Stephen Petronio—iconoclastic and iconic, subversive, game changing, elegant, with just a gleam of something slightly depraved glinting off his spiky ear studs—is celebrating 30 years as a choreographer with a debut as an author. Here, he discusses it all with his new reader but longtime watcher, the Rail’s Nancy Dalva.
Confessions of a Motion Addict
Nancy Dalva (Rail): What do we learn about you in this book that we don’t learn from your dances?
Stephen Petronio: I wrote Confessions of a Motion Addict as text about my life and the forces that move me into action, both in the world and on the stage. While there is succinct discussion of my creative motor, dance works, and the collaborators I’ve worked with over the years, I wanted very much to verbally construct the back-story of my life.
It was important for me to create and perform with words: to paint my childhood and ascent into the New York dance/art worlds and the touring life that has been so key to who I am. So much of my dance is about the sound and force of motion, and Confessions is about the sound force rhythm of language.
I write quite a bit about the pleasures of the body (i.e. sex), that magic that is so outside of the dance realm. I suppose I thought it was important to track the stories in my body, repurposed for sensual, aesthetic, and spiritual interest. I also write frankly about substance (booze and drugs) use and abuse in Confessions. I thought it was important to parallel my interest in the extremity of these experiences and how they may or may not relate to my art making.
And you get a healthy taste of the crazy Italian family that I came from and how it impacted my social and professional needs.
Rail: I feel as if you have taken the same material and channeled it into two forms of performance art: one is choreography, the other is autobiography. Which one is more veiled? I am thinking here about the “truth.” Autobiography, in general, is seemingly so truthy, yet is a form rife with displacement, projection, selection, delusion, revision, and every other complexity arising from self-reportage.
Petronio: If you have the eyes to do so, you can see straight into my soul when you watch a dance of mine. They are always constructions wrought from mind, body, and taste—my taste, fueled by my desire. Most audiences read movement in other ways or don’t have the power to see that deeply into dance, but there are a few writers and viewers who can. I know this because they “read” me after a performance and I can’t believe they can see so clearly after one viewing. That’s rare though. How I ravel and unravel motion, my need for complexity or brashness, simplicity or cool, structural symmetry or disintegrating fields, speaks volumes about my nature.
I am aware that, in writing, I can give you a more traceable narrative and that I can record that text as history in service of my will—the picture I want to paint. I have tried to come as close to what I believe is an honest text as I can, without doing collateral damage to the players in my life. I also invest a great deal of energy in composing with words, as I might do in movement.
While I stretched my writing muscles in dialogue, poetic form, freestyle prose, and more “proper” narrative the same way I might express my interest in virtuoso, postmodern, or pedestrian forms in motion, it is always in service of some underlying, intuitive, and, dare I say, emotive reveal.
I approached the early childhood writing in Confessions as painting with words: images that I could see so clearly in my head. I really didn’t think of it as writing at all. I just had to step out of the way and capture what was already there. Of course, upon reading these writings, my brother had a very different idea of certain details of shared experiences. Needless to say, every story is the unique amalgam of fact, projection, and misunderstanding, and for that variety we are gleefully thankful.
Rail: When I look at your work I don’t so much see influences as characteristics. Your own style is clear via Trisha—you were that anomalous element of testosterone that charged everything in its path, back in that day—and also one can see certain elements that might indicate an affection for a clean, clear technique, a Mercean 360 degree front, a stage perhaps multi-focal but never crowded, and with the viewer given, at times, a choice of where to look. Or not. Yes, no?
Petronio: I’ll roll with the above. How speed and assault have been shifting architecture has been on my mind for years. Assault has receded and shifted to formal exposition of state, emotional or otherwise.
Rail: Is there such a thing as bred-in-the-bones glamour? Something not superficial, but intrinsic? And if so, where does that come from? Mom? Dad?
Petronio: Glamour had a starring role in my early ’60s childhood. From my little perch in family life the view was thrillingly cinematic. This is from the book:
There’s a whiff of glamour. Camera pans right onto phantomlike relatives adrift in a stylish celluloid limbo. Here is my perfect Italian family and its sprawling extended web. We are caught at birthdays, communions, and weddings…where every woman’s makeup is perfect and hair coiffed to the nth. They float on monochrome peau de soie stilettos that match their narrow-waist dresses while the men wear muted awkward grins and stand in proper trousers and dress shirts.
Rail: You performed part of this work as the text for your incarnation of Steve Paxton’s Intravenous Lecture. Are you otherwise still dedicated to writing and choreography being separate activities?
Petronio: Since Intravenous Lecture, I’m enjoying the problematic joining of movement and text. I’ve always experienced the proposition as troubling: words engaging the narrative mind while also dominating the part of the mind that reads non-narrative, kinetic experience. If I speak a sentence about nature, does all action immediately following have to illustrate that thought? Can we shortcut to that result if we so desire? Conversely, if I perform an action and then speak, can we stop the speaking from being a comment on the action? Can words and action float together free of rational narrative meaning if we desire to surpass the basic assigning of accepted meaning of words on movement and visa versa?
My general feeling is that it’s impossible to use the delivery systems of language and motion without the storytelling part of language superseding the movement. I’m currently working on a solo for the American Dance Festival in July, in Durham, North Carolina, that employs writings about my father from Confessions. I will speak them live in this dance, but am still grappling with the formal delivery of the two kinds of information.
Rail: You once said to me, “I love the mise.” As in mise-en-scène. I love the work in practice clothes in the studio, without the decor, the costumes, the glamour extrinsic to the choreography and its embodiment. What is the mise adding that I am not getting?
Petronio: The dialogue between the inside and the outside, the deeply felt and the outward expression, the immaterial, dare I say spiritual, and the surface, material, quantifiable world, is completely intriguing to me. The internal and external at first glance seem to be at odds. The fan clubs surrounding process and product, inside and out, are deeply suspicious of each other. I love the schism and maintain that these polar worlds can enjoy incredible synergy and heightened union. And if you understand anything about me, you sense the desire for union—communion through union.
Rail: Well no wonder you chose a designer called Imitation of Christ.
Petronio: Of course, this conversation about costuming is predicated on an assumption that the proponents of these polar worlds are sophisticated and savvy players. When the lights go up on a performance, that first glimpse of a magical world—still or in motion—reveals a surface that is a vehicle for an idea, feeling, sense. What that world is dressed in can work wonders in this transmission. Or it can get wrongly, superficially, and sadly in the way. Let the surface deliver and heighten the immaterial world in perfect flight! How can I not reach for this possibility? Cloth has revealed the consciousness of culture since clothing was invented.
Rail: Has writing your book revealed anything about you to yourself that you didn’t fully know or acknowledge before? Or suggest a different way to work?
Petronio: Writing has rules of engagement but can be exciting and open-ended as all hell. Writing is a very different proposition than composing with motion, but can lead to comparable mental and physical states. Editing is so easy to remember in writing as it is on the page in front of me. In the studio, revisions slip and slide in the process. So, writing makes me look for more editorial rigor in choreographing.
Rail: Has writing played into your choreography in any other way?
Petronio: You’ll have to keep looking and tell me.