Campus visit by Varone and Dancers delights, inspires

On Oct. 7, Vassar hosted a recital by acclaimed New York contemporary dance troupe Doug Varone and Dancers. The company inspired the audience and offered students a window into what constitutes professional dance. Courtesy of Erin Baiano.

Dance is a remarkably singular art form, unique both in its fusion of artistry and athleticism and in its ability to tell a story via movement. The striking quality of dance to evoke emotion and awe is exemplified by Doug Varone and Dancers, a venerated New York City contemporary dance company that is currently in its 32nd year. The group performed at the Frances Daly Fergusson Dance Theater in Kenyon Hall on Sunday, Oct. 7, at 7 p.m., in an event that was open to all Vassar students and the greater Poughkeepsie community.

Doug Varone and Dancers is highly distinguished internationally, having performed in more than 125 cities in 45 states across the United States and in Europe, Asia, Canada and South America. The company is also revered across various stages, including opera, theater and concert arenas. Varone’s works are admired by audiences for their electrifying energy and breathtaking complexity.

Vassar Professor and Chair of Dance Stephen Rooks introduced the show. Rooks described what makes Doug Varone’s choreography so compelling, explaining, “His works for me are not only technically proficient, but they also have a great subtext and story lines. There’s a lot of humanity in his works…you’re able to relate on many different levels to the human experience…that’s, for me, very satisfying.”

The show featured four of Varone’s works, including “The Possession Quartet” (1994), “Epilogue” (World Premiere, 2018), “Strict Love” (1994) and “Lux” (2006). The pieces varied in terms of style and tone, but all shared Varone’s trademark ferocity. Alexandra Ashworth ’22 found the structure of the show to be effective, explaining, “I really enjoyed how the four pieces were all different, but intertwined.”

The favorite piece among viewers seemed to be “Strict Love,” which sharply contrasted with the wordless instrumentation of the other numbers by featuring a radio-broadcasted medley of pop songs by Diana Ross and The Jackson Five. Tomás Meade ’22 identified the number as the standout piece, stating, “The radio part…I thought that was really interesting. It caught me off-guard—at first, I thought they played the wrong music. It definitely mixed it up.”

Meade attended the performance as part of his Beginning Modern Dance class. Rooks explained why he requires his students to attend, commenting, “We’re in a unique place in that we have close proximity to New York, and any time we have a company come up, it kind of expands and enhances the information [the students] are getting about dance by having the chance to see a professional company, especially at the level of Doug Varone.”

The Dance Department has endeavored to expose students to contemporary dance performances outside of the classroom. Doug Varone and Dancers was a highlight of this semester’s lineup. Courtesy of Erin Baiano.

Ashworth is also a student of Rooks, and she found the performance to be immensely inspiring and beneficial to her development as a dancer. She stated, “It’s really important, especially when you’re in a beginner dance class, to actually see people doing the things that you’re doing on an elevated level … so you can see, if you are someone who wants to pursue dance, that if you put in enough consecrated effort that you could reach such an accomplished level. Also, the movements of their bodies were so beautiful, and to see that as an example is really helpful when you’re learning.”

Although this was Doug Varone and Dancers’ first full performance at Vassar, the company previously interacted with the Dance Department in other ways. Years ago, the group conducted a master class with Vassar students featuring excerpts from their pieces. Rooks commented on this experience, stating, “[It was a class that] sparked interest in…doing a more formal presentation.” He elaborated on the personal significance of the class by stating that, “To date, [this is] one of the most satisfying experiences that I’ve had as a teacher here with a professional group, in the sense that Doug Varone is by nature very generous, and his classes have that kind of atmosphere, too…that always stuck with me.”

The Vassar Repertory Dance Theater also has a history with Varone’s work. In the past, VRDT adapted Varone’s piece “Chapters from a Broken Novel.” Rooks described the work as brilliant and commented on how it approaches complex topics such as isolation and bullying. Rooks conveyed that the great successes of both the workshop and the repertory work prompted his desire to culminate the experiences in the form of a full performance.

Vassar’s Dance Department aims to bring at least one professional company to campus per year. Past guests include Ballet X, Daniil Simkin from American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey II. These visits take place both in the form of full performances and master class workshops, the latter of which are open to intermediate dancers. The 2018-19 workshops include a class by Doug Varone, as well as a ballet class with Martine van Hamel, a flamenco class with Rebecca Tomas and a Gaga workshop with Amy Morrow. These spaces provide students with additional opportunities to engage with the world of professional dance.

Viewing the work of Doug Varone and Dancers at Vassar proved to be a valuable experience for dancers and non-dancers alike, as all can be moved by witnessing the prowess and artistry of such dedicated performers. Rose Zhang ’19 described the show as an immersive, thrilling experience: “It’s so impressive how they control their bodies, and their freedom and flexibility … I could feel the energy, like I was a part of it.”

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