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Doug Varone & Dancers at Hammer Theatre

In Culture
IN TOUCH: A scene from Somewhere, the last piece Doug Varone & Dancers performed before the pandemic. (photo credit: David Bazemore)

IN TOUCH: A scene from Somewhere, the last piece Doug Varone & Dancers performed before the pandemic. (photo credit: David Bazemore)

There’s nothing quite like the beauty of live performance, and especially the kinetic power of dance. That’s something Doug Varone—critically acclaimed and award-winning director and choreographer—understood from the second productions halted at the top of the pandemic in March 2020.

“The world shut down on us on March 12—we were literally preparing to go out on tour the next day, and all of that got cancelled,” Varone says.

Now, 596 days later, the NY-based Varone and his company return to the stage with a rare West Coast visit, bringing the vigor of their contemporary dance stylings planned for their spring 2020 tour to the Hammer Theatre Center this Friday and Saturday. 

Of course, over the last year-plus, Varone and his team haven’t taken off their dancing shoes completely. Rather, Varone quickly pivoted to virtual lessons and connections with his company, producing 10 short dance films that were widely shared out to partner colleges and universities to keep everyone on their toes.

“The crux of what we do and what we love to do is to make dances and get them out to the world, and of course, that was not possible,” Varone says. 

As the pandemic raged on, Varone and his dancers reassessed their work, considering ways to better realign pieces with the current state of the new world in a way that “feels vital.”

“The arts are so much of a salve of what we are as a society, and so many people learned that in the last year-and-a-half,” Varone says. “To be able to have live theater and live dance happening again is exciting, not just to people who usually partake in it, but to those who’ve never experienced it before. There’s an eagerness to get back to things.”

Hollis Bartlett began working with Varone nearly a decade ago, and he wasn’t going to allow the pandemic to stop his connection to the company or the artform. At the start of 2020, the company was developing new work in collaboration with students at SUNY Purchase. The team then had to quickly transition to digital education opportunities, with Bartlett and other company members continuing to build community from across screens.

“It’s through education that we foster community,” Bartlett says. “It creates this beautiful dialogue with the community that we’re in and really feeds the work that we do. We all felt so disconnected. I think all of our students felt the same way, so we did our best to create that sense of connection with one another.”

The weekend’s performance will focus on three compositions: “Somewhere,” “Lux” (considered one of Varone’s masterworks) and “Octet,” the last of which will feature members of the SJSU Dance Department. The first work, set to Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” premiered in Sept. 2019—the last time the company was on stage live prior to the pandemic shutdowns.

“Coming back together again was learning to shift where we were, and how to bring those new learned facets back to the studio,” he says. “We are very much a family—to not see members of your family for a year-and-a-half was very, very difficult. But the things that we cherished in our art form and in the work environment all remained the same. It was a powerful moment to find our way back to that.”

In July 2021, the company was able to reconvene in person to prepare for tour again. Bartlett says it was “refreshing” to return to the creative process with his fellow dancers, with Varone at the helm.

“That was a really beautiful way for us to return in person—the creative process of starting something new,” he says. “We weren’t quite picking up where we left off, but it was like seeing where things were left—through the chaos, seeing what was left. To see where we are and see where we can get back.”

Ultimately, in returning to the stage, Varone believes the audience will be enthralled by the work, as well as gain more respect for the optimism and beauty of dance as an artform.

“Every artist has been affected by the pandemic,” Varone says. “I believe all of the works that come from here will be extraordinary.”
Doug Varone & Dancers
Fri-Sat, 7:30pm, $35+
Hammer Theatre Center, San Jose

 

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