Dancing in the Fold: A Swarthmore Performer’s Experience

From November 11-15, I had the honor of spending the week training and dancing with the New York City based dance company Doug Varone and Dancers. This extraordinary and renowned professional contemporary company, which has performed in more than 125 cities in the United States, Europe, Latin America, Asia, South America, and Canada, was in Swarthmore and headlining the Cooper Series performance. Physical training, technical and lighting rehearsals, spacing, and choreography culminated a performance of “In the Shelter of the Fold.” The piece consists of six distinct sections, each of which intertwines movement and emotion based on Varone’s different concepts of “faith.” As a member of the Swarthmore Dance Ensemble, I performed “Mass,” one of the works in “In the Shelter of the Fold.” Eleven Swarthmore students and I danced on stage with Doug Varone and Dancers to LPAC’s packed audience. This is an experience that gave me deep, boundless joy.  

This performance would not be possible without months of hard work and collaboration. Stephanie Liapis, Assistant Professor of Dance and former member of Doug Varone and Dancers, was the superglue that linked Swarthmore dancers with this respected, thrilling company. She crucially organized and coordinated the 2019-2020 Cooper Series dance residency with the company. Professor Liapis also organized our audition last spring by teaching us part of the piece, which is in the unique, kinetic style of Doug Varone’s choreography. She then taped our performances and sent them to Varone. I was lucky enough to participate in the audition and be selected to perform with Doug Varone and Dancers. As someone who began dancing as a classical ballerina, I was now challenged to use every part of my body, from my fingertips to my toes, in new, beautiful ways. 

My fellow dancers and I spent ten weeks rehearsing “Mass” with Professor Liapis. “Mass” is a technical and physical piece made up of many series of duets, trios, solos, and small groups. “Mass” conveys both to the audience and dancers a strong sense of community, which was perfect for the group of Swarthmore dancers. The Swarthmore Dance Ensemble is made up of 22 dancers from both Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr. We were split into two casts, each of which would perform “Mass” for one night. We had six rehearsal hours each week to embody the unique, physical choreography movement style of Doug Varone and his company. Varone’s style of movement contains lots of loose-thrown arm movements, grounded turns, partnering, and floorwork. In September, Varone company member Hollis Bartlett traveled from NYC to Swarthmore to work directly with us and stage some of the more intricate parts of “Mass.”

The week of the show, Doug Varone and Company’s dancers swooped into our Monday night rehearsal from 6:15-9:15pm. Suddenly, the Swarthmore Dance Ensemble was elevated to the major leagues! 

The company’s dancers patiently worked with us to perfect the choreography and tone of “Mass.” Unlike other professional and pre-professional companies with which I have worked, Doug Varone and his dancers were positive, inclusive, and energetic. Working with professional dancers is not always this rewarding. Choreographers often only care about their vision and ego, especially in the commercial industries. Many professional opportunities I have had outside of Swarthmore were not focused on helping me grow as a dancer or person. In contrast, each company member of Doug Varone and Dancers projected an innate and warm desire to help Swarthmore students transform into actual member of Doug Varone’s company for this performance. I felt a Swarthmore spirit of inclusion and kindness while I worked with Doug Varone and Dancers. Upon arriving, they strove to learn and remember each of our names. This felt welcoming to me, having often been referred to in professional dance settings as “the tall girl,” “you in the back,” or “number seventy-eight” (you get the gist). By calling each of us by name, the company members made me feel like I was their peer. The relationships Varone’s dancers created with us made the intense week leading to the performance feel like we were enfolded into their professional company.

During the rehearsals, both casts of “Mass” got to run the choreography and receive notes and feedback from Varone and company members. This direct and specific attention was invaluable and personal because many of the company members had themselves danced our roles in “Mass.” The dancers share tips on how to execute individual movements based on their own experiences. During our Monday rehearsal, I got to work closely with company member Ryan Yamauchi to perfect the counts and exact positioning on my last trio. Also, Varone company members Dequan Lewis and Jake Bone helped students perfect their technique and positioning for complicated lifts. Each day, members of the Varone company also taught open master classes within the Swarthmore Dance Department. The week spent training with the company and learning more of its repertory transformed each of us from just being a student concerned about midterms into feeling like a professional dancer.

