Doug Varone and Jodi Melnick Swim Deep Rivers


Doug Varone’s works sometimes make me think of small rivers on long journeys—rivers that flow serenely, curve to evade an obstacle, glance off a stone, suddenly burst into a waterfall. That’s how the luscious torrent of movement he conceived is shaped and how his dancers behave with one another. Except that they’re human beings, not running water, and they choose their courses. Who wouldn’t like to move through life the way they travel on and off the stage—fluidly, resiliently, and confident that if they fall, they will be caught?

Often the choreography yields images of hesitancy, difficult decisions, small stumbling blocks. At one point in the poignant 2000 Tomorrow, set to songs by Reynaldo Hahn, Natalie Desch traces a wavering path, while mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe and pianist Dennis Giauque swaddle her in music as soft as the smoke of the song’s title (“Fumée”). Desch’s small steps, her subtle aversions, and the way she drags a foot as if wounded convey a current of life diverted. At the end, she pushes away the man (Eddie Taketa) she danced with earlier, even as she collapses against him.

Taketa begins the 2006 Lux with a similarly tentative journey. The music, Philip Glass’s The Light (1987), conveys a sense of waiting, of never quite arriving. In Lux, Taketa seems to be a leader, presiding over what almost reaches the turbulence of a bacchic revel. The moon (lighting by Robert Wierzel) is low on the horizon when the dance starts and rises as the movement patterns tangle and unfurl endlessly. Glass’s composition sounds very much like the one he created a year earlier for Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, and watching and hearing passages that repeatedly build to a climax and then evaporate can be tiring. Without a reassuring dollop of unison or a formation that stays together for a while, Lux can occasionally make you feel as if you’re drowning in a flood of beauty.

Varone’s new Alchemy is sterner stuff, but if anyone can turn the rusted iron of tragedy into gold, it would be he. The music he has chosen makes the subject inevitable. Steve Reich’s “Daniel Variations” combines text from the Book of Daniel with the words of Daniel Pearl in a tribute to victims whose dignity and courage doesn’t fail them. The biblical Daniel rose high among the Persians, but for persisting in his Judaism was cast into a den of lions. The American journalist Daniel Pearl, also a follower of Judaism, was taken hostage by Pakistani militants in 2002 and brutally executed.

The dance takes place in front of a virtual wall of giant stones, designed by Timothy R. Mackabee. When relevant, Jane Cox’s darkly gleaming lighting lays the grid of another kind of prison on the floor. Liz Prince’s skillfully designed costumes in grays, blues, and browns don’t call attention to themselves. Erin Owen—often alone in a spotlight, tremulous, pressing her hands to her face—presents the strongest image of a brave victim, or, perhaps Mariane Pearl, Daniel’s wife, whose words “In the end, you can only oppose them with the strength they think they have taken away from you” appear in the program.

Alchemy fleetingly evokes both the Daniels, as well as other victims. Men grovel around Desch, like the biblical lions. Periodically four men or four women line up shoulder to shoulder and kneel. Owen writes something on the air, and it’s she who catches Ryan Corriston as he’s collapsing. Women hover, mourning, over fallen men. People crawl as much as they walk and run. Daniel Charon gets pulled around by his head. But this is a dance, not a pantomime, and just as voices cry out and sink back in Reich’s driving music, the abstracted violent acts are part of a powerful shifting tide of terror and courage told in movement.

In addition to Charon, Corriston, Desch, Owen, and Taketa, the eloquent and powerful performers are Julia Burrer, Alex Springer, and Netta Yerushalmy.

“Jodi Melnick is. . .a force of nature.” No wonder the person I was talking to groped for words to describe her. Trying to convey Melnick’s brilliance is like trying to grasp a silver trout in a running stream. She is indeed a force of nature, but not the earth-mother type those words convey. She’s of medium height, slim, with a pretty face and flaming red hair (she could have been a model back in the days when models looked like people). She has brought her creative intelligence and her subtle, sensuous performing to works by such choreographers as Vicky Shick, Susan Rethorst, Sara Rudner, and Donna Uchizono. Her wonderful collaboration with John Jasperse and Rebecca Hilton, Becky, Jodi, and John, will be performed again in May at Dance Theater Workshop.

Although contributing significantly to the choreography of others, she hasn’t as yet shown a great deal of her own work in New York. Her new Fanfare and a reconstruction of Suedehead confirm her imaginativeness. In Fanfare, she dances in relation to an elegant set by Burt Barr. Videos of a turning fan are projected diagonally past two shiny black fans on three-foot columns and onto the projected back wall, where each fan image also has a ghostly shadow mingling and separating from it. Melnick appears, wearing a short, trim black dress. She seems to measure the space and the light, to be aware of the hisses and rattles and other noises from Joel Mellin’s sound design. She poses for us too, as if to acknowledge the situation we find ourselves in.

She makes us aware of her joints, her limbs, slotting herself into unseen envelopes of space with silky precision. I sense her mapping something inside herself, rummaging through feelings and stories she’s not about to tell us. Every time she crosses one leg over the other or cocks her hip to meet her elbow or points a finger or takes several clunky steps, we’re mesmerized—happy to be mystified. Clearly, she knows what she’s doing, and whatever it is, it matters very much.

It’s a surprise when, near the end, she acquires a partner, Dennis O’Connor. He just walks in and starts dancing beside her. Why? Why not? I accept that, just as I accept the fact that although at the beginning of Suedehead, she, Vicky Shick, and Juliette Mapp stand facing one another—twisting their hands a bit, shifting from foot to foot—Shick and Mapp then leave and don’t return for a long time.

There’s a very strange episode near the beginning. Joe Levasseur’s lighting creates a yellow spot on the floor. Melnick looks down, smiles, gently picks something up, turns her back to us, and. . . Omigod, she’s ingested it. Then she walks, convulsing, uttering little vocal noises, as if she has swallowed a bird. Finally she gasps it out and goes back to dancing.

When the other two walk in again, they stand with their backs against a side wall, like friends waiting to be needed. For starters, Melnick does a handstand between them. Despite her recurrent despairing pose, these wonderful women link up with her, dance in unison with her, walk holding her hands. The steps get looser and bolder. Rarely does art venture into private catharsis so deeply, yet so subtly. At one point, Melnick lies on her back, and Mapp leans over and plucks something out of her. It’s small, like a hair, but maybe it’s immense. Maybe she’ll be all right now? Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” is blazing out from Denis Roche’s score. “I’d cross the ocean for a heart of gold,” sings Young. Perhaps Melnick doesn’t have to travel that far.

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