O! Petronio

The American Dance Festival hopped back onto the big stage at DPAC last night with an interesting program by the Stephen Petronio Company: two revivals of works by important (post)modernist choreographers, and a more recent work by Petronio.

The evening opens with Trisha Brown’s 1979 Glacial Decoy. I’ve never been able to warm up to Brown’s work–its concerns are just too purely formal for me, and I’m pretty much through with “the critique of the proscenium.” Here, a slow dance of large images dominates the stage–backdrop-sized black and white Robert Rauschenberg photos projected and moving through a slide show. The right-most image drops away, the other three slide over, and a new image appears on the left. The images are connected via formal commonalities, and our appreciation of those shifts as the context changes. It is pretty wonderful, although the viewer needs to keep in mind that the imagery would not have seemed so nostalgic or retro-cool in 1979.

These images are very large, and sometimes the scale within them is huge or very small. Although they depict space, the image panels are, naturally, merely planar in the physical space of the stage. Thus a tension is created between their specious hyper-reality, and the actual reality of the dancers’ bodies in motion, and by the play of scales (e.g. a very tall dancer apparently dwarfed by chair photographed to appear to be made for a giant). The most interesting thing to me about Glacial Decoy is the bumping of dimensional dancer-space against the impervious wall of depicted space. The dancers, four women, virginal goddesses in see-though white gowns revealing their fully human forms, work, without music, in a narrow band of the stage (compressed, I suppose, by two constricting conventions, the back wall and the proscenium), and are remarkably difficult to see clearly. Unlike the photo-imagery, they are never quite in focus. They move across and back from the line where their faces fall into shadow; the lighting on the sheer dresses makes them glow, blurring the lines of the bodies beneath. They are formal constructs, not people. All this has, or had, some intellectual merit, but for this viewer, there was nothing about the dance that made it as interesting as the photo flow. And for all of the work’s critique of boxed stage space bound by the repressive proscenium–it is performed on stage. For a different viewpoint, see this spring’s New York Times review.

Baseball Championship

The Stephen Petronio Company performing Merce Cunningham’s RainForest for ADF at the DPAC, 6/24/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


However, Merce Cunningham’s 1968 RainForest is another matter entirely. It is wonderful that there are dance troupes with the physical wherewithal to take on Cunningham work…it is not disappearing into history yet. The six Petronio dancers command the material: they are accurate and precise and brilliantly alive. Engaged in recognizable, if somewhat mythologized, human activities, they are not formal ciphers. The dance may be abstract, but the bodies are bodies. And in their sheer, tattered bodysuits, these bodies’ warm flesh with its ragged skin-toned coverings make the most delicious contrast with Andy Warhol’s “decor,” composed entirely of Mylar pillow-balloons. (In 1968, Mylar had only recently become available. A wondrous Space Age material, it signifies possibility, expansive newness, a fresh potential, in contrast to the eons-old ways of earthy humans and their myths.) The pillows gleam and glow silver and gold, and move gently in the air wafted by the dancers’ motions. There’s gorgeous strange electronic music by David Tudor (Rainforest) that at moments will scratch on your last nerve, played by Phil Edelstein and Ronald Kuivila.

The choreography has qualities that I’ve come to value more and more. Every single position and motion seem absolutely necessary, even inevitable. For all he played with randomness, Cunningham also played with certainty. Nothing mushy here, and nothing coy. The interplay of the clear and certain choreographed movement with the gentle random motion of the balloons has something in common with the Brown piece, but works so much better (and you may note some elegant commonalities with some of Paul Taylor’s dances). And the six dancers were magnificent throughout.

Baseball Championship

The Stephen Petronio Company in his Locomotor, at ADF, 6/24/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


But wait! These high-stamina dancers were just getting warmed up for Stephen Petronio’s Locomotor (2014). This is dancing! One defining characteristic of Petronio’s choreography is his use of the arms. His own arms are very long and powerful and he’s given his signature sweeping movements to all the eight dancers of Locomotor. Oh, it is thrilling to see eight powerful bodies in continual motion, chests out, arms out, everything taut and whirling. The expansive arms and wide-stretching legs cause each body to take up lots of space, and the dancers build up lots of speed, coming close, so close, as they whip around each other, the outstretched hands interleaving; the ankles crossing, almost meeting. It is as exciting as the circus, the beauty and the danger together. There is not a lot of touching, so when hands do clasp, or one dancer lifts another, more hot sizzling electricity buzzes from the dynamo. The shape-making and the kineticism remain in ever-shifting balance throughout, at all tempi. I found it completely satisfying.

The fabulous dancing (Davalois Fearon in particular stood out all evening) is enhanced with Narciso Rodriguez’ bold costumes, strong lighting by Ken Tabachnick and a zipping score by Clams Casino. The program repeats June 25 at 7, with a pre-show, for ticket holders, by Shady Darling and the Velvet Curtain, in the Skyline Lounge.

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