling reason to see the piece: It features the veteran dancer Larry Hahn -- big, burly body, Mount Rushmore face -- who wears his years with grave, poignant dignity. The most lithe and facile of Hahn's juniors, still able to maintain clarity and grace at the highest pitch of energy, should consider themselves lucky if they mature into artists of this guy's type and caliber.