BECKET — The New York-based modern dance company Doug Varone & Dancers, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, appears at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival through the weekend in a program that begins with noodling and ends with doodling. (And in between lies a small masterpiece.)
“Noodling” is Varone’s description of the process by which he choreographed his 1987 solo “Nocturne.” The sketchiness of the term aside, one sees, in the original and in the sequel he’s created to commemorate these Pillow performances, the sure craft of a choreographer whose coming of age as an artist was colored by both the post-Judson Church era’s embrace of pedestrianism as well as a luxury of movement for movement’s sake that transcends time and trends.
Dancing to nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin, in each solo Varone moves about the stage restlessly, sometimes strolling with a casual swagger, jogging with slight agitation, or whipping into a short series of soutenu turns. Now he swoops his arms loosely, now he reaches them into a deliberately etched shape; or he gestures vaguely, as if talking to an invisible companion — or perhaps to himself.
In a company-produced video in which he discusses the first solo’s genesis, Varone noted his early admiration for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. “Seeing the human in the movement rather than the movement itself has always been a key to the dances that I make,” he stated. While Varone himself still dances with a sweeping — if less airborne — vigor, there is indeed something particularly moving about the specter of mortality in these solos created three decades apart, the reminder of the inherent melancholy of a dancer’s relatively short performance life.
How many of Varone’s eight terrific dancers had even been born in 1987? No matter, for though they are certainly strong and sprightly denizens of both air and earth they are also mature, thoughtful performers, capable of presenting a somber work such as Varone’s “Boats Leaving” with sensitivity. At the same time, their agility also allows them to perform Varone’s brand of loosely thrusting phrases (the aforementioned “doodling”) strewn throughout the triple bill’s closing dance, his wild and eccentric 2015 “ReComposed.” Choreographed to Michael Gordon’s carnival-like score, and inspired by Joan Mitchell’s tempestuously abstract pastel drawings, “ReComposed” makes the stage a canvas across which Varone flings his dancers. The dichromatic costumes, designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, snap handsomely against the gorgeous hues of Robert Wierzel’s lighting design. The near-frenzied flow of constant, at times seemingly unrelated choreography is finally too captivating to dismiss as random. I found it best to follow the dancers — whose deadpan expressions added to the zany “whatever” of it all — and just go with the flow.
In the affecting 2006 “Boats,” we see one of Varone’s most striking compositional hallmarks: physically rigorous, bare-footed and sweaty choreography delivered with an earnest tactility. This honesty among the ensemble — “the human in the movement” — and Varone’s own artistic integrity are crucial to a dance depicting an imperiled community of refugees. Varone even dares to set the work to Arvo Pärt’s “Te Deum,” a work whose own searing grandeur threatens to spill over into melodrama.
Instead, Varone and his ensemble maintain a fine line of haunting truth and beauty. In a series of fleeting tableaux vivants inspired by newspaper images, the dancers’ bodies illustrate the defeating tensions and exhaustion of human struggle borne of horror, but also the poignancy of perseverance on both an individual and a communal level. At times they pause, frozen in time; sometimes they jerkily back up, as if rewinding history. Often they grasp hands or wrists and create a human chain and strain determinedly to hold on; the inevitable breach is shattering. Finally, however, the grace of humanity — the ways in which our species has fought for existence, the ways in which we do reach back for others — provides the strongest afterimage.
DOUG VARONE & DANCERS
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $35-$69. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.orgJanine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.