Doug Varone makes thrilling, mesmerizing dances. In his ambitious new Dense Terrain, with which he marked both his company’s 20th anniversary and his BAM debut, he also wears many other hats: coordinator of stage traffic (managing the continual shifts of three big movable walls); author of an unintelligible language; and director of a black-and-white film starring a fleshy madman. Between the giant face of the madman flickering on the back wall, the tide of perplexing nonsense syllables, and the scenery swinging distractingly to and fro, you can almost forget that Varone makes thrilling, mesmerizing dances.
Almost. Yet again and again while watching Dense Terrain, your eye swerves back to the dancing. The ceaseless, lilting motion of the fast sections as the dancers flood and recede; the vivid postures of the slow parts; the precipitous intimacy of the duets—all these are infinitely more satisfying than the overblown trappings.
Your enjoyment of Dense Terrain, then, depends in large part on your ability to tune out the static. The omnipresent film, with the madman moaning and scribbling all over his walls, feels forced and disconcertingly naive; so do the sections in which the dancers, seated classroom-style in aluminum chairs, speak Varone’s made-up language.
The theme behind all this—that our terrain is dense with people, yet we strain to communicate—is ironically expressed much more vividly by the plain old dancing. As usual with Varone, the 11 dancers look like a community of real people—young and old, short and tall, male and female. They’re dressed in muted, everyday clothes, making them feel even more familiar—and oddly vulnerable. They get to you: that fiftysomething woman scooting backward on all fours, that twentysomething girl hyperventilating in a corner.
And they really get under your skin in two haunting duets. In the first, for two men (John Beasant III and Ryan Corriston), one man grabs the other’s head and shoves it hard before yanking him in for a violent kiss and pinning him to the floor with scary, quivering force. It’s an old story—wrestling as a prelude to sex—but it’s made fresh by Varone’s unflinching eye. Later, Daniel Charon and Natalie Desch lie together on the floor, entangled like lovers in a bed; each time they subtly shift a position another wave of recognition washes over us. Here is the woman, bravely holding up her own weight; here is the man, holding her hip. Now a palm cradles a face, and now it slips gently away.
Varone has always balanced his rich gestural studies with explosive, up-on-your-feet dancing, and Dense Terrain has marvelous stretches of all-out motion. (The rock-influenced score, by the independent-film composer Nathan Larson, moves adroitly between propulsiveness and stillness.) Arms flung so wide they seem about to pop out of their sockets, torsos twisting and legs hurling them through space, Varone’s dancers look like they live for this stuff. The unison of those speeding bodies produces a thrill that—momentarily—cuts through the muddle.
But as each successive surge of pure dancing gets curtailed by those movable walls contracting or another self-important video, a palpable frustration sets in. Is Varone stymieing us on purpose? Surely he wants us to feel the constricting space, the annoyance of being interrupted in our pleasures. Surely he knows that audiences resent having this kind of exhilarating dancing turned off in midstream.
Clearly, the vision behind Dense Terrain was that the language of film would give the piece new layers of feeling. But the language that Varone speaks—with astonishing eloquence—is the language of dance. It would take a far better film than this one to get us to want to look away when Varone’s dancers are onstage. If ever there was a kind of full-bodied, evocative dancing that you’d hate to see limited by dense terrain, it’s this.