STEPHEN PETRONIO with Nancy Dalva
Like Lazarus Did | Joyce Theater | April 30 – May 5, 2013
Nancy Dalva (Rail): Your newest work, Like Lazarus Did, premieres this month at the Joyce Theater. Why not As Lazarus Did? Are you “liking” resurrection?
Petronio: You’re such an editor! The title is from one of the songs—from a publication of American slave spirituals that sparked the original idea for Like Lazarus Did. The language is lost to that era, but the songs giving off a faith and sense of elevation so far from the wretched plight of those singing these songs. Son Lux, a composer I’ve worked with on British and European projects till now, brought me this book of songs previously only passed down through oral tradition. Totally inspiring! Of course he’s using them as a springboard for new creation.
Rail: You are premiering a dance about resurrection during Easter season. Is there a credo in it? Some personal statement of faith, or rejection thereof? Did you go to church as a child? Did the pageantry appeal to you?
Petronio: I’m a fallen Catholic: attended parochial schools, wanted to be a missionary as a child. Wanted to be chosen. I suppose that resonates and the theatrical aspect is supreme. I mean, it’s hard to beat mystical transformation and redemption in gold trimmed vestments.
Last year my father passed, and I was sitting in the church that I attended in my hometown youth, and there was a priest speaking so eloquently about my father’s final resurrection. It really hit me hard—the power and comfort of that promise. And it’s power as a commodity. Who would want the ultimate prize—immortality—yet it’s a product that’s never seen or proven. Very impressive feat.
Resurrection and immortality: the final triumph over death is deeply bedded across many cultures. The need to continue is irrepressible. One of the only certainties in life is its end, and we can’t quite resolve that. The Judeo-Christian lore of Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, an act necessary to prove his divinity: the penultimate miracle that tripped his conviction of heresy, angering the high rabbis of Jerusalem and setting into motion the ultimate sacrifice of his life.
From the the sacrificial virgin whose death is necessary to promulgate the growth of crops in the pagan-themed Sacre du Printemps, to the phoenix rising from her dust to reemerge immortal and omnipotent, to eastern religion’s cycle of reincarnation: the continual need to renew, to look back at forms again, to bring them forward to see what remains of the original, or to see how something transforms.
Rail: Tell me how you made the dance. What was the participation of the dancers?
Petronio: My first instinct was to resurrect previous Petronio dancers, bringing forward signature roles in the bodies of new dancers and allowing them to transform in the process. I’m always fascinated to feel the essence of my early stars in the roles we created together after so many years still unmistakably there, but transformed by the current body and mind reinterpreting. But unlike a reconstruction—I sought out transformation in the new body and allowed myself free reign as the current artist I am to spring off from these sources.
Then I began to call back other iconic figures I love—small flashes of Michael Jackson, Merce [Cunningham] and Trisha [Brown], mythological figures, the snake and the phoenix—to see what emerged. And of course, so much of the early me, the initial sequencing and spinal whip that I was born with, to go back to see what it is now. I also looked to some formal devices like retrograde and accumulation, to revisit and retrace movement over and over to see how it changes and how it’s the same.
Rail: I saw a piece of yours in that strange Ukrainian dance hall on Second Avenue. You started out “dead” but then you seemed to raise others from the dead.
Petronio: Or from sleeping. If you take being awakened from sleep as a kind of resurrection—well then, you have Sleeping Beauty, just to begin. Not to mention the phoenix.
Like Lazarus Did is ongoing and evolving. Each new resurrection has a different set of concerns. At the ballroom, I was very interested in who was empowering whom: I as the author bringing the dancers to life or the dancers as my resurrected instruments breathing life back into me and my ideas.
Rail: How do you feel when you get up in the morning, Stephen? A whole new world? Or same old same old?
Petronio: I am extremely hopeful in the morning and have a very short memory. So my perceptions don’t feel same-y. Mornings are a renewal for me. I wake up fast and running.
Rail: Are you in this dance? And if so, who are you? Is there a role or are you playing your own role?
Petronio: I am the author; the snake; the fire starter.
Rail: Who’s doing the costumes? Décor?
Petronio: The costumes are by H. Petal, a British designer I’ve been working with on and off since 1990. The décor, including the element of the dramatic: the incredible artist Janine Antoni, who works in many mediums but will be making a “living set” where she’ll be suspended in a sculpture above the audience for the duration.
Rail: Your work has for a long time participated in the fashion world, and the company is always attired in something you don’t see anywhere else, as much runway and designer playground as theater. Why why why? (You detect a note of despair here, but that’s only me, because I love the work as is in the studio. Just the dancers and the movement.)
Petronio: What we wear is a key into who we are alone and in the world. Yes, stripped naked is delicious, but the discovery of the perfect thing to wear in motion is as exhilarating to me. The dance world’s chronic suspicion of the surface of things can be a denial of an important element of the whole.
Rail: When I look back at certain works—not only yours—I find the choreography is as fresh as today if not tomorrow, but the mise-en-scène dates it. Yes, no?
Petronio: I love it when the mise locates a thing in time and space. That’s part of the journal of the time we are capturing in my works.
Rail: You seem to be working again with a chorus. What’s with this? Where’s the appeal? It’s as if you are working on a Wagnerian scale. Every possible element. And yet, stripped down, your movement itself is formalist, unencumbered.
Petronio: I’m social and want as many different artists reaching for something together as I can manage. The Young People’s Chorus transforms the experience of the work for an audience, and we are now a part of each others lives. This is our third work together at the Joyce, and I will work with them as many times as I can in the future. We are building a language and history together.
I come from a history of multidisciplinary stages and must take that as far as I’m able. It’s a much lonelier world without my partners. I spend so much time alone with my dancers and I love that, but I am a social animal, and dance is a connection both with internal power, history and tradition, the social sphere, and then forward into the unknown.
Rail: Do the Like Lazarus Did collaborators all know what the others are doing? Is the dance finished first? Are you working to the music?
Petronio: The music—working with it and in the theater, including the singers, all of that. All the collaborators and I are working from a directive I’ve built, an arc from dirge to invocation to exploration of literal and abstract rumination of states of elevation. The work finalizes in a kind of birth. We are all building along this arc simultaneously and together.
I say invocation and Ryan [Lott] builds an alleluia. I say rebirth, Ryan delivers a lullaby. Janine studies this and internalizes this into a mental focus and sculptural form. Every day someone sends off some new discovery that in turn sparks off something else. It’s heaven.
Rail: Any advice for your audiences? Your reviewers? Things your dancers wish you would tell them?
Petronio: 1. Every second/moment is an opportunity for a kind of letting go and renewal. 2. Let’s not get too literal.
Rail: What question that people ask you annoys you the most?
Petronio: “Oh, do you mean like on So You Think You Can Dance?”
NANCY DALVA writes from Manhattan. Her website is www.nancydalva.com.