American choreographer Dough Varone is praised for his fluent, kinetic dances and for his mastering of emotions. The three dances in the programme presented at the South Bank performance all had strong emotional quality, which was the very reason they were performed together1, but in terms of style, they were different. The first, Possession, and the last, Sleeping with giants, were both movement-filled ensemble-works, although they showed clear differences in style. The second piece, Home, was an intimate duo.
None of these three dance pieces were abstracted to a level where they were no longer "about" something. Because the themes and movements of Possession and Home seem closely connected, I will after a brief look at the last piece concentrate on comparing the first two.
Sleeping with giants starts with a running section, the entire stage is used by a big circle. The piece builds a tension between the group and one individual that they seem to respect or be afraid of, shown in sequences where they assign him a huge personal space, as him entering the stage will push everybody else to the opposite corner. During the dance, it becomes apparent that this character, danced by Larry Hahn, can't keep up with the group, he is stumbling, unsecure, late, is crashed into. The decrease of their respect is shown in the closing of the circle and continuous decrease in the space he is given, until the group becomes violent, and finally beats him to the ground. During the violence, a red square is projected on the back wall, and the end sees it turn into the snowy grey of a television screen after the program. In a piece which obviously is about groups dynamics, this projection might serve as a pointer to or a comment upon the role of media in creating mass's dynamics in today's society.
Possession also starts with a group, evolving from the left, but in this dance, focus seems to be on duos and small incidents, and the stage is used differently: in most sections, there are small groups or duos, creating small centres of action, contrasting Sleeping with giant's big, unified maelstrom of dancers. Possession thus gives an impression of being written with "smaller letters" than Sleeping with giants, the incidents are smaller and emotions sometimes are de-emphasized by the dancers facing the back wall. The movements are often sweepingly fluid, dynamically altering between big, buzzing sections and sequences with small dance "conversations", and broken up by dancers bravely throwing themselfes across the floor. The choreography is demanding, with risky and breathtaking jumps, throwings and turns, but Varone also uses gestures, mostly refering to expressional everyday movement.
Home could hardly be more different from the first piece, although I'll argue that the pieces share a common theme. This piece is made earlier than the other two, in 1988, and is according to Dough Varone an exploration of "dramatic potential based on human gesture"2. On stage are only two persons, a man and a woman, and two chairs, she sits facing front, while the man is turned slightly towards her. After a while, the man starts "rehearsing" what looks like attempts to get in touch with her, she gets more active as the piece progresses, with small solos, sweeping turns and fragments of partnering work.
The shape of this piece is odd: long periods of passivity or gestures are mixed with small bursts of dancing. Borrowing an expression from Graeme Miller, Varone might be trying to extract the essence of "the shapes our lives make"3. Parts of the piece might be described as theatre rather than dance, due to the use of gestures, but as the structure and its similarity to the ups and downs and varying intensity of life becomes clearer, genre no longer matters.
Both Possession and Home seem to treat the theme relationship.The title of the first piece if applied to relationships suggests a rather old-fashioned attitude, and especially some moments of the dance connects to this title, like a movement repeated several times in which a man in a deep second position plie places a woman lying on his knees, and stretches his arms like in a gesture of victory. Some of the intention of this dance may then be to disclose ideas of possession within our feelings of relationships.
Some movements of the dance appears as if noticed from a male point of view. There is a little, repeated sequence in Possession where a man tries to leave, a woman holds him back, and then resists his embrace. It is hard not to interpret this as a statement on gender roles and/or sexual politics. Regarding gender roles, the movements seems to say that women generally need more varied space in relationships than men, who are more straightforward and either is 'far' or 'close'. But it also may imply a critique if seen from a male point of view: "women are constantly changing, they're too complicated".
Compared to Possession, Home shows some of the same basic gestures. In this piece, the woman appears more constrained and less sympathetic than the man, but in one section of the dance, he moves the chair away from her, and she follows. Very simplified, the message from both dances may come across as a description of how complicated women are from a male point of view.
Dough Varone's dances are inspiring and moving works performed by a company that seems to share his vision perfectly. But in some of the works, the vision would have convinced me easier if I did not get a vague feeling that its angel of observation seemed biased towards a male point of view. This feeling may be caused by the programming: as already mentioned, these three pieces were performed together because of their strong emotional quality, and the company normally tries to present a wider range of works. Seeing Home after Posession echoed a theme of the complications of distance / closeness in relationships in a piece where the woman appeared colder than the man. Together, they made me feel slightly uneasy about the presentation of women - the only annoyance of a dance performance I nevertheless really enjoyed.Image credit
The picture at the top of the page is "borrowed" from the Dance Umbrella website, at www.danceumbrella.co.uk.
This reason for the programming was mentioned in the "meet the artist"-session after Friday's performance.
2 Dough Varone's own words from the post-performance "meet the artist"-session.
3 From a comment by Graeme Miller on his work for Rosemary Lee, "Language lesson", at "Work in progress", Middlesex university, 3rd November 1999.