Moving through grief

By Gus Solomons Jr

Doug Varone’s homecoming honors Daniel Pearl with hope

Long a Joyce Theater regular, Doug Varone and Dancers return there next week for the first time in quite a while. During a break in rehearsal recently, the prolific choreographer confessed, “I’m totally freaked out about coming back to New York.”

He and his troupe have been busily touring nationally and internationally, but, he said, “We haven’t had a New York season since my infamous New York Times review.”

He was referring to a gratuitously scathing 2007 critique of a new work of his, commissioned by BAM’s Next Wave Festival, which made it subsequently difficult for the company to find engagements.

“It basically destroyed us work-wise for about a year.”

The new Joyce season features the lyrical “Tomorrow” (2000) to Belle Epoch songs, the luscious “Lux” (2006) to Philip Glass music, and the New York premiere of “Alchemy,” (2008), inspired by and set to Steve Reich’s “Daniel Variations,” an homage to slain journalist Daniel Pearl.

The Reich score incorporates text both from Pearl’s writing and from the biblical Book of Daniel. The Bible text recounts its namesake’s stringent trials of religious fidelity –– Daniel in the lion’s den. Pearl’s kidnapping and beheading by suspected Al Qaeda agents in Pakistan in 2002 caused international outrage.

That tragedy moved Reich to compose “Daniel Variations” in tribute, and he gave Varone –– one of the most musical choreographers around–– permission to use it. As a dance-maker, Varone takes his inspiration from music.

“I live with the score for about six months, and then I start making material,” he said.

From his sources –– the music, the biblical story, and his own research on Daniel Pearl and his family –– he strove to “glean imagery that makes people understand feelings and takes them on the [emotional] ride you want to take them on.”

As the dance begins, a tall woman stands alone onstage mumbling to herself and raising her hands slowly toward her face, as if in grief –– or prayer. An image inspired, perhaps, by Marianne Pearl, wife of the victim. However, Varone said, “If you see characters, that’s great, but they are not specific characters. What we’ve done is transport ideas into movement.”

Gradually, the other seven dancers appear doing Varone’s characteristically grounded movement –– hips gliding low or sliding into the floor, whipping limbs impelling the body, rag doll arms and legs flying in response to the momentum of the trunk. Varone deploys his breathy, fluid motion in fleeting encounters and mercurial relationships, always employing a deep sense of humanity, whatever his subject matter.

Here, dancers slowly crawling in a tight pack suggest oppression; men collide with and rebound off each other in anguished aggression; women offer comfort to crumpled men, curled helplessly in their laps. The images can be searing.

“I live with a score for a good six months,” Varone explained. “Then we’ll start building material; I find my way through and make outlines and scratch away at it. The process for this has been amazing and quite unique, actually, because of the subject matter. I’ve really taken care to visualize with honor, because of its …”

He paused to search for the right word. Not finding it, he continued, “We’ve been in touch with the Pearl family. They commissioned the score. This is the first time it’s being used for dance, and they were worried about imagery that might be upsetting. I had to be clear with them that the work has a potency that’s affecting people, and the reason why is that it has to be ugly before it’s beautiful.”

Varone elaborated.

“I also feel it opens the same kind of dialog that [Pearl] did as a journalist. I’d like to believe that dance can be that way.” Pausing again to ponder, he asked, “What’s the word I’m looking for?” It came to him. “…Sensitivity.”

Uncharacteristically, “Alchemy” builds to its kinetic climax relatively early, in the third of four sections, when the dancing becomes vigorously nonstop, testing the dancers’ stamina. Then, as Reich’s music continues its propulsive surge, the movement in contrast becomes quiet, restrained, intensely intimate, letting the aural rush reflect our rising emotions, while the dancing transcends the tumult and achieves a gratifying serenity.

Despite the gravity of the subject and its tragic outcome, in the end “Alchemy” is optimistic.

“The thing that’s so beautiful about the score is that it bleeds you, and then it heals,” said Varone. “The last movement is about believing that something good can come out of something horrific. The message of the dance is hope.”