The last time I saw Stephen Petronio he was striding down a side wall of the Whitney Museum. A straightforward maneuver, claimed rock-climbing friends, but, hey, what about the moment he was lowered over the side at an angle of 90 degrees, staring at the sidewalk 12 stories below? This breathtaking feat owed as much to his focused, steady mind as the harness holding him in place.
These same qualities (strength and concentration) were evident at the Joyce theater last month when Petronio’s Underland, created in 2003 for the Sydney Dance Company, was performed by his own troupe. The work is set to the dark, haunting music of Australia’s Nick Cave, whose sound falls somewhere between Tom Waits and Nico of Velvet Underground. Cave’s “rawness, pain, and redemption speak directly to my artistic motor,” writes Petronio in his program notes. “I knew it would be a dream to work with him.” What a dream it was.
Structured like an album, the performance flowed seamlessly, each track with its own shifting choreography, mood, and focus: “Descent into Underland,” created by Petronio in the aftermath of 9/11; the slow, raunchy “Wild World”; the rap-like “Stagger Lee.” The dancers twisted, arced, and leapt with the energy of performers in a rock video and the rigor of a corps de ballet.
Costume changes came rapid fire (I wondered about the scene backstage), morphing between loose cotton pajamas, bright tutus and bras, and a male dancer in a dark shift reminiscent of an Egyptian tomb painting (designed by Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ). Mike Daly’s video triptych formed the backdrop; it was hard to connect the thundering herds and atomic explosions with the choreography but in the end it didn’t matter so much. My mesmerized eyes were fixed on the dancers.
It was “Ship Song,” a wrenching ballad about vulnerability and love, which brought the evening to its peak. Performing with sensual precision, Amanda Wells, Gino Grenek, Shila Tirabassi, and Joshua Tuason caressed, embraced, leapt, pulled apart and came together: men with men, women with men, women with women. The intrusion of a dancer in an open raincoat and scant underclothes challenged us with another dimension of desire. Finally Underland whirled to a conclusion, with “Death Is Not the End,” sung as if in a revival meeting. The entire company bounded across stage in identical white dresses. A high jeté, an arabesque, and suddenly it was over.
Underland was a go-for-broke spectacle plotted with deceptive care. The non-narrative work reflected Petronio’s forceful psyche, his movement anchored in his feeling for the music. No story line was necessary. Petronio used his own language to reflect his response to Cave without intellectual or philosophical pretension. Seventy minutes passed in a brilliant flash, a performance I was only beginning to understand.
FRANCES KAZAN is an author, critic, arts supporter, and volunteer. She lives in Manhattan.