Victory!

SummerScape festival on the Hudson pays tribute to Edward Elgar

Almost any work by Doug Varone unleashes a maelstrom of dancing. If those in his company weren't so richly human, so vulnerable, you'd imagine them as charged particles—colliding, merging, ricocheting into new configurations that almost instantly dissolve. They inhabit an unstable world in which people must be endlessly resilient to survive. Even though they crash to the floor over and over, their knees act like springs to launch them into the air again.

Commissioned by the fifth annual Bard SummerScape and the Bard Music Festival to choreograph a piece to the music of Edward Elgar, this summer's featured composer, Varone chose Elgar's Cello Concerto in E Minor, composed in 1919, when England was recovering from World War I and the loss of a generation of young men. The dance is titled Victorious, but it seems to be more about struggle, about straining to soar above the flames. Jane Cox uses a white panel, a scrim, black curtains, and a subtly dramatic lighting design to create featureless space. Liz Prince has garbed the six dancers in summery Edwardian attire (the men) and white draped tunics over pants (the women)—clothes that seem almost poignantly at odds with the ferociously tumbling movement.

Varone has chosen to set Victorious not to the full-orchestra version of the concerto, but to a reduction for piano and cello. Cellist Zuill Bailey and pianist Robert Koenig (also in costume) sit on opposite sides of the proscenium arch, heightening the impression of a dialogue between the instruments. This is especially true in the first movement, which Varone has daringly cast as a solo for Natalie Desch. The solitary figure seems to follow the cello's questioning voice; at other times, the piano soothes her. Or rouses her. Or threatens her. To a particularly heroic keyboard passage, she scrabbles on her knees and shakes her head violently.

Only a dancer of Desch's stature could bring this off. Golden-haired, fluid, brilliant at shading the movement to express a range of feeling, she seems to be searching for something she has lost, to make sense of the incomprehensible. In her stiller moments—as when she lies crumpled, turning her head to lay first one cheek, then the other against the floor—your focus broadens to include the splendid musicians as participants in this voyage.

In Victorious as a whole, the dancers spend a lot of time low to the ground. Perhaps it was Varone's intention to conjure up the muddy fields of France as a metaphor for conflict. The dancers hurtle, sink down, roll, scramble. In the second-movement duet, John Besant III inches sideways like an injured crab, with Stephanie Liapis draped awkwardly over him. Occasionally, the two pause in their subsequent outbursts to gesture rapidly at each other, but they're never still for long. In the third movement, Daniel Charon, Ryan Corriston, and Eddie Taketa crash to the floor and spring up to stumble into collisions and avoidances before crashing again. Once, Taketa is held up like a wounded comrade by the other two, but his weight pulls all three to the floor.

Almost every move we've seen, and some we haven't, repeat in Elgar's last triumphant section, although the choreography doesn't convince us that anything's been won. While Desch dances wildly, a bacchante drunk on despair, a black curtain rises to show a golden background, but she's rushing away from it and toward us as the theater goes black.

Varone's Castles (2004) and Lux (2006) also thrill the SummerScape audience. As usual, I'm both exasperated and delighted—exasperated because Varone maintains unvarying levels of movement complexity and turbulence in almost every moment of every dance, and delighted by the profoundly human sensuality and clumsy, evasive tenderness.

SummerScape's array of concerts, plays, opera, films, lectures, panels, and family entertainment runs through August 19 (http://www.fishercenter.bard.edu).

 
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