ith awe-inspiring dedication, DANCEworks founder and executive director Dianne Vapnek has pursued a grand vision for 22 years ​— ​to provide great choreographers with optimal conditions for creating critical new work, and to engage a passionate audience for contemporary dance. Beginning with SUMMERDANCE in 1997, then entering into partnership with the Lobero Theatre Foundation for DANCEworks in 2009, the results of her remarkable quest have, year after year, never been short of extraordinary. The list of resident choreographers who have initiated major works thanks to Vapnek’s programs goes on and on: Doug Elkins, Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton, Mark Dendy, Kate Weare, Shannon Gillen, Adam Barruch, Brian Brooks, and close to a dozen more. Put another way, you know something serious is happening when you find yourself thinking, “I almost forgot about Baryshnikov.” 

DANCEworks presents its last program this weekend at the Lobero on Friday-Saturday, September 6-7. There will be sadness for sure ​— ​it’s the end of an era ​— ​but also much to celebrate. Doug Varone and Dancers will reconnect the series to its beginnings ​— ​Varone was a resident artist at the first SUMMERDANCE ​— ​and will tap one of the most powerful creative currents in American performing arts history through the music of Leonard Bernstein. Somewhere, a nonnarrative work set to the music of Bernstein’s West Side Story, is the new piece, and it will anchor a program including Varone’s Lux, which was created in Santa Barbara during the final season of SUMMERDANCE in 2006, along with a pair of the choreographer’s inimitable solos.

DANCEworks presents its last program this weekend, and while it’s the end of an era, there is also much to celebrate. Doug Varone and Dancers will present Somewhere (pictured), a non-narrative work set to the music of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

A substantial residency with continuous access to the stage in the same theater where the finished piece will be performed: This was the conspicuously unmet need of the North American dance scene that both SUMMERDANCE and DANCEworks aimed to satisfy. Ordinarily, dancers and choreographers must by necessity make most new dance in studios, then perform it on theater stages that always differ from the studio environment in multiple important ways. While choreographers have strategies to cope with transferring their work from studio to stage ​— ​measuring, timing, counting, etc. ​— ​they inevitably find upon arrival that they must begin again to adapt things further on the fly. 

For years, American choreographers did all this adjusting while dreaming of a better way; that other way, that “somewhere,” was DANCEworks. The formula, brilliant in its simplicity, guaranteed an out-of-routine experience. A dance company arrived in Santa Barbara; they were housed, fed, and suitably feted; and for a month they enjoyed daily access to the stage at the Lobero, the same location in which they eventually performed. The setting offered the maximum possible freedom from the day-to-day concerns that follow these groups to their familiar rehearsal studios at home. As a guest at multiple rehearsals, I witnessed the impact of this unusual circumstance. Watching the dancers, at work and at rest, always brought an unmistakable sense of fit. These men and women, and the art they create, belong here. 

Kate Weare’s “Sin Salida/ In Love/Broke Beyond”

Choosing Partners

It would be hard to pin down Vapnek’s taste, given the wide range of choreographers she has invited to participate. What has been consistent is the sense that the program is grounded in the same values as the fundamentally auteur-led companies she’s brought in. In brief, it breaks down like this: Be intelligent, be nimble, be self-aware, be direct, and always nurture your dancers. And what Vapnek has done for these choreographers is exactly what she sees them doing for their dancers, which is creating the conditions under which they can thrive and in which great work can happen. Hearing Varone talk about the kind of paradigm shift that led him from his early impressionism to a more mature, pointillistic style, one understands that the DANCEworks residency means much more than another showcase, or even a commission or grant. Coming here has given these artists a chance to change course and a place to let go of the old and become new again. What more could one ask from a performing arts program?

Adam Barruch’s “Sweeney Todd” (2015)

While the DANCEworks residency provides the general climate, the temperament of the individual companies brings the weather. It comes in as flurries of risk, stiff breezes of vulnerability, and warm sun rays of intuition. This weather can get blustery, but the fact that choreographers see DANCEworks as a place to stretch and challenge assumptions turns stormy days into an integral part of the process. The result expands one’s sense of what’s possible.

