The first time I saw Doug Varone’s choreography was at a fashion show, winter 1995. The designer was Geoffrey Beene, who cut clothes for the moving human body and wanted to show this in action. The cast was half dancers, half models. The stage was full of haze and shadow, side lights of mist. And the mood, the whirlwind attack of dancers dressed in belted mohair coats, suggested the woods, the wolf hour. The models, more ceremonial, were like urban druids in moonlight. It was fashion made unforgettable, because Varone created a frisson of story, with an understory of humanity. Whatever medium he works in—whether it’s opera at the Met, theater on Broadway, dances for his own company (Doug Varone and Dancers) or other companies (Paul Taylor’s, Martha Graham’s, and many more)—this is what Varone does.
He has been called “the Raymond Carver of the dance world” for the way he creates layers of emotion within a space of time, the way kinetic responses within a group are subtly inter-webbed and weighted. The process of making his much-loved solo Noctourne (1987) taught him to see “the human in the movement rather than the movement itself.” As Varone would later say, “I always used to think of dance-making as steps that are used to move us forward, and I’ve learned that it is very much about the circular action of narrative, even in abstract work.” This circularity, a curvaceous quality in the way Varone shapes phrases, makes for dances that are deeply whole.
This coming week sees the release of 10 short films that Varone made during lockdown. Much like a mini-series, they will be released episodically over three nights—April 19, 21, and 23—remaining accessible until April 24 at seven-thirty P.M. Comprising a virtual New York season called The Scrapbook, the films are set to songs from the 1940s and 50s—classics such as “Fever,” “Time After Time,” “Mad About the Boy.” They range from light to dark, sunny to serious, minimal to madcap to metaphorical. All are gems. We caught up with Varone to find out more about these “little nuggets of life,” as he calls them.
LAURA JACOBS: Is this your first pandemic piece?
DOUG VARONE: Yes. At the beginning of the quarantine, it took me a while to understand how I wanted to enter back into dialogue with my dancers, knowing that creating in a traditional way was completely impossible. Among the projects I undertook was to become a more knowledgeable novice filmmaker. Earlier in my career, I incorporated filmed imagery into my works. This time away from dance-making seemed like a perfect opportunity to delve back into that type of creativity. I knew after a few months of simmering that I wanted to make short films that were not really dance or movement centric, but more about storytelling that was character and situation driven.
L.J.: I imagine that by now you’ve seen a lot of Zoom choreography. Have you noticed what makes one video more successful than another?
D.V.: Watching others trying to make sense of a world in which divided screens were our restriction told me a lot about the type of dances I didn’t want to make. Many attempts that I saw were two dimensional in their visual approach and simplistic in their design. The more successful works have felt visceral to me—they jumped off the screen and made me feel or see something unexpected. They also used the medium in interesting ways that were challenging to themselves as dance-makers.
L.J.: This project is 10 films of two to five minutes each. You’ve said that your time away from the studio has allowed you to watch your favorite films again. You’ve also said your short films are like diary entries.
D.V.: As important as film has been as an inspiration, so too has literature, and most particularly the short story. I have always found the creation of fully realized characters in a limited span of time to be very inspiring, as it challenges the writer to find the most direct path to revealing the story. There is no time to add any superfluous information, or wallow in language that is not needed. I find it a great lesson as a dance-maker. Say what you have to say, then get out.
I’d like to think that each of these films is a complete short story come to life. Even though all 10 films are greatly varied in their subject matter, they all share the same container of having been created within this pandemic. In that regard, these short stories feel like an anthology that looks at the same moment in time from varied perspectives and needs.
L.J.: You’ve mentioned Hitchcock. Which one of his films inspired one of yours, and how so?
D.V.: One of our films is entitled Don’t Explain, set to a Helen Merrill recording of the same name. The film is not entirely what it appears to be from the outset, and I have always appreciated this particular aspect of Hitchcock’s work. In films like Vertigo and Psycho, major characters often are not who they really seem, skewing the reality of their situations throughout the film.
L.J.: Did you choreograph these on Zoom? And how did you film the pieces?
D.V.: All of the films were choreographed via Zoom. I was in my log cabin in upstate New York and the dancers were in their homes all across the country. We rehearsed via Zoom and once we had a complete work, decided on the shot selection and camera placement. I then sent cameras, tripods, and lighting equipment to their homes. The dancers would set up each shot according to the storyboard I built, placing the camera and lighting equipment in the correct position, then jump in front of the camera to dance. All the while, I was directing on another device behind the camera, along with our technical director, to make sure the shot was correct. Depending on the complexity of each shoot, the filming typically took two days per film. They were created and filmed over the months of June 2020 and February 2021.
L.J.: You’ve been a choreographer since the 1980s and have experienced all kinds of dynamics in the performance world. Did your long experience help in facing the lockdown and the cease of dance?
D.V.: Oddly, I found the time away from the performance and dance world to be a regenerating one. So often, I am creating the next dance or touring the next work and there is very little precious time for reflection. With the pandemic, I had the time to reinvestigate who I was as an artist in a myriad of ways. The works that I created during the pandemic were a shift for me creatively, one I had been desiring for a long time but hesitant to attempt due to time constraints within our schedule.
L.J.: A final thought?
D.V.: These films are not dance films as one might expect from someone primarily labeled a choreographer, and that might startle some hoping for a more full-bodied dance vision. But make no mistake, all of these films are pure Doug Varone, embracing the same sense of humanity and spirit that my stage works strive for.
The Scrapbook airs over three nights, on April 19, 21, and 23. It’s available for streaming until April 24
Laura Jacobs is AIR MAIL’s Arts Intel Report Editor