The 92nd Street Y's Harkness Dance Festival opened the STRIPPED/DRESSED series last weekend with their Artist in Residence, Doug Varone and Dancers. The typically overcrowded NYC performance space left audience members seeking places to occupy as they spilled into the informal setting.
Photo Credit: Julie Lemberger
The dancers at the floor level stage, downstage of a smaller actual stage, stretched, talked to one another, and casually reviewed choreography in pajama-like warm up clothes. There was an ambiguous air atypical of the mystical aspect of a typical performance where the dancers are unseen until the curtain goes up. Even before the performance began dancer Julia Burrer swallowed the space as she swooped her infinite limbs across the Marley floor while going over movement phrases.
Doug Varone presided over the evening, carrying a yellow note pad and pen. His warn demeanor was evident when he spoke to his dancers, inviting them to an open dialogue that is rarely seen in the undemocratic choreographic process. He then led the audience through his choreographic thought process by illustrating a rather unorthodox development of music, dance and speech, the outcome being Mouth Above Water, a 2013 premiere that featured an independent text choreographed to Julia Wolfe's Cruel Sister. The only question I had was about the text. What was its significance? We were not told, at least not yet.
During the first half of the evening, STRIPPED, audience participation was encouraged in the process of a compositional game Varone called "What happens next?" One of the most humanizing compositional choices was the movement vocabulary gathered from the minds of people diagnosed with cancer. The patients selected to contribute to the dance making were of all ages and in different stages of their cancer. This was most remarkable in one little boy who molded and narrated the relationship between two of his action figures to make a dance, which lightened and strengthened the emotional attachment to the choreography's identity.
The second half of the evening, DRESSED, presented the culminated dance, composed of the evening first section, with costumes, lights, music---and no discussion. After the dancers performed Mouth Above Water, Varone explained the narrative behind Julia Wolfe's musical score, Cruel Sister. An odd time to provide an explanation! I found myself trying to recall the original narrative and its relationship to the dance. While this was my own thought process, the revelation of the intellect surrounding the creative process strips the artists of their magic down to human form to reveal the illusion Varone said that, for him, choreographing is like cooking a stew. He doesn't know what to call the stew until all additive ingredients have simmered. The Stripped/Dressed series kicked off as a display of the raw ingredients necessary for choreography, permitting the non-dancer a glimpse into the dance making process.