Speaking of what’s possible, none of this could have happened without the unique contribution made by the Lobero Theatre Foundation. Vapnek admitted that she was shocked by how easily David Asbell agreed to what she assumed was an outsized request. “It was not what I expected,” she said. “I thought I was asking for the moon and David Asbell said, ‘Sure, we can do that.’” What’s perhaps more shocking is how completely the Lobero staff committed to fulfilling even the most unusual requests from the choreographers. Fifty pairs of combat boots? They found them. Cover the stage in several tons of rubber mulch? They did that, too. No idea was too far out, and no detail was too small for them not to make it happen. Add to this technical support the expert documentation of the program by David Bazemore in photos and videos and Ninette Paloma, Elizabeth Schwyzer, and Rachel Howard in writing, and you have a setting that’s grown into much more than a venue through which companies tour. Instead, thanks to DANCEworks, the Lobero has grown into a space known throughout the dance world as a place where people create. It’s the theater as grand studio, and the city as ultimate salon.

Choosing Material

West Side Story is having a moment, what with a new Ivo van Hove/Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker Broadway production slated for February 2020 and Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Justin Peck, and Gustavo Dudamel working on a film scheduled for release in December of that same year. Yet Varone’s take in Somewhere already appears to have an edge over the others in terms of originality simply based on his premise: no narrative. As he put it in a recent Friday Club talk back, part of the DANCEworks audience engagement strategy is “no New York, no Tony, no Maria.” Just the music and the movement. 

Doug Elkins’s “Kintsugi” (2018)

Varone is of course well aware of the cluster of West Side Story projects in the near future, but he’s unconcerned about their impact on his own work. “There was a moment in time where I felt a little overwhelmed by the prospect of adding to the collection,” he told me. He said he knew “that it would potentially be seen as just another attempt at it.” But through the combination of his own passion for the project and the confidence that comes from being under Vapnek’s creative umbrella, he obtained the rights from the Bernstein foundation to create the first version of West Side Story to push beyond the original narrative into new, more abstract territory. 

Doug Varone’s “Somewhere” (2019)

The results that Varone and company have achieved so far with this approach are startling thanks to three equally powerful influences. First, there’s the sheer sonic modernity of Bernstein’s score, which has only grown in stature over the half century since it was composed. Nothing on Broadway had ever sounded like this before, and there was no other place where such music could be heard at that time, unless perhaps one frequented New York’s Birdland Jazz Club. Then there are the feelings triggered by one’s memory of the original. Vapnek remembers traveling from her childhood home in western Massachusetts to New York City to see the original Broadway production. “I saw it twice,” she told me. “It was like I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Finally, there’s the movement onstage, which is 100 percent of this time and place, thanks both to Varone’s distinctive style and to the way he draws on his performers’ imaginations and physicality. Improvising like master jazz musicians in rehearsal, then consolidating that work into larger blocks of coordinated action, the company is extending the choreographic impulse evident in the original show. Jerome Robbins set out to smash the stodgy staging practices of earlier musicals by using the entire stage continuously, and despite the fact that these new steps are nothing like his work ​— ​don’t expect to see any finger snaps ​— ​the whole retains his sense of revolutionary discovery and freedom from convention.

Interview with Doug Varone

by Charles Donelan

I had a chance to sit and talk with Doug Varone during a break one day last week, and his answers to my questions were so vivid and interesting it seemed a shame not to offer several of them in full. What follows are excerpts from a longer conversation, lightly edited and rearranged to give a picture of how he sees this work, DANCEworks, and the great legacy of Dianne Vapnek’s contribution to the art form.

What has DANCEworks meant to you and to the other resident choreographers and companies that have come through?  This type of a program is very rare in this country. I mean, to be able to be in a situation where we have access to a theater eight hours a day to create and to be a company is nonexistent here. So any of the artists that have come through I’m sure will share my sentiment in saying how invaluable this has been.