Learning more of Doug Varone and Dancers’ choreography, as well as the company’s creative and choreographic tools, helped me further embody my role in “Mass.” Varone’s extraordinary style asks the body to be both fluid and precise, loose and poised, to be flat down or extending upright, as well as to touch and entwine or be touched and entwined by others. Each masterclass was taught by two company members who would share teaching the choreography and emotion lurking around it. The complete and extensive masterclasses allowed students to learn more about the company and ourselves as dancers. Most classes were taught split between a male and female company member. The classes were open to the entire school — bringing the inclusivity and joy of movement to dancers from all backgrounds and any experience. 

The members of the Swarthmore Dance Ensemble who performed on stage with Doug Varone and Dancers spent each night from 7-9pm on the LPAC mainstage rehearsing, spacing, and tech-ing. This time on stage brought us closer as a group and fused us to become temporary but essential parts of the Doug Varnone company. As we rehearsed those long nights, we were also able to closely watch the other pieces that make up the show. The opportunity to observe allowed us to get a larger, deeper feel for the overall program of which we were to be a part. Student dancers began weaving connections to professional dancers. Night after night, standing backstage with professional dancers at our home stage was surreal. The weeklong hours of nightly rehearsals elevated all of us as dancers and, at least temporarily allowed other concerns and responsibilities to evaporate.

The day of the performance exploded into a day of excitement. Tech weeks can be exhausting, but I woke up Friday morning coursing with adrenaline. The energy of both students and dancers felt strong — both a giddiness and an intensity swirled about. We were all ready to perform. We had worked hard all semester and that week. Importantly, I was proud of how our work and community had evolved. By the end of the week, we became one big, extended dance family. One of my enduring highlights was warming up before the show with the entire cast. Professor Liapis’ warm-up class, which is legendary among students and company members alike, mixes everyone performing in their own way to create one whole. Her warm-up is special because it energizes, strengthens, and loosens every muscle in the body through stretching, breath, and yoga-based movements. She also finishes her warm up with a walk around the space, in which participants acknowledge the presence of those around them. The energy of the dancers was excited, inclusive, and powerful. More than anything, this pre-performance warm-up finalized the place of the Swarthmore students’ role onstage with this 33-year-old legendary professional dance company. “Mass” is the fifth piece in the performance, and as we waited for our piece, we watched the program backstage and in the wings — as peers of the cast waiting.

Performing “Mass” onstage with the company was an experience like no other. Our group finally got to show our work to a live audience of family, friends, members of the community who support dance as well as show Varone and the company the work that we had put in. I have always felt at home in the theater. Performing for an audience gives me an energy like no other. I find it thrilling, rewarding, calming, and routine — it is something I have loved since I was three years old. Performing alongside Doug Varone and Dancers as well as the Swarthmore Dance Ensemble didn’t change these feelings — it strengthened them and added depth and further meaning to be surrounded by others that shared these feelings. “Mass,” especially, is a dance about community, and that was truly felt by the Swarthmore Dance Ensemble as we stood backstage.  

When the twelve of us walked off the stage, Varone and many of his company members were sitting downstairs in LPAC laughing when we entered. Varone pointed at us Swarthmore dancers and joked, “Look they’re smiling — they know they did well!” He continued to commend us for our strong performance even as we crossed down the stairs for entrance in the finale. When we came off the stage for the final time, we found that the cast had left us a card, and each of us received a small paper notebook signed by every Doug Varone and Company dancer. I will treasure mine forever. It is the memory of being part of this professional group — even if just for a week.

This dance experience was like no other. The semester-long Doug Varone and Dancers residency shows the caliber of both Swarthmore’s dancers and of the Swarthmore Dance Department’s ability to bring in a strong professional company. So much gratitude goes from all of us to Professor Liapis. Giving Swarthmore students this invaluable and enriching opportunity stands out as an incredible gift to liberal arts students also juggling everything from papers and exams to laundry and next semester’s course registration. 

As a standalone piece in the Fall Dance Concert, “Mass” will be performed again this Friday, December 6th at 4:30pm, and performed by the second cast on Saturday, December 7th at 8pm.

Featured image courtesy of Erin Baiano

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