Fingers Outrace Feet in 'Ukelele'

Doug Varone dancers perform
Doug Varone dancers perform "Beyond the Break (7 Dances for Ukelele)." (By Scott Suchman)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

The ukulele was on Red Bull. Alas, the dancers weren't.

It's a winning premise -- several tunes recorded by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro (think Eric Clapton-esque riffs, rather than the plinkety-plink of Tiny Tim) accompanying the loose, honey-smooth dancing of Doug Varone & Dancers. Varone premiered his new work, "Beyond the Break (7 Dances for Ukelele)," at Wolf Trap Tuesday, capping a program that included two other pieces in which Varone showed us how surprising, liberating and intensely moving his choreography can be. But though there's something instantly quirky about the wee uke, especially when paired with arty concert dance, Varone failed to get much out of the combination.

The choreographer who gives the impression he could slide, slip or two-step out of any tight spot seemed to have boxed himself into a corner. It's a strange first for him. Typically, Varone is an exceptionally fluent dancemaker. His works feel ecstatically free, composed of enlightened ordinariness and a smart, smooth musical sense. He's one of the stalwarts of the modern dance scene -- the Wolf Trap performance kicked off his company's 21st season -- yet there's such fullness and appetite in so many of his works you'd think he had just found his bliss. To wit: "Lux" (2006), which opened the program, felt like nothing more than the unmuzzling of joy, while "The Bottomland," reprised from its 2002 premiere at Wolf Trap, plumbed the depths of honky-tonk in unexpected ways.

Perhaps he felt he had to work against the high energy of the music in "Beyond the Break." For though plenty of excitement came out of the speakers, there was little fizz in the dancing. Make that no fizz. While Shimabukuro was tearing up his tiny strings, holding his own against, say, an electric blues band or a salsa beat, the eight dancers in assorted slacker-wear moped about in a laconic fog. Smoke billowing above the stage underscored the droopiness. As if we needed it.

What Varone seemed to be responding to was the ukulele's sense of tension, an ever-present undercurrent in "Beyond the Break" no matter how beefy or nimble the strumming. In one section, danced to a ukulele version of Paganini's "Caprice No. 24," Eddie Taketa jittered thrugh an uneasy solo, full of anxiety, like a bug around a porch light. At another point, performed to a rendition of a Japanese folk song, Daniel Charon and Natalie Desch lay collapsed on top of each other, strangely despondent though the music roiled and churned around them. The work's one grace note fell at the end; "The Star-Spangled Banner" played upon the uke was like a lullaby, and the dancers had no trouble keeping up with that.

Wolf Trap commissioned "The Bottomland" as part of its "Face of America" series commemorating various national parks. This one paid homage to Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, and includes footage shot on location along the rocky trails and in the underground caverns. Performing to teary-eyed songs by Patty Loveless, the dancers frequently interacted with their larger-than-life video counterparts projected behind them; at times the dancing was only on the screen. Thankfully, Varone didn't tread lightly with this material. Offbeat, deadpan humor was part of the landscape.

Take Loveless's "Raging Fire," a cry for help with her out-of-control passions. For dancers John Beasant III and Erin Owen, sitting side by side on camera as well as live onstage, this took the form of seemingly unstoppable contortions as the two tried with exaggerated effort to avoid an embrace. Taking advantage of the extreme close-ups the video afforded him, Varone zeroed in on their mouths. Lips swept one way, then another, jaws jerked and tongues careened shockingly and hilariously out of context. These two took resisting temptation to heart in a big way-- no urge to kiss was ever more outrageously brought . . . under control.

If restraint was the motif in "Bottomland," "Lux" was all about freedom. It was what dancing really feels like, the kind of dancing I might dream about: loose and sweeping in a spirit of exultation. Nighttime was on Varone's mind, too: The dancers were clad in pajamas of soft, billowy charcoal black, and a full moon rose gradually behind them throughout the piece. Philip Glass's "The Light" kept up a running pulse that boiled to higher and higher peaks, and Varone matched it with his own explosiveness. The dancers kept the tempo in complex ways -- snatches of a hoofer's time step and quicksilver partnering -- but they also maintained a luxuriant, velvety quality. There was a warmth to this piece, an emotional breadth sometimes missing from so many other greats in modern dance. At his best, Varone puts the beating heart at the center of his work.

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