You created Lux (2006) to a score by Philip Glass in Santa Barbara?  The work that I was creating in an odd way had slightly stalled. I went through an incredible period, a very fertile time, in the early ’90s, up to about 1995. And then I had about three years where I was doing a lot of theater projects and trying to figure out when the next phase of creativity would hit, because I feel like as artists, we move in stages. And when I came here [in 2006] to work on Bel Canto, it was the exact moment when something new began to explode for me. And I took that ride and did as much as I could within the confines of Bel Canto in terms of dealing with musicality in a different way. I’d been working in opera a great deal, and I was trying to find a way to utilize my knowledge as an opera director and choreographer in the contemporary dance world.

Our performance [of Bel Canto] was in week three out of four, and my natural inclination was to let everyone just go to the beach for a week. Then my artist inclination kicked in, and I wanted to use the time to go back into the studio and create a piece that was radically different than what we had just worked on. So, I was interested in making a work that really utilized the dancers as the physical animals that they are, and in creating a work that felt like it had a great deal of optimism to it. And that became Lux.

DANCEworks founder Dianne Vapnek (left) shares a moment with Varone.

You’ve spoken about dancing to the music of West Side Story in your room when you were a child. Can you reflect a little on the experience of returning to something that got to you so early?  I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older and understand more about who I am as an artist how much of that was informed and crafted at an early age. The things that I remember as a very young child ​— ​the slapstick of the Three Stooges, or watching I Love Lucy reruns when I was 5 years old, listening to these albums that my folks would buy that were just pieces of music that I didn’t know, watching MGM musicals and falling in love with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly ​— ​all of these things have informed me and the world that I create. I feel like I’ve spilled out of that youth, and this West Side Story project is very much reflective of that.

The Mantovani orchestra recording of West Side Story classics, you know, all cheesy string scoring, they compelled me as a young child to move to them and to dance to them. I started as a tap dancer when I was 6 years old, so a lot of my early training came out of creative dancing in my room. And I didn’t know what these were; I didn’t know what West Side Story was. But years later, when the connection clicked in, it was fascinating to understand the connection to the score, the connection to who I was becoming as a dancer, and that relationship to Jerome Robbins and that choreography. And this project now feels as if I’ve come full circle. Because I’m beginning to hear and see and approach the music the way I did as a 5-year-old, which is just as sound and an aural landscape that’s filling my imagination without the baggage ​— ​the beautiful baggage, I might add ​— ​of the West Side Story narrative, which I knew nothing about.

“Somewhere” (2019)

I feel like that’s what I feel like in my entire career. That is what I have done as an artist, to find a visual landscape that matches the aural landscape that I’m drawn to. Because I feel like I am a painter. I’m a visual artist; I paint with bodies in space. It’s like Kandinsky in a way. I’m responding to sounds with bodies. And I have always felt that there’s a way to visualize an internal motivation through movement. I hear a score, and it compels me to tell a story.

Some of the material you have generated is based on the way that scenes in the West Side Story movie are shot and edited. Could you expand on that aspect of what you are doing? Are you translating the film to the stage?  Actually, I would say I’m not sure “translating” is the right word. I think “utilizing” it is better. I’m utilizing the film’s cuts in more of a device way, being able to step into one of the production numbers and to take a look at it and to use my eye, and the dancers to recreate images and pictures, but to, in its own way, pay homage to that and to also build a vocabulary that that isn’t about dance steps. But it’s about transitions, and it’s about the pictures in space, and it’s about the awkwardness of moving from one place to the next. And seeing what that can do. Because if I would allow myself to just make dance steps, then it would be easy to revert back to making dances that are reflective of the narrative.

4•1•1 | DANCEworks presents Doug Varone and Dancers on Friday-Saturday, September 6-7, 8 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). For tickets and information, see lobero.org or call (805) 963-0761.