Dancing on the Rail
As the first male dancer in Trisha Brown’s company, Stephen Petronio danced in such seminal Brown pieces as Lateral Pass, Opal Loop, and Set and Reset from 1979-1986. He continued on to found his own company in 1984 and this season marks the Stephen Petronio Company’s 20th Anniversary. Petronio, whose work is fast-paced, edgy, and at times harsh, is known for collaborating with artists such as musician Nick Cave, composer Laurie Anderson, and sculptor Anish Kapoor, to name a few. The Island of Misfit Toys will have its premiere at the Joyce Theater this month and completes his trilogy Gotham Suite, also comprised of the award-winning City of Twist (2002) and Broken Man (2002). With set design by Cindy Sherman and music by musician and composer Lou Reed, The Island of Misfit Toys offers a dark look into the vagaries of human depravity and includes Reed’s retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, read by actor Willem Defoe.
A quarter way through his international tour, and on a day’s break in Seattle, Petronio spoke with Rail Dance Editor Vanessa Manko via telephone in February.
Vanessa Manko (Rail): I’ve been reading through the reviews from London and it’s interesting to see that you seem to have become the ambassador of the New York downtown dance scene. What do you think it is about your work that makes it so quintessentially "New York"?
Stephen Petronio: I think there is a sense of speed and multiplicity in my work that is New Yorkesque. You know, you can be walking down the sidewalk and there are one hundred stories going on around you all at once and you might not be aware of any of them— that’s kind of "New York." And I try and put a level of complexity on stage that reflects that kind of story, that kind of picture. And, in particular, the speed, the aggressiveness, packed with information on many different levels seems like New York to me. And for the program that I’m doing at the Joyce in March, I’ve made a group of works that are all made with artists based in New York.
Rail: City of Twist, Broken Man, and The Island of Misfit Toys comprise your trilogy, Gotham Suite. I know that City of Twist was created partly in response to 9/11, though you began working on it before that. Now that we’re two years removed has the dance changed for you in any way?
Petronio: It’s interesting that you say that because now that we’re on tour, I see it every night. I think it has changed. The whole concept started off by wanting to paint portraits that were loosely based on some of my dancers. I just thought it would be interesting to make a solo that was more like a portrait as opposed to a dance. And now, we’re a quarter of the way through the tour and I’m just noticing that the dancers have become— well I don’t really see them as dancers anymore— they’re more like these heroic souls. You can only get to that level by repeating something over and over again.
Rail: Broken Man is also a really striking dance. You had broken your foot before creating that work, correct?
Petronio: Yes. I broke my foot and that was the first solo I had made after the break. I wasn’t expected to really recover from that break. But I did recover. It took me a year and half, so I was extremely grateful for having my foot back. I had really pretty much consigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to work. But what I was really thinking about when working on Broken Man was the problems I was having dancing with my body as a 45-year-old man. Until I broke my foot, I didn’t realize I was dancing as the Stephen Petronio of the past— that image of the 25-year-old and aspiring to that. It was really kind of dysfunctional and, when I broke my foot, it kind of stopped me. I decided to make the dance much more like a portrait and less about the Stephen Petronio dancer that I know. I began to collect a series of overwrought emotional gestures. I learned the gesture and then learned it backward in time as well. And I thought I would scratch over these movements kind of like a DJ scratching over a record.
Rail: How is your foot doing now?
Petronio: Fine. It’s fine. I don’t jump like when I was twenty, but…(laughs)
Rail: Going back to when you were twenty, a lot of men come to dance late. How were you exposed to dance?
Petronio: I had no idea what dance was. I never saw any dance. I saw ShinDig and Hullaballoo [1960s musical variety shows] on TV. (Laughs) The summer before I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, my cousin took me to see Sleeping Beauty and I thought it was interesting and beautiful. I didn’t know enough to know what I was seeing. I was 18. Then I went to college. And Hampshire does this thing where they have these parties the first two weeks to get you tired of doing that.
Rail: It’s a good idea.
Petronio: Yeah. (Laughs) And there was a girl I was seeing at the time and she was a dancer and we would go dancing almost every night and she said, "Oh, you’re a good dancer. You should probably take a class. It will relax you." I was going in the pre-med direction like every first child who goes to college. I took an improvisation class and it was one of those thunderbolt moments. It occurred to me that I had this body that I knew nothing about and it was offering me information in improvisation classes that I had no idea existed. It became kind of obsessive from then on.
Rail: You come from an Italian-American family from New Jersey, and, since you were the first one in your family to go to college, I’m wondering how your family reacted to your dance aspirations and how they feel about your career now?
Petronio: Well, my mother passed away and my father— my father was a truck driver at the time. He’s retired now, and he— they— didn’t know anything about dance. They didn’t really like the idea that I was going to Hampshire College, a very experimental kind of college. They were kind of freaked out about that and then suddenly I was a dancer. It was like, "Oh my god what is going on?" But oddly enough my father was supportive. My mother had a harder time with it because she was like "How are you going to make money?" And you know it just never occurred to me. I was very idealistic back in the ’70s and it didn’t even cross my mind. It didn’t occur to me that I would or wouldn’t make money. I used to chide her for that, but she did raise really important questions that became all too obvious later on. But my mom passed away before she saw any of my success, but I’m sure she’s helping from somewhere. But my dad is giantly proud and he comes to all the shows. He loves it. I’m the only dancer he’s really ever seen. He’s very perceptive. I really appreciate the untrained response.
