Of Buds, Blooms and Battments: Stephen Petronio at The Joyce
“Why am I always on a fast train or an airplane?” composer and songwriter Rufus Wainwright muses in his melancholy “Oh What a World,” set to the rhythms of Ravel’s Bolero. It’s a question that seems to have stuck with choreographer Stephen Petronio whose Bud Suite opens with a duet for two male dancers to this Wainwright track. It’s an apt opening, setting the tone for the rest of this borderline existential piece about the modern experience—alienation, over-stimulation, the cult of busyness. And, yet, through it all Petronio posits that there are still some human connections to be made. The two male dancers here are donned in red boxer briefs, and a black half shirt, which cuts the body in half—one half a full shirt, the other half a series of horizontal straps which makes it seem as if they are wearing S&M gear or devoid of their other half. Bud Suite premiered as a duet two years ago and has evolved into a four-part piece complete with Petronio’s whispy, driving and frenetic movement style—lots of torque, lots of twist, a dash of battments and brissés and plenty of thrashing and sudden changes of direction. Combined, it makes for dance that elicits feelings of both anxiety and serenity. Maybe this is because of the very way Petronio combines modern dance and ballet, the structure of ballet serving as a fine, lace-work frame underneath the layers of full-bodied, lush modern dance.
In this opening duet, the two male dancers never part. They are always close to each other, crowding each others space, using exchanges of weight to hurl each other into the air or drape themselves over the other’s shoulder. The next interlude in Bud Suite consists of four women who appear to be an abstracted version of the four swans. In red half-tutus and white straightjacket shirts, they create a line of interlacing parts—arms and legs propel in staccato rhythms while ballet beats, literally and figuratively, under the surface. Bud Suite, at least for me, seemed to address ideas about displacement and isolation. It presents us with a vision of ourselves: Bodies moving through harried days and nights, twirling and furling through our everydays on that “fast train” or “airplane,” every once in a while making a human connection amidst the whirl.
But it was the world premiere of Bloom that was to be the highlight of the evening. Also set to Rufus Wainwright’s musical renditions of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson poems and with the aid of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, Petronio conjures up spring in all its promise of hope and harvest. The color palette here—women in gray-green, short tulip-bloom shaped skirts, stage lighting that turns from blush pink to mauve—rivals the delicacy of any early spring day. Bloom is as much a rite of spring (though Petronio’s actual Rite of Spring came later on in the program) as it is a celebration of the “openness and purity of youth,” as the program notes suggest. Amidst such a verdant landscape, one dancer placed center stage, contorts into yogic positions, balanced on the small of her neck, legs unraveling and reaching upwards like the branches of a tree sapling in a rain shower. While Petronio has captured the bloom of youth here, the movement vocabulary is all twisting and twirling again, It’s difficult to locate any real structure or single image that stands out. The same signature style he was once so praised for seems to have become his nemesis with his later works being more and more of the same: Modern dance paired with ballet and dancers who can contract and fall to the ground as easily as they can jete. And while the furtive, pulsing movement style is impressive—demanding with its ballet beats and ferocious, torque and pull on the body—it is repetitive so much so that I found myself trying to tease out one flash moment from all the whirl and twirl of bodies and flailing arms and legs moving wildly in diagonals and straight lines. At one point, the dancers reminded me of those helicopter leaves that sputter to the ground, threatening to stick you in the eye.
So it was a welcome change when we got to see Petronio’s earlier work, his finely wrought Rite of Spring. You can’t get away from the intensity of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; it’s nerve-wracking, crushing even, and Petronio’s choreography matched the music’s infamous intensity with staccato movement. Clean shapes emerge and this is never more apparent then in the Chosen’s solo. In a white long sleeve leotard, the Chosen one writhes and convulses in the spotlight, hurling herself within her confined space. The spasms and contractions in her body appear as if a minor revolt were pulsing through her body—it’s arresting and striking. Perhaps Petronio will need to go backwards to move forward, finding inspiration in his earlier self.
VANESSA MANKO was the former Dance Editor for the Brooklyn Rail.