The universal language of modern dance
Doug Varone discusses his work and his company ahead of his performances in BA
by Pablo Toledo
For the Herald
“I’ve been making dance for 25 years, travelling across the world fairly regularly as a dancer and with my own company: I’m always encouraged and amazed at how the language of movement is completely universal, that because you don’t use words to speak, there isn’t that boundary. We’re working with a language that’s completely recognizable within our own human instinct, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Nigeria, Argentina, South Korea or Bloomington, Indiana – you look at work and you respond to the human element of movement,” says US choreographer Doug Varone. It may be the same wherever you are, but luckily for us his company, Doug Varone and Dancers, will perform in BA tonight and tomorrow, courtesy of the DanceMotion USA programme organized by the US State Department.
The multi-awarded Varone started his company in 1986, and quickly became a darling of US dance critics. His work has been shown around the world, and he has become an in-demand choreographer for theatre, opera and cinema. He is also a passionate educator, and his Latin American tour for DanceMotion will have him teaching many workshops as well as sharing sessions with the likes of Argentine master Ana María Stekelman.
The Herald caught up with Doug Varone to talk about this visit and his passion for dance.
How did you choose the pieces that you will be dancing tonight?
The dances that I create have a very broad range, I have a lot of interests. My work lives on two different scales: one is immensely difficult, with a large presence of technical dancing; and the other feels as if it’s more gestural or task-oriented, almost more pedestrian. I love the chance to jump between two worlds that feel dancerly and also theatrical. I wanted to bring a programme that spans the whole range, so I looked at the repertory and chose three pieces that I feel represent that best.
How do you approach work in different musical languages, such as when you work on operas?
I direct a lot of opera, it depends if you’re working with the singers, the chorus or the dance ensemble. I do believe that even though the scale we work with in opera is grander in many ways, the architecture of how I build stage pictures remains the same. If I stay true to who I am as an artist within that context, that will come through regardless of whether it’s opera or contemporary dance. If you’re working with a score, you owe it to that score to find a vocabulary, and very often when you plan on working with opera singers (as happens when you work with actors and dancers) they help define the vocabulary themselves because you want the truth to come from their bodies. You would be surprised how many singers are willing to give it a shot and want to go the distance now to create something that they’ve never done before. I often find that the larger names are willing to take the greater leaps.
What made you enthusiastic about Dancemotion?
I really believe in the art form, that there’s a nobility and a universality to it, and I love the opportunity to be able to share that not only on the stage but in the studio. Travelling to South America and sharing our art, our way of creating, and also learning, is gonna be amazing. I am a firm believer that we are only who we are, that we have only one body and one mind, and it makes us better artists and better people to constantly be reopening and reinvesting in it what it is that we do and what it is that we are, so I’m excited about relearning while I’m here. I’ll do an awful lot of workshops while I’m here, not only teaching them but we will take a tango workshop with Ana María Stekelman. We’ve already done some workshops, and the amazing thing, something I am always humbled by, is that I don’t think it really matters where you are in your career – I’ve been dancing for 25 years, I have young dancers in my company, we’ve been working with dancers at IUNA in their teens and early 20s, and we’re all striving for the same thing. That was a key reminder. That came out in the dialogue we had with the students: that we all have the same passions, the same fears, the same vulnerabilities, regardless of what culture we’re from or where we are in time, and being able to allay those fears is a wonderful thing.
The photos of your dancers at the company’s website show them as very young children. Does that choice connect with this idea?
Absolutely. I’m always fascinated with young children because that’s the starting point of our imagination. We do a lot of teaching in schools with young kids and it’s incredible, they’re so open and not afraid to try anything, and then you go to the next level of teenager and everything stops. They begin to be formed by ideas, and some of them not their own – it’s a fascinating experience to find creative ways to help them be vulnerable again. When I teach a class, it very much is about unlearning, you have to put away what you know in order to get to other places.
You think of dance as a universal language. Does this language have “accents,” regional variance?
I feel as if there’s ever so slight differences in the way that we use our body languages around the world. Because I build dances based on humanity, I constantly look at people and the way they move, shift their weight, talk to each other, and as much as there are similarities there are ever so slight differences – how different cultures give different senses of clarity to dialogue. Beyond that there’s cultural dancing, i.e. we’re here in Argentina and there is a great history of tango, other cultures have dances that thrive, and learning those has been amazing, we take that like sponges and without realizing it, aspects of those dances become part of the framework of another dance that you might build. But for me it’s very much about the human give-and-take, back-and-forth: human body language is my passion.
That is a break from standardized classical ballet.
If you look at the history of modern dance, all the way back to Isadora Duncan, that was the reason for breaking away from ballet in the first place: to not have a codified language, but to let the human spirit come through. From that point on it began to evolve, and different dancers started building different styles based around that emotion-based idea. There’s a history and lineage of picking and placing things into our body, almost like memories, that we can in a way use to create material.
hard times. In the current eonomy, many companies and theatres have suffered. How hard has it been for dance and for your company?
The economy is slowly recovering. Five years ago, everything imploded: a huge portion of our income is through private support, and when private funds are being affected people are less inclined to donate money. That also began to affect foundations, corporations who had major portions of their finances on the market began to pull back on funding, not just for the arts but across the board. It also began to affect our touring work because different centres across the country began to have their programmes either slashed or cut back, and because dance is a very particular niche usually it’s the dance programme that ends up being sacrificed. It’s been a very interesting five years, a time to figure out how to reinvent yourself and your organization: for instance, I direct opera and I choreograph for other directors, but I always bring my company on board – partnering with opera companies has been exciting for us and has taken the work to a new place, employing the dancers in a very different way.
How does it happen that dance, which has universal appeal, becomes this elitist thing that nobody gets and which is the first to get the axe?
I don’t know! (laughs) That’s been the great challenge for all dance artists in the US these days, trying to find ways to demystify the art form. It’s one of the true art forms the US has that’s indigenous, so in many ways it should be embraced. I think people think that “modern dance” is about men and women in leotards doing conceptual work that’s unreachable. I’m not a huge fan of all the dance shows on television, but they are hugely watched in our country and they are bringing in new audiences because people are drawn to dance in a way they never thought they were so when a dance company goes to their town they come and see us. It’s our job to figure out how to make that connection between what’s interesting about television and what it is that we’re actually doing. There’s some fascinating dialogue that’s going on right now. A lot of artists will step into that dialogue and many won’t: I have no problem stepping into that as long as I can maintain my integrity as an artists. My fear is that as presenting organizations are slowly starting to pull back on presenting dance artists are beginning to change their point of view about what kind of dance they wanna create so that they get work.
So there will be cha cha and sequins on your next choreographies?
You never know... (laughs)
where & when
Doug Varone and Dancers will perform Home (1988) and fragments from Lux (2006) and Carrugi (2012) at the Martín Coronado Hall of the Teatro San Martín (Corrientes 1530) tonight and tomorrow at 8pm. Free admission, tickets can be picked up at the venue two hours before the show.