At the ADF, as with any festival, only a few people get to experience one of the most interesting aspects: the festival itself as an artwork, with its varying tones, textures and contrasts, climaxes and anti-climaxes, and building excitement as the work progresses. I couldn’t help thinking of this when Doug Varone and Dancers leapt onto the stage in Page Auditorium on July 6. Suddenly it was summer again: after the frigid games of Emanuel Gat, and Shen Wei’s cool brilliance, Varone’s warmth and humanity blew into the theater like a balmy south wind. While no one could have missed these characteristics at any time, in the festival’s immediate context, they really stood out.

Varone himself did not perform, but the other eight company members danced with the splendid physicality of tigers going about their tiger business. Although the three pieces on the program were carefully choreographed and prepared, the dancers still conveyed an exhilarating feeling of freshness and spontaneity. In this they were helped considerably by Varone’s delicious musical choices – and by their obvious feeling for the music. Take physicality, musicality, and a love for humanity, season with good costuming and fine lighting, and you’ve got a recipe for great dance performances.

The centerpiece of the evening was the premiere of Boats Leaving, set to Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum. What a beautiful thing this is! You are in a cathedral, you are on a wharf…, you watch boats crossing the river Jordan, you quail before the boat loading to cross the river Styx. You wander in dim confusion; shafts of dusty light illume you for a moment with a comprehending faith. All the while, a chanting chorus and Pärt’s bell-like sounds vibrate in your chest, and your search for community and truth and belief surges forward only to catch in a freeze-frame — your efforts crumble, fracture, reassemble themselves, and you push on, with the others, through the light and through the dimness on the journey that is always beginning but never ends in this lifetime.

These dancers are neither brushstrokes nor metaphors nor automatons — they are humans, individual people, and we respond to their body language and gesture so powerfully that we project ourselves into the stage space and move in our spirits along with them. To me, this is the essence of great art.

The other two pieces on the program were just as thrilling to the spirit. The evening opened with a joyous rendition of Rise, a work from 1993 that has become somewhat of a signature piece for the company. Danced to John Adams’s swooping, swelling, and (dare I say it?) romantic Fearful Symmetries, it builds architecturally and grows organically at once. And when it is over, a strap or two around your heart has burst, and you glow with the satisfaction of having seen a web of dramatic arcs formed into a lovely sphere, complete in itself.

The evening ended, as an evening of dance often should, with waltzing. Prokofiev’s wonderful Waltz Suite, Op. 110, provides the foundation for Castles. The ballroom of the stage comes alive with vignettes, dozens of little stories between and among the people. We may get only snatches of story, before the dancers swirl away and another couple claims our attention. But there are no jagged fragments here, no pastiche of clamorous disjunctions; and nothing is broken, treated with faux irony, or cynically sneered at. Wholeness in art has been about as well-valued as kindness in corporate affairs for the two decades Varone has been making dances, but that only makes his instinct for dramatic wholeness and human feeling all the more valuable.