While many postmodern choreographers trade cannily on shock and chic, Doug Varone is all sincerity and substance. Until now, his main flaw seemed to be narrowness – of vocabulary, of subject matter, of tone. But with his most recent New York showing, at the Joyce last month, he broke through some of his familiar barriers.
The most striking evidence of Varone’s claiming new territory lies in Bel Canto, given its world premiere in the Joyce engagement. Varone is typically contemplative and bleak, but this group dance is exuberant and funny – laugh-out-loud funny – though in no way superficial. Set to florid music from Bellini’s Norma, it manages to do just what Mark Morris can do with a score that’s both justly famous and in some way extravagant to the contemporary listener: It admits the absurdity we can’t avoid hearing in the music now and, at the very same time, confesses how much the susceptible adore it. At the heart of the piece lie two male duets – for Larry Hahn and Eddie Taketa, David Neumann and Varone, each man an idiosyncratic and marvelous performer. Their material is, essentially, love: love’s unquenchable ebullience, its extravagances and embarrassments. And despite its fond mockery of, among other things, the performance conventions coloratura singing engenders, the latter duet is arguably one of the most touching homoerotic passages in the contemporary dance repertory.
Knave, Varone’s new extended solo for himself, has more physical agitation than cogent meaning. But the 1988 Home, which he danced with Gwen Welliver, a lovely earth-mother type, sums up all that’s best in the sorrow-tinged humanism of his earlier work. More a series of gestures and postures than a flowing dance to its music, a string quartet by A. Leroy, it depicts a marriage that has outlived all its youthful passions yet – sustained by familiarity, apathy, resignation, and memory of old desires – refuses to die.