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Dance vignettes come together in ‘Chapters from a Broken Novel’

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Dance vignettes come together in ‘Chapters from a Broken Novel’
Doug Varone and Dancers’ Alex Springer, Erin Owen, Julia Burrer and Ryan Corri perform one of their intricate vignettes from “Chapters from a Broken Novel.” (Photo: Phil Knott)

Dancers can bring drama to the simplest act, such as walking across a stage. Or they can use their bodies to conjure an entire scene, such as the last moments of a dying swan.

Choreographer Doug Varone combines both kinds of drama in “Chapters from a Broken Novel.” Presented by World Music/CRASHarts, his company Doug Varone and Dancers performed the Boston premiere of this 2010 work in three performances at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

No stranger to storytelling, Varone is a choreographer active in opera, theater and film as well as dance. In 1986 he founded his Manhattan-based company, which has received 11 New York Dance and Performance Awards (Bessies) for physically daring, vividly musical dances that evoke human dramas.

All these qualities were on display Friday evening as Varone’s seven strong dancers performed a 74-minute version of “Chapters.” The nonstop suite of 20 brief vignettes, some just a few seconds long, was inspired by phrases that Varone overheard or read and recorded in a notebook.   

The atmospheric, propulsive score by David Van Tieghem interwove pulsing electronics, sweeping symphonic passages and drum solos. Liz Prince’s low-key costumes gave each dancer a unique look within a common palette of pale hues. Andrew Lieberman designed the spare and elegant set. Above the dancers, a billowing white canopy covered a row of spotlights and a display flashed the title of each dance. On each side of the stage stood four vertical rigs of stage lights, like so many mechanical trees.

Jane Cox orchestrated all this wattage into subtle and expressive lighting that became like an eighth member of the ensemble. In some scenes, a nimbus of light enveloped the dancers in tones that varied from pale green to gold. At other times, liquid light bathed the dancers’ profiles. Nimble interplays of light and dark sculpted the space surrounding the dancers, injecting momentary shadows behind soloists or casting spheres of light that fractured the tide-like current of the ensemble as it crossed the stage.

The astonishing opening segment, “Spilling the Contents,” laid out the evening’s ground rules — speed, complexity and athletic bravura. Moving simultaneously as a single organism and seven distinct individuals, the dancers took ordinary acts — such as running, walking, pushing or touching one another’s shoulder, and turned themselves into a single, fast-moving knot of energy.

A dancer would introduce a gesture, which then spread like a contagion throughout the ensemble. With nonstop grace, the dancers would fall and rise, slow down and speed up and cross the stage with and against the momentum of their fellow dancers.

After this riveting prelude, the ensemble unraveled into solos, duets, trios and quartets to follow the evening’s various story-telling threads. As in most collections of short stories, some episodes were more engaging than others.

Natalie Desch began with a solo with its provocative title, “Another Failure,” looming overhead. In the lyrical “The Ghosts of Insects,” four dancers whizzed in filigrees of light. Netta Yerushalmy and Ryan Corriston performed “Glass,” an edgy duo that suited its name.

The best of the vignettes translated a moment, memory or fleeting emotion associated with their carefully chosen titles into inventive dance.

Some stop short of invention. “Men,” with Corriston, Eddie Taketa and Alex Springer, used the familiar device of awkward ballroom-style couplings to explore male bonding.

The disturbing “Erased by Degrees,” conjured with terrible precision the uncertainty that afflicts a torture victim as fellow dancers subjected Erin Owen to a series of bullying gestures.   

In the concluding episodes, “Gravity” and “The Final Proverb,” the company returned to its surging, full-strength force, with Julia Burrer unfolding her long limbs in a radiant solo.