Thursday, May 6, 2021

Varone Scrapbooks a Solemn Year

March's landing page. Photo: S. Yung

Watching dance, like everything in 2021, is different. Choreographers are finding ways to express themselves, but for those used to having a huge stage and a captive audience for a set amount of time, there's no clear path. Ignore the bounding box of Zoom? Or address it and play with it or rage at it? And now that dancers can return to theaters—even with limited audiences—how best to utilize the limits and expanses now present?

Michael Trusnovec in "Temptation." Photo: S. Yung 

Doug Varone deals with it his way—by building a story one dance at a time, to complete The Scrapbook, a series of 10 chapters set to pop standard songs. (The subtitle edifies: 10 months / 10 letters / 10 stories / 10 songs / 10 films. Interesting that "dances" is not used, or perhaps indicative of how Varone has always viewed his work.) These are framed by a set of letters between a woman and her grandson, written during the course of the year of Covid and BLM. The letters' content ranges from affectionate salutations to much deeper questions of personal liberty and responsibility—life and death—that all of us have faced. 

Each chapter appears onscreen as a spread in a tactile leather scrapbook, with memoirs, doodles, and photos at left, and an envelope on the right, which you click to open. The letters' words unspool visually as you hear them spoken—both endearing and a bit patience-trying (although you can skip around freely). Following the text, a video of the dance plays. It's a chronological and sentimental presentation that offers an empathetic narrative through a warm visual interface.

Whitney Dufrene in "Don't Explain." Photo: S. Yung

Aspects of Varone's choreography fit well in such a context. His visceral expressions involving the upper body—impulses, upheavals, shudders, ecstasies—always eloquently convey the full breadth of human emotions. And while a lot of his oeuvre has been presented as essentially abstract, if you wished to, you could assemble a story framework given individuals' movements and group interactions. The Scrapbook's structure resembles standard linear constructs of film and literature, but it's an organic fit. (That said, Varone has experimented with site-specific works, sometimes pegged to narratives, such as Neither, in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, or The Bottomland, filmed in caverns in Kentucky.)

Some chapters stand out. Guest artist Michael Trusnovec, who danced in Varone's commission by Paul Taylor American Modern Dance, makes a memorable appearance to the song "Temptation," forcefully resisting the pull of the great outdoors while grabbing door frames and furniture through his house, even foregoing the lure of a jigsaw puzzle, before plunging out the front door into the intoxicating night air. Whitney Dufrene imagines herself as a sultry noir chanteuse in "Don't Explain." A knock at the door shocks her back to reality; she's lingering in the bathroom, away from her partner, who has apparently abused her.

Doug Varone finding chow in "Almost Like Being in Love." Photo: S. Yung

Varone delivers his own message incisively. "Time After Time" features a close-up of his jittery hands hovering above a newspaper's help wanted ads, fidgeting with a wrist watch. And while I might've guessed Varone to be more cat than dog with his pantherine movement, in the final chapter, "Almost Like Being in Love," he comically embodies a canine, with all the simple pleasures therein—lapping up his chow and snuggling with his human on the sofa—and presumably the joy of having his people around full time, one benefit of the pandemic. 

The Scrapbook illuminates such unexpected pleasures, and reminisces about the darker times of the year. And while some of the episodes echo the tired "trapped at home" vibe so prevalent during Covid, they're an accurate reflection of the isolation and frustration we've all been through.

The Scrapbook: Doug Varone, artistic director; One Foot Productions, website creation & production; Joan Winters, graphic design; Kevin Merritt, letter narrative; Patty Bryan, creative consultant.