Dancing Through a Legacy

It’s a balmy Saturday evening in Santa Barbara, and the mood outside of the Lobero Theatre is thick with anticipation. A flurry of gauzy dresses float across the Esplanade and straight into the theatre–dancers, no doubt, wanting to get into their seats early and settle into the evening’s program.

And then, with little more than a brief introduction by a beaming Dianne Vapnek, the dancing begins.

Quietly at first, under low-hanging lights and a desolate stage, Aya Wilson tests the air around her with delicate fingers and studied legs. Soon the other dancers follow, encouraged by the mounting bravado of Leonard Bernstein’s familiar score. When Bradley Beakes and Ryan Yamauchi take the stage for their much-anticipated pas de deux, “Somewhere” takes on a transformation of the heart. This is love and yearning and vulnerability and desire that we recognize all too well. And the results are piercing.

When it’s all over, the audience leaps to their feet in a rousing ovation, nourished by the textures and nuances of a residency piece to gratify the DANCEworks legacy.

When Doug Varone himself takes the stage for his touching solo “Nocturne,” the journey of an artist reveals itself in the fits and starts of the creative process, his poignant gestures ebbing and flowing between confidence and self-awareness. And when “Short Story” follows, it’s as if Varone has transmuted his intimate expectations and desires to his adept kin, who race across the stage with it in fortified gratitude.

But it was the electric canvas of a piece with modest beginnings named “Lux,” a piece born out of Varone’s impulse to squeeze the juices of inspiration dry until his art lay bare in a pulsating heap of heaving bodies and fully expired emotion that brought the curtain down on Vapnek’s beloved series.

Vapnek once remarked that DANCEworks was born out of a simple desire to inject a lulling city with a little New York drive, but I suspect that once Aszure Barton–the first artist in the DANCEworks series–took to the Lobero stage back in 2009, she detected (as we all did) that something bigger was amiss. The impact and implications of a homegrown, grassroots organization with global regard (remember when Mikhail Baryshnikov paid a visit?) will undoubtedly be a blueprint for many institutions to follow. But none will ever be able to replicate the magic that reveals itself against the backdrop of a Spanish Colonial Revival theatre and the conviviality of an arts-fueled community like Santa Barbara. 

At evening’s end, when performance gave way to a raucous farewell party on the Lobero stage, the energy and spirit of Varone’s work lingered over the theatre, bouncing off the proscenium and injecting guests with the palpable desire to boogie it out on the dance floor. When the D.J. started playing ABBA’s Dancing Queen, I scanned the party to see where Vapnek might be, and spotted her holding court in the center of the festivities, dancing in the glow of gratification; our dancing queen indeed.

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