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In the small, empty rooms of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Doug Varone’s dancers swoop about like bats, rocketing off the peeling walls, bracing themselves momentarily against spectators (never more than 20 at a time), whispering to us. Here a stained sink, there a list written on a door frame (50 dresses, 48 dresses . . .) attest to scrape-by lives and home labor in these dark 1850s railroad flats. As the performers in Neither hurry us down flights of stairs and into other rooms, David Ferri lights the space darkly; how much darker it must have been in gaslit days, when interior windows provided the cramped inner rooms with their only source of natural light.
Twice a night through December 17, Doug Varone and Dancers enact a play, written by Varone, about a woman in the liminal state between life and death. Like a Martha Graham heroine, this woman, played by Nancy Bannon, will not be allowed to cross that threshold fully without confronting her past. These apartments resemble those of her rigidly defined, working-class Catholic girlhood, and the layers of paint become a metaphor for the self deceptions she must peel away. The murmuring voices we hear buzz inside her head.
Varone creates another layer, which sometimes works cleverly, sometimes awkwardly. It appears that Bannon is auditioning for a performance group. Daniel Charon is asked to stand in for the heroine’s lover; Larry Hahn and Merceditas Manago take on the roles of her parents. Frances Craig functions as stage manager, teaching “Nancy” a fragment of a duet with Charon. But Craig is primarily a gentle but remorseless guide and inquisitor who accepts no lies or delusions, and the increasingly distraught Bannon—enmeshed by whirling figures, tossed through an inner window, pressed against the flaking walls—is not auditioning for a performance, but for a visa to eternity. Charon, Hahn, Manago, Eddie Taketa, Adriane Fang, Keith Johnson, and Faye Driscoll are not bad actors, as Bannon irately insists at one point, but angels.
Accompanying “Nancy” on her reluctant quest through the dark, chill halls is an intriguing and moving experience. This woman who believes herself unloved and unloving, a wayward daughter who has committed suicide just an hour ago, is finally able to see, as if in a flickering film, her young-again mother smiling joyously over her pregnancy, hear her stern father acknowledge, “You’ll always be my baby,” and, with her lover, finish the duet she now understands.
That her dilemma seems generic is not Bannon’s fault; she and Craig, who do most of the talking, are convincing actors. But Varone is not as accomplished a playwright as he is a choreographer. He doesn’t give us enough details to shade his characters away from the stereotypical, or create powerful links with an environment that in itself is so resonant with the echoes of past lives.
The Orensanz Center for the Arts down on Norfolk Street, a former synagogue, is another ruined building redolent of history. Its vault of astonishing cerulean blue floats high above even the mysterious curtained balconies beyond the women’s galleries. The flaking paint on the elaborately carved ark creates designs unforeseen by the builders back in 1842.
Lar Lubovitch chose this structure to house his Men’s Stories through last weekend. As with Varone, the piece—one of Lubovitch’s finest—is keyed to its setting metaphorically rather than actually. There are no overt references to Judaism or Old New York; the dance suggests fragments of personal history gleaming within layers of formal dancing.
Lubovitch recruited nine superb performers: Scott Rink, Michael Thomas, Jason McDole, Griff Braun, Philip Gardner, Gerald Casel, Roger C. Jeffrey, Marc Mann, and Kevin Scarpin. Caught in Clifton Taylor’s splendidly dramatic lighting and dressed by Ann Hould-Ward in handsome Napoleonic tailcoats, vests, and ruffled jabots, the men might be members of an elegant cabal, in which rivalries and whispered conversations sometimes look as if they might lead to a duel, and at one point erupt into a real brawl.
The dancing, however, proceeds almost nonstop—lavish swoops and swirls and aerial flights. The choreography pushes virtuosity and ardency to a point that stops just short of loss of control. The men form chains and sculptural plastiques, they partner one another; a soloist capers amid a forest of still figures.
Scott Marshall’s impressive score makes heavy use of Beethoven—the Emperor and Piano Concerto no. 3—but also smears it or lets other elements fade up through it: his own music, sound effects, a Jewish-sounding melody, an operatic soprano, pop songs, a father-son sex talk, a calliope, and more. These fragments seem keyed to the “portraits” of particular dancers. And whenever Beethoven’s voice sounds clear again, it cloaks them all in glory.
We can’t actually interpret the several solos as individual portraits, although we can read certain gestures (Casel shoots an arrow, and it circles back to pierce him). What we do is admire Lubovitch’s splendid take on Thomas’s blend of elegance, precision, and a kind of wildness; or Rink’s slithering into a dance that’s lavish and playful, all the while surprising us with the incisiveness of his long legs; or the rubbery complexity of McDole’s flirtatious style. Gardner is often the inciter, Mann a composed, marvelously lucid presence. The ghost women looking down from the synagogue balconies—shocked or not—might well see all these beautiful men as tough and passionate and gentle angels descended among the congregation for a night.