The choreographer, whose company opens the TITAS dance season at AT&T Performing Arts Center, discusses his movement style, musical inspirations and the mainstreaming of modern dance.
Dallas — Since 1986 Doug Varone and Dancers have been enhancing the traditions of modern dance with works that are kinetically thrilling and emotionally jarring. Varone’s love for old Hollywood musicals and performers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire enable him to produce modern choreography that is accessible as well as unique.
Varone received his BFA from Purchase College and currently works in dance, theater, opera, film, television and fashion. He has created works for the Limon Company, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Rambert Dance Company (London), Dancemakers (Canada) and Batsheva Dance Company (Israel), among others. Varone and his dancers also participate in annual summer intensive workshops at universities across the country.
Doug Varone and Dancers have performed in more than 100 cities across the United States and in Europe, Asia, Canada and South America. Varone, his dancers and designers have been honored with 11 New York Dance Performance Awards (Bessies). TheaterJones asks Doug Varone to describe the challenges of starting his own company, how he connects with the audience through movement and where modern fits in today’s society.
Doug Varone and Dancers kick off the 2012-2013 TITAS dance series Sept. 29 at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas.
TheaterJones: What drew you to modern dance?
Doug Varone: I started out tapping when I was a kid and I really wanted to do musicals. I did a lot of musicals in high school and that was the world I wanted to be in. So, I went to Purchase College with the thought that I would get the training and go to New York City and be on Broadway. A huge part of my training in college was contemporary dance which I had little experience in and I kind of fell in love with it. And I think like everyone who goes to college they become exposed to a completely different way of thinking. And that absolutely happened to me. I began to invest myself in the craft of contemporary dance and ended up moving in that direction.
What motivated you to form Doug Varone and Dancers?
When I started the company I was interested in creating work. I definitely didn’t set out to have a dance company. I was interested in creating dances that felt as if they were personal to me and that slowly snowballed into where we are now. So, I didn’t start out with the thought that I would have a company. You create work. You hope it has integrity. Someone sees it and likes it and they want to bring you to their city. It just slowly began to develop.
What was the most challenging part of starting your own company?
What’s really fascinating is when you are in a dance company for so many years you are taken care of as a dancer. You are told where to go, you are given money to do it, you take your classes and then go to the theater. Your life is laid out for you in a very particular way. So, when I left and began the process of having a group of dancers that worked for me I realized how much of life I had missed as an adult. So, for me the hardest part was seeing the world from a completely new vantage point.
When you are creating movement do you factor in the audiences reaction?
It’s really a chicken and egg question. When I set out to create a work I am always true to myself. I always try to create the type of work that interests me from my perspective. And I always have to believe that if it works for me then I have done my job. I probably have the audience in the back of my mind when I am working, but it is completely subconscious. I have to believe that what they’re seeing is what I’m seeing. If not, then you spend all your time figuring out what other people will like and not being true to your own purpose as an artist.
What is it about your work that makes it so accessible to audiences?
Well, I hope that the strength of the work is that it’s about all of us. There’s a humanity underneath it that people recognize. I always say I feel that I create work and situations that audiences recognize because I recognize it. I build work about everyday events. It’s about the depth of what we go through in life. It’s about emotions. It’s about relationships. And those are all things that are immensely universal. My job is to create something that is an open vessel that everyone somehow sees themselves in. So, if I’ve done that then I’ve allowed the audience to be part of the process.
Is your movement strictly modern based?
I think that over the last 25 years I have developed a style that feels very unique. I think people who have seen my work know it and can recognize it visually from the way the dancers move their bodies. There is a base training and core underneath it of contemporary modern dance, but there’s a way of moving that I feel is really key. And again I think it goes back to the human being. I’m drawn to movement that feels as if it comes from who we are. So, I believe that dancers can just be walking and then all of the sudden be doing the most technical things possible. And in the most perfect moment you don’t see the difference between the two. So, it looks as if it is an everyday motion, but it becomes an extraordinarily technical thing.
And I have to say that I think I learned a lot of that from watching these MGM musicals when I was growing up. You would see Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire do these amazing dances, but they would always come out of it as if they were the most normal people in the world. And I think that has always stayed with me. I like to believe the work I make is about who we are, how we move and how extraordinary that is.
What inspires you musically?
What inspires me musically is really anything that makes me want to create a dance to it. Last night I was listening to a wonderful Canadian composer that writes soundscapes, not even music, but it sparked my imagination to want to create a dance to it. So, I’m drawn to anything that allows my imagination to step into it. The program that we’re doing in Dallas I think is really wide ranging. We have a dance to Mozart, a new dance to a Julia Wolfe score and then we have a score by John Adams.
Do you pre-plan your choreography?
I don’t pre-plan anything; everything is done in the studio. And it’s always a great collaborative effort with all of us. So, very often the dances come out of my body as a starting point and then they morph into something completely different once the dancers take the material and reshape it. We also play a lot of creative games. The older I have gotten the less I’m interested in moving in enormous ways so the process of building material is really different.
What qualities do you look for in your dancers?
I look for really smart people because I work really fast. I love to be able to spew out material and have it given back to me almost immediately. I look for very musical dancers because I hear scores in a very certain way and I need people that can appreciate that and hear what I’m hearing.
I also look for really nice people. We tour a great deal and we really form a family. I have been in situations where the work environment is not ideal if the personalities don’t jive. I also look for tremendously creative people who bring their own sensibilities to what we are doing. I love artists who have a point of view and can share that in the work we are doing.
Are you a fan of dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With the Stars?
I think all the dancing on television is terrific. I think it’s good for the art formand I know there are people who don’t feel that way, but I do. I think it has opened the door to dance in ways that are new and exciting. And I think it’s the job of every dance artist now to figure out how to graft off of that. I would love to think that the people who are watching shows like SYTYCD would come out and see Doug Varone and Dancers and enjoy the experience.
Where does modern technique fit in today‘s dance society?
I think the audiences’ perception of contemporary modern dance has changed partly because it is being infused in so many creative ways. There are contemporary dance works in ballet repertories now so audiences that would never ordinarily see modern dance companies are now being filtered those pieces when they go see their favorite ballet company. So, in that regard it has become more mainstream for dance viewers.
And I also think you can really see it reflected in shows like SYTYCD. There is this contemporary edge of needing and wanting to say something in very particular movement-based ways that is more grounded than contemporary jazz and grittier than ballet. It speaks about who we are as people in ways that other aspects of dance don’t. And people don’t even realize they are watching modern dance. And that is a beautiful thing.
This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.