Rail: I agree. It’s very interesting when you bring someone who isn’t familiar with dance to performances. They’re sometimes able to see things that dancers or choreographers or regular dance-viewers cannot.
Petronio: Those are the most amazing responses. I mean you can kind of guess what the dance world is going to say about dance. I love it when someone comes to one of my performances and it’s the first dance they’ve ever seen. It’s shocking to me. It’s such a privileged position to be in for me. I also think that the kind of music and the kind of artists I work with give the dance a broader context so that it has some kind of relevance to the moment that we’re living in. And I think sometimes people will come to the work via that avenue and then they get turned on to dance. That really excites me.
Rail: You danced with Trisha Brown for many years and your own collaborative works with various artists remind me of the pieces she created with visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg—
Petronio: Well that’s the tradition— though tradition is a kind of weird word to use— but that’s kind of like the untraditional tradition that I was raised in. Trisha introduced me to some of the greatest artists alive. Within five minutes of being in the company, Rauschenberg was in the studio watching rehearsal and I barely knew who he was. Suddenly, I was having dinner with these geniuses of the art world. That’s what I know about dance. It goes with art.
Rail: Why do you think that’s so?
Petronio: Well, they belong together. It’s so natural for me to see them together, of course. I think visual art stimulates a part of your brain and dance movement talks to another part of your brain and I think having those centers in your intellect at the same time is an exponential experience. I love it. I love how they effect each other. You know, Cindy [Sherman] has made this very weird, warped Victorian playroom for The Island of Misfit Toys and it really shades everything that you see and I love it.
Rail: The Island of Misfit Toys is a series of adult, Gothic nursery rhymes. Can you talk about the piece a little bit?
Petronio: Lou [Reed] opened up this entire catalogue of music and I decided to take short pieces from a wide range of history, so it goes from the ’70s till now. And right now he’s obsessed with Edgar Allen Poe so there’s this gothic feel to a lot of what he’s doing. Lou’s specialty is taking unsavory subjects and putting the most beautiful, sweet melodies on them. It’s really twisted when you actually listen to what’s he’s singing about. Let’s see…there’s a text on guilt which is kind of like a poem about guilt and obsession. Lou’s done a rewrite of Poe’s The Raven. And, the story of The Raven— if you go back to your high school English class— (laughs) Lenore, his wife, was young. She was underage, basically, and that whole poem was an obsession with his dead Lenore who was kind of a child. So there’s a pedophile moment there. Just these little cartoonish meditations on the less savory. The more seemly things make it more interesting.
Rail: I have a question about ballet, because I know you’ve been working with some ballet companies lately— Ballet Frankfurt, Lyon Opera Ballet. What is it like working with ballet dancers, or setting your movement on ballet dancers who are so centered, whereas your choreography has a lot a twist and torque quality?
Petronio: It’s hard. Especially at the beginning it was hard. I don’t know classical steps. It’s not my specialty. And when people are afraid to let go of their placement, the work can look bad. It can look like bad modern dance. (Laughs) But over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable with it and ballet dancers have gotten more sophisticated about knowing other information.
Rail: By "other information" do you mean understanding and learning modern dance?
Petronio: Exactly. For example, Lyon Ballet is extremely versatile. They do many, many modern works. They were very fun. So when you get a ballet dancer who can throw themselves off center and do incredible petite allegro [fast, little jumps], it’s like having a toy.
Rail: The best of both worlds?
Petronio: Exactly. It’s really, really fun. And I bring a lot of that home to my company. There’s a lot of classical ballet vocabulary— words that I can use— but I’ll never quite use the syntax of ballet. It’s not that interesting to me. There’s a sense of transition in ballet, which is something I try and avoid in my work because everything seems so right with those transitions, and I’m much more interested in a sense of graceful disjointedness.
Rail: And what can go wrong in movement, the mistakes that are made?
Rail: Do you feel that there is anything changing or missing from the New York dance community or is there anything you’d like to change about it or see more of?
Petronio: I think up until recently there has been a strong movement away from dance, per se, and more of an interest in performance and circus and dance theater which I don’t have a giant problem with, but why does it have to be one or the other? But all that’s changing again and steps are back in fashion. But I would say the biggest problem is who can afford to live in Manhattan? And who can barely afford to live in Brooklyn? So there’s a giant problem. It’s becoming a big, white, rich city.
Rail: Gentrification seems rampant.
Petronio: I know I moved out to Brooklyn two years ago and it’s crazy.
Rail: What neighborhood?
Petronio: Windsor Terrace. Oh. Are you going to print that?
Petronio: Oh. No. You can. It’s cool. So I think that’s a giant problem. What’s New York going to do because it’s gentrified itself and only rich, white people can live in Manhattan? How does that effect dance? How does that effect people’s ability to rehearse? How does that effect people’s ability to even live? I mean, the reason I had a dance company was because I had a rent-controlled apartment on St. Mark’s Place for twenty years. I had my office in my front room. I didn’t have to worry about rent— ever. I should have never let that go by the way. Anyway, I love living in Brooklyn.
The Island of Misfit Toys, March 23-28, (Tues. -Sat. at 8:00 pm, Sun., at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm.) Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, www.stephenpetronio.com or www.joyce.org
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.