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.

ADF: Four Choreographers Dance ON THEIR BODIES

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.


An artist stands alone before the blank page.

A choreographer stands alone on a blank stage.

Any mark is possible. The infinitude of choice paralyzes. But the force of creative will touches the brush to paper, declares an arc through space with an arm–and choice disappears, paralysis gives way to the requirements of the images and actions pressing their way into the world through the body of the maker. The calculating, crafting artist becomes the tool of the art.

And so it is in the penultimate show of the 2014 American Dance Festival season. Four very different choreographers whose work we are more used to seeing on other dancers, perform personal acts of soul-baring, painting the stage space with their ephemeral kinetic inks, in a quartet of meditations on time, death and transitions. This special concert will repeat 7/23 in the DPAC.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei, the slim body of his youth given way to the thicker forms of middle-age, legs and torso draped in sheer white jersey and feet encased in white socks, danced his 2014 Variations alone on white marley to the gently solemn sounds of Arvo Part’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. He is no less graceful than the youth who so amazed us all as a young ADF student, but far more powerful now in his sinuous elegance that never fails to make me think of swifts and swallows soaring and swiveling through the sky. Shen Wei is such a man of the world that it feels extremely complimentary to have him consider Durham his summer home. The other night I was watering my garden and who should walk by, coming no doubt from rehearsal at the DPAC. It seemed so normal to see Shen Wei in my parking lot that I just waved and said hi. Turning his head in that impossible bird-like way, his arm rose seemingly of its own volition to complete the line of nose/shoulder/hand, and he smiled before disappearing down the alley. I got my own tiny personal solo dance, to treasure in my mental file of Shen Wei images, but the one he does on stage is not a fragment torn from time. It has a completeness that is enormously satisfying, even while one remembers this twist, that arm’s curve, those cloaked feet in stringent fifth position.


Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Three ADF-commissioned world premieres follow, the first and most emotional by Doug Varone. He dances his work The Fabulist to David Lang’s exquisite Death Speaks (uncredited, but probably Shara Worden singing) in cones of smoky light cutting the dark. Varone is, I believe, a great humanist. Something, probably honesty, makes his movement powerfully touching–you feel like he is telling you secrets in the dark. He’s got a bullet head and is built like a tank but moves like a…man. The bottom several inches of his pant legs are sheer, and through them you see his strong slim ankles, while most of his body is covered. I was brought to tears by this sight and pretty much all of the dance. If Varone has ever interested you, do not miss this solo.


Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

A less satisfying piece by Stephen Petronio comes next. Big Daddy is about Petronio’s father, and yes, there is talking. Petronio wears a suit and a headset–and speaks from a podium microphone as well. He wears too many clothes and does not dance enough. At first I feared the piece would be as dreadfully self-centered as Loudon Wainwright III’s one-man show about his father, but actually, Petronio’s writing was beautiful. I was just disappointed not to see him really open up with those huge shapes he can make.

The evening closes with the luminous Ron K. Brown, in his new work Through Time and Culture. Brown, who is brown, was dressed in pristine white pants and knee-length tunic, which set a meditative tone and set off his beautiful beaming face and expressive hands and feet. I never have perceived ideas in Brown’s work so much as feelings, and feelings pour forth with abundance here. Reverence is the greatest among them, and gratitude.

Each artist received much applause–Shen Wei being treated like home folks–and at the final bow, all received a long standing ovation, which appeared to surprise them all very much. Surprise them again tonight. ADF has been promoting the show with $15 tickets. Use promo code ADFLEGENDS.


Dedicated to the dancing memory of my aunt, Mary Carolyn Dobbs, who left her body July 23, 2014.

Powerful Petronio at ADF

If, like me, you have been waiting and waiting for the Stephen Petronio Company  to appear at the American Dance Festival , wait no more. They are here, for one more night at the DPAC. It’s a dangerous thing to say so early in the festival, but this one’s a standout. For any modern dance fan who loves balletic style, the Stephen Petronio Company offers an ecstatic experience.

Underland, the single, 60-minute work on the program, is both all a person can handle and not nearly enough.


Click on the thumbnails to view full-size.

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