A Slippery and Elusive Qualityby Erica Getto
STEPHEN PETRONIO COMPANY
THE JOYCE THEATER | MARCH 8 – 13, 2016
“To make my original movement language,” wrote choreographer Trisha Brown in the 2009 essay “Forever Young,” “I set off in pursuit of ‘pure movement,’ movement without connotation, movement that is neither functional nor pantomimic.” In Glacial Decoy, a 1979 collaboration with artist Robert Rauschenberg and Brown’s first piece for the proscenium stage, this pursuit is evident: rather than build a narrative, she probes how her dancers’ bones arch, how their muscles flex, and how their limbs snap. When the women of Stephen Petronio Company perform Glacial Decoy at the Joyce Theater, they recreate Brown’s choreography. They also show that even a dance that is “neither functional nor pantomimic” can, over time, accrue meaning.
Petronio, a longtime Trisha Brown dancer, returns with his company to the Joyce for the second edition of Bloodlines, a multi-year project that pays homage to his mentors. In the spring of 2015, Petronio’s dancers performed Merce Cunningham’s RainForest (1968). This year, they take on Glacial Decoy, which Petronio pairs with the world premiere of Big Daddy (Deluxe)—a tribute to his late father—and MiddleSexGorge (1990), his rebellious reaction to the AIDS crisis. Bloodlines is a carefully curated tribute to Petronio’s roots—to Brown, to his father, to AIDS activists, and even to fashion designers. But the performance also shows the limits of lineage: the way that we remember the past colors how we bring it back to life.
Take Petronio’s production of Glacial Decoy, which premiered the year that he joined Trisha Brown Company. He spent seasons watching the piece in rehearsals, but his rendition still differs from Brown’s original. Both productions feature a group of female dancers who, clad in floor-length white pleated dresses, use the stage wings to weave in and out of formation. But while Brown’s dancers flow from one step to the next, Petronio’s root themselves, rigid, in each pose.
Brown’s version of the work triumphs in its transitions. Her dancers hover on the edge of each movement before gliding into the next; they fling their arms like discus throwers, then lurch to the left, then hook one leg behind them. In the program notes, Petronio admires “the way the gestures overlap or feather into each other, split-second shifts from hot to cold to immeasurable, literal to abstract, to human action, then sneakily on to an expansive architectural form.”
Petronio does not focus so much on how “the gestures overlap;” instead, he emphasizes each individual pose in Glacial Decoy. When, for example, his dancers lift up their hands and brush them back towards their shoulders, they convey control and confidence. Even when they lurch to the left, twirl toward the back of the stage, or press their hips toward the audience, they are cool, strong, and sharp. What Petronio sees as “a maddeningly slippery and elusive quality” in Brown’s work has faded. In its place is firm choreography.
Did Petronio mean to alter his mentor’s work so that it would sync up with his “movement language”? Or is this language so deeply embedded in his way of working that it seeps into any choreography that his company performs, not just his own? The former possibility makes sense: in pairing his mentor’s choreography with his style of dance, he can show how far he has come since working with her company. But the latter seems more realistic. Petronio preserves other elements of the piece—the set design and lighting, for example—and he pulls in co-artistic director of the Trisha Brown Company Diane Madden and Lisa Kraus, who danced in the original piece, to help coach his dancers. These moves suggest that he is more interested in recreation than revision. In any case, though, Petronio’s style is perceptible in this performance. And it is, in turn, devoid of the slippery, loose, and electric quality that makes Brown’s version so entrancing.
In Big Daddy (Deluxe), Petronio looks to revive another aspect of his past—namely, his relationship with his father. He originated the work as a solo for the 2014 American Dance festival; for this début, he has invited his company to accompany him on stage. The resulting piece pairs choreography with passages from Petronio’s memoir Confessions of a Motion Addict. When Petronio speaks about his Italian father’s brawniness, his pride in his son, and, ultimately, his deterioration, he is raw and vulnerable. But his memory of this linear narrative overpowers his creative instincts, and the resulting piece is too literal.
Petronio could have used choreography to tease out contradictions and complexities in his spoken story; instead, the visual and aural are redundant. When, for instance, Petronio describes his father as the youngest of five children and the only boy, female dancers converge on Joshua Tuason, who gives in to their playful tugs and taunts. When Petronio recalls how his parents “social dance[d] like pros,” two pairs of dancers break into a dance hall routine. And when he grapples with his father’s deteriorating health, his dancers illustrate illness: Nicholas Sciscione, who plays the adult version of Petronio’s father, even mimes shooting an IV into his arm before he sinks to the stage floor.
This choreography is also devoid of the tension that makes Petronio’s work so spectacular. Instead of having dancers tussle or fold and stretch their limbs at sharp angles, he has them playfully jogging around the perimeter of the stage (a nod to his childhood summers in Florida). In a more pensive moment, Petronio recounts how his father sometimes felt like an “alien to him,” and Sciscione stands—unmoving, distant—with his back towards the audience. While Petronio’s narrative is cohesive and his dancers captivating (even in stillness, Sciscione’s strength is incredible), Big Daddy (Deluxe) feels like a missed opportunity for Petronio to showcase his talent for choreographing shock and strain.
In MiddleSexGorge, Petronio responds to another life experience: the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. Petronio was living in New York City at the time, and his first response to the crisis came in the form of activism, not choreography. As a member of ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), Petronio advocated for the city’s government and health department to acknowledge—and fight—the epidemic. Drawing on his experiences at public rallies and protests, Petronio developed the defiant, angry, and seductive sexual anthem that still, more than fifteen years later, exhilarates.
His dancers, wearing H. Petal designs, strut like fashion models—the women in black leotards, the men in corset tops with pink bows and bottoms that reveal their bare buttocks. They paw at each other’s skin to the beat of rock band Wire’s “Ambitious.” As the track implores “Are you hot? Are you hot?” they prop one another up and tug at each other’s limbs. Unlike Big Daddy (Deluxe), this piece has thrilling tension; unlike Petronio’s Glacial Decoy, the dancers are constantly in a state of propulsion.
That Petronio created this piece amidst—not after—the AIDS crisis distinguishes it from the rest of the Bloodlines program. Here, he does not try to remember how someone else taught a piece in which he never performed, nor does he present a narrative that spans forty years. Instead, he recreates a particular moment in which his choreography and a social crisis converged. He also vests the work with new calls to action: at the time of this re-staging, the bold, seductive anthem encourages audiences to embrace their sexuality and their physicality.
Although Petronio presents Bloodlines as a performance about lineage, it is also a performance about the passage of time—and how perceptions of the past can change from one moment to the next. Memories can become muddled, misguided, or—in the best cases—give new meaning to the present. In this capacity, choreographers like Brown and Petronio can set out to create an “original movement language.” But this language changes with each re-staging of their work, and so can its reception. It is worth seeing how Petronio will change the conversation yet again in the next installment of Bloodlines.
ERICA GETTO is a New York-based writer whose interests include dance, comedy, and television. She holds a BA from Columbia University, where she studied the intersection of pop culture and politics.