February 26, 2013 5:59 pm

Doug Varone, 92Y Harkness Festival, New York

The venue’s resident choreographer has come up with a neat way to make modern dance less forbidding for beginners
Xan Burley, Hsiao-Jou Tang and Colin Stilwell in ‘Mouth Above Water’

Xan Burley, Hsiao-Jou Tang and Colin Stilwell in ‘Mouth Above Water’

Modern dance presents special difficulties for neophytes. As with theatre or song, humans are its instrument and subject and yet it does not rely on story. Hence the trend toward lecture-demos and artist Q&As. These supplementary explanations typically take place, however, after the dance has had a chance to defeat us.

Doug Varone, the 92nd Street Y’s resident choreographer and this year’s curator of its long-running festival, has decided to reverse that order. Each weekend until March 24, another excellent New York dancemaker “strips” a piece to its sources and component parts before we can go at it with our preconceptions or ignorance. Only later does it appear fully “dressed”.

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“Stripped/Dressed” could only be an improvement on the usual sequence – except in Varone’s case. The veteran choreographer’s inspirations are wacky enough to cling to the finished piece. During a fraught duet in the premiere Mouth Above Water, for example, Erin Owen and Alex Springer grew more mechanical as they became more enthralled with each other. Heavy stuff, but I was musing over Kelly the Avatar and Rodney the Construction Man, the action dolls that inspired the Frankenstein moves; they belonged to a young patient on a cancer ward the company visited.

Mouth Above Water also raises the spectre of death, minus the fantasy of superhero rescue. The one inspiration I wish Varone had divulged in advance was the old English ballad “Cruel Sister”, in which minstrels unmask a woman’s murderer when they play instruments built from the drowned girl’s washed-up bones. Under chiaroscuro lighting to Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe’s high-pitched score for strings – like a corpse crying out about its recent agonies – the full-bodied movement evoked drowning. It was all too much.

A better handle on story – that bane of many a choreographer – might have helped modulate the tone. A pantomimic trio set on a tiny stage above and behind the main space began and ended Mouth Above Water; if the threesome had laid out the ballad’s story, it would have anchored the histrionics below. Varone occasionally forgets what he knows about dance texture when dramatic subtext is involved. He appreciates the need for variation in rhythm, number of dancers, volume and weight of steps, but not always for shifts between poetry and plot.


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