BWW Review: STEPHEN PETRONIO COMPANY Ascends at The Joyce
Some people have many ideas. And then, some ideas have many people. The origin story of modernism, of the contemporary, of the moment in dance, is an idea that has possessed and inspired the greatest creative minds in history.
The choreographic transition from ballet tradition to free expression led to the renewal of the body, into the life-giving pressure-cook of the mind infused with the blood pump of raw physical rhythm. Being mostly water, the human body is naturally an artwork in motion, fluidly coursing to the skeletal mechanics of creation, by the artistic direction of the one mysterious union of all.
And no one delivers the artist right into the heart of becoming anew through movement, of the human being evolved as dancer, as Stephen Petronio; a true descendant of the living gods who once birthed pure human form in motion. As the first male in the Trisha Brown Company, and after working with Steve Paxton and Anna Halprin, he has evolved the role of the dancer in American society with classic bravery.
His very first dance class, Improvisation 101 at Hampshire College featured Steve Paxton as a guest artist, who directly prepared him to dance for Brown. Later, he found parallel inspiration in the works of Yvonne Rainer, together contributing to the art of nonverbal action, of body language as performance art.
With the first three pieces of the Stephen Petronio Company at The Joyce by Rainer, he opened with Diagonal (1963), giving the audience an eye into the confrontation between dancer and director, with those onstage signaling movements themselves spontaneously, while the forms themselves were previously choreographed. The letters and numbers called out by the dancers onstage held the energy of the present momentary now, which is the crux of modernism, and the root philosophy for contemporary dance. The mechanical, labor aesthetic to the piece was reminiscent of Merce Cunningham, and not only spoke to the industrial era from which the foundation of modern art arose, but also of the innate difference in the medium of dance. Choreography is a painting in blood and bone, as a story in emotion and reason, respectively.
Bloodlines is a series of programs directed by Petronio for The Joyce, which speaks to contemporary dance as an emotive tradition, of the body as the vehicle for expressing those emotions, felt and released in a single act, in the performance of art. Petronio is presenting that emotional foundation through a particular line of reason, of artistic lineage, that being the self-knowledge of an artist remembering the greatness that continues unbroken from dancer to dancer, choreographer to choreographer, director to director, almost as physical genetics are passed down through a family. Through dance, Petronio is demonstrating a genealogy of contemporary art.
"My technique really is the conscious direction of energy through the body and out into space," Petronio said in a 2014 interview with Dance Magazine writer Wendy Perron. "I have taken that fluidity and that somatic reality and extended it out into space. The walls of this room are finite but the walls of your mind aren't."
With the March 28 to April 2 run timed to celebrate the third decade of the Petronio Company, Bloodlines is art history come to life. The emergence of history in the present is often challenging. Such is Trio A With Flags, originally conceived by Rainer as a protest piece dedicated to her fellow incarcerated artists. Initially set to silence, Ernesto Breton, Megan Wright and Nicholas Sciscione undressed, and began the steps, covered only by American flags waving over them, tied around the neck. The symbol of nationalism was exposed for its ideological abstraction. As unapproachable as contemporary dance is to many for its often nonrepresentational expression, so the American flag hung from the truly brave dancers as a bizarre fabric, unfit to clothe and even to protect the body.
The chief highlights on the evening of March 30 were firstly by Nicholas Sciscione, who performed Excerpt From Goldberg Variations (1986) by Steve Paxton with a theatrical prowess, a stunning expressivity that lit the stage. He shone as a soloist. The precision of his synchronicity to the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, Variations 16-23, by J.S. Bach, performed by Glenn Gould, were rivetingly entertaining. He was a force as complex and moving as the music, with all of the dizzying genius, the maddening glory.
Untitled Touch, the world premiere, reinforced the unspeakable power to the art of Stephen Petronio as a choreographer of the age. He is justified in identifying with his art as part of a lineage, as the descendant of greats. Such quality is distilled to wonder, to the beauty of a feeling in every moved audience member following with generous eyes and a quickening heart to the movements that he inspires in his company, and in collaboration. The original composition by Son Lux, who has revolutionized the sound of electronic music through instrumental musicianship, is an example of the creative impetus to renew art to the contemporary through multidisciplinary inspiration. If a new movement springs about in his footsteps, with Petronio as ancestor, that is, in his name, it should be called free perfectionism.
Photo Credit: Sarah